I do not ski because I grew up poor

by Sylvia A. Martinez

In winter, when you need to make conversation in the Bay Area, you talk about skiing. You complain about the snow: maybe there is too little, or it is too wet, or it is too hard. Skiing is one of many class markers. Most skiers learned the sport as rich children. Adults can learn how to ski, but it is difficult and dangerous. When you are at lunch with your co-workers, talking about skiing, you know that they grew up in middle- and upper-class American families.

I do not ski because I grew up poor. When you can't afford heat at home, you don't pay money to be outside in the snow. My mother kept the thermostat low to save money, and my cousins didn't have heat at all. We would put on our thickest sweaters and sit together in my aunt's kitchen, which was the warmest room in the house. Decades later, I still don't understand why rich people like to be cold on purpose.

It's easy to imagine that "everyone" in the Bay Area is rich and white, but some of us grew up in working-class homes. Some are immigrants; some are children of immigrants; and others experienced homegrown American poverty. I happen to also be brown, but some of the white male software engineers who I work with grew up poor too.

In "The Achievement of Desire," Richard Rodriguez talks about the experience of being a "scholarship boy." His education—and his resulting class anxiety—alienated him from his uneducated but loving family. At the same time, he didn't fit neatly into his new academic world. Although written in 1978, I find that it mirrors my own experience in many ways.

I too was a scholarship girl. Thanks to scholarships and excellent public universities, I graduated from college and earned two graduate degrees. (In contrast, my grandparents are borderline illiterate.) I now work as a software engineer. My hardworking mother gave me opportunities that she never had, but my education pushed me away from her and her culture. Yet, I still don't fit perfectly into the rich, white world of tech.

A separation will unravel between them. Advancing in his studies, the boy notices that his mother and father have not changed as much as he. Rather, when he sees them, they often remind him of the person he once was and the life he earlier shared with them.
— Richard Rodriguez

My voice doesn't betray any trace of my mother's sing-song Spanish, and my calm demeanor bears no hint of my father's loud temper. Twenty years of American education smoothed my speech into crisp English, and I learned the reserved manners of the upper-middle class.

This change was, in part, driven by shame. I could tell that my classmates and teachers thought less of my family. We were loud, passionate, accented, and brown. I tried to distance myself from them. I now wish I had reacted with anger instead of shame.

On the other side [of the table] Mother is ironing, the wireless is on, someone is singing a snatch of song or Father says intermittently whatever comes into his head. ... The next day, the lesson is as apparent at school. There are even rows of desks. Discussion is ordered.
— Richard Rodriguez

Despite my education, I am still marked by my upbringing and brown skin. I will never ski, and I love fútbol. My brown skin is a rarity in the Bay Area, especially in cities like Palo Alto and Cupertino. I have been mistaken for a janitor. I no longer fit in my family home, but I don't fit in my new home either.

Other scholarship children will see themselves in Rodriguez's writing, caught between two worlds. He finds peace by giving voice to his cultural separation from his parents and naming his longing for the warmth of his childhood.

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