“You should feel lucky,” everyone tells me, and I am. My parents came to Los Angeles from Mexico to make a better life for themselves and their kids, and I’m grateful for that. My parents speak almost no English. My dad works long hours in construction. My mom cleans people’s houses. My sister and I, on the other hand, go to a top private school that sends students the best colleges in the country. We got a scholarship through a program, and because of it, we already have more opportunities than our parents ever had, and will make more money than they have just because of the school we go to and the track that puts us on.
So I know how lucky I am, but it’s because I’m lucky that I can’t tell people the whole story without seeming ungrateful or like I’m complaining. I can’t talk about how hard it is to go to a school where most people live completely different lives from me. They live in beautiful houses in the nicest parts of town. They wear expensive clothes, drive expensive cars, and eat expensive food. They don’t worry about money all the time because they have it, just like I worry about money all the time because I don’t—and I’m reminded that I don’t just by going to this school each day.
It’s not that people say anything. The people at my school are (mostly) nice. But there’s a difference between being nice and feeling included, and there are so many ways I feel different. The school keeps confidential who has financial aid, but it’s no secret that I live in another part of town that nobody wants to visit. I sometimes imagine people from school walking into my two-bedroom apartment and saying, “Where’s the rest of your house?” or “Wait, your family of four lives here?” In all the years I’ve been at this school, I’ve always gone to friends’ houses or met them on their side of town.
It’s also awkward when a group of us go to a movie and then to dinner, and I order an appetizer instead of a meal because I can’t afford the main courses. I always cover with, “I just ate before we came here” or “I’m trying to be healthy” or “My mom made dinner at home that she’s saving for me” but I think people know. Sometimes they try to give me some of their food and say they’re not hungry, but I know they’re just trying to be nice and not make it awkward.
Another awkward moment is when people talk about what they did over the summer: vacations, summer programs, camps, unpaid part-time internships where they can learn new skills and find mentors for the future. I always have a full-time job and while they dread the start of the new school year and all the work that comes with it, for me, school is the break from exhausting days of summer work.
People think diversity is just about race and gender, but I’m writing this post so that people start talking about financial diversity too. We’re so uncomfortable talking about money but it’s not talking about it that makes things uncomfortable. I think I’m less embarrassed about not having money than I am about the fact that we’re pretending nobody notices. I’m tired of pretending.
This year, when prom comes up, I’m going to be honest. “I want to go shopping with you,” I’ll say to my friends, “but I just can’t afford that store.” And I’ll wear the dress I get at the mall by my house proudly—not with shame, but with pride, because I was honest and I felt free.