Growing up as a latchkey kid, I’d often squirm my way out of revealing where I lived to others. Instead, I’d lie. I’d tell friends I already had a ride or that it was no big deal for me to walk back home. I’d do or say anything to obfuscate details of where I lived and divert people away from seeing my dilapidated house. The faded blue paint that coated the wooden panels was slowly chipping away, just like my self-esteem. Needless to say, I was petrified at the idea of inviting a friend inside my house. My home was typically organized and clean, but my kitchen housed a small intrusion of cockroaches that refused to be exterminated, despite numerous attempts. Ultimately, I did not want my peers to pity me and think I lived in a state of squalor.
On a similar note, I have memories from my childhood of when my mom, older sister and I would frequently take buses to get around. Although bus fares are cheap, the routes are not optimal in suburban areas given the indirect paths and the large swathes of land that remained untouched. As a result, portions of our trips — whether they be for dentist appointments at remote office spaces or shopping at distant outlet stores — would entail walking along stretches of highway to reach disjointed bus stops. This was especially cumbersome in the scorching heat of the summer sun. Drenched in both sweat and embarrassment, I wondered whether drivers zipping past us were judging us momentarily. I frequently worried that a peer from school would recognize me as they sped past me in their parents’ car.
These anecdotes highlight some of the spaces I’ve occupied in the past. The spaces that each of us individually traverse, occupy and have access to are often influenced by a myriad of factors. Through my writing, I’ve attempted to express and capture some of these differences by sharing personal experiences and connecting them to broader themes, primarily ones related to social class. One tool that helps illustrate these differences from a macro point of view is the Opportunity Atlas website (I highly suggest checking it out and tinkering with the filters). These social settings, or milieus, can each be described by the visual aesthetics, physical composition and ephemeral events that occur within a respective space.
Contrary to my last name, I am not from the capital of California! Yet, sometimes my personal introductions are followed up by people merrily asking if I’m actually from Sacramento. These light-hearted interactions never cease to amuse others and myself, and I bet these instances will continue to arise in the future. However, a fair number of Wolverines are surprised when I inform them that I’m from New Jersey. But I am not from the affluent northern suburbs of Millburn, Basking Ridge and Morristown. I am from Freehold, which is a modest town located in Central Jersey. Like most parts of New Jersey, it is relatively obscure as it gets blended into, and subsequently lost, in the sea of suburbia. Some will tout the town’s association with Bruce Springsteen or the Battle of Monmouth, but I admire another facet.
A considerable portion of my hometown’s population is Latino, with many being of Mexican descent. The influence of this community is evident in the presence of las panaderías, las tiendas and numerous other businesses that cater to this population’s cultural preferences. Given that these stores are clustered in the downtown area where I live, I can easily indulge in sweets like pan dulce, barritas and chicharrones! Paired with the blissful phase of post-graduation, I am more excited than ever to be back home.
However, the backdrop of where my town is situated starkly contrasts with the surrounding suburbs, which are solidly middle, upper-middle and upper-class. In fact, one of the wealthiest areas in New Jersey is just under ten miles away from my hometown. My town is an anomaly relative to the adjacent affluent, predominantly white suburbs. Roughly 70% of students in the borough’s school district, specifically for K-8 education, are Latino. Similarly, roughly 70% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Moreover, a considerable portion of the Latino community is undocumented.
The differences between the suburbs and my town were always evident to me, as I frequently noticed the neighborhoods’ visual markers. The sprawling suburbs have their fair share of ostentatious McMansions that hug cul-de-sacs and roads that meander alongside pristine stretches of manicured lawns. Similarly, there are several garish, gated communities — filled with fairly spacious single-family housing units and modern condos — offering cozy amenities funded by homeowners association fees. Even within my town, there is a distinct difference between the middle and working-class neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods contain quaint single-family homes and townhouses, whereas other neighborhoods possess apartment complexes and smaller houses that look a bit run-down and drab. In the downtown area around evening, one can observe obreros — in their dirt-stained long-sleeves, jeans and boots — walking home after an exhausting day of field work. The predominantly Latino, working-class community of Freehold is sequestered in the sea of suburbia that defines a fair share of the tri-state area.
I didn’t yet have the knowledge or lexicon to describe social class, but the social class dissonance I observed growing up was jarring at times. I could make note of the rudimentary visual markers and differences across different parts of town and the surrounding neighborhoods. Thus, my hyperawareness of social class can be partially attributed to the backdrop of Freehold.
Over the past several years, I’ve traversed many other spaces whose existence and overall makeup I previously couldn’t conceive of. The University’s North and Central Campuses are settings that all Wolverines traverse throughout their time at the school. The University is picturesque and especially stunning when foliage is in full bloom. The trees that surround the Diag are home to cute, chunky squirrels. These furry denizens routinely scurry around and are a simple, yet endearing, facet of the Diag. Several notable buildings not far from the Diag possess masonry and architecture that imbues them with a sense of grandeur that pierces the horizon. Several of these landmarks include the Michigan Union, the Law School and the Michigan League. Are these bastions of egalitarianism that foster the “Leaders and Best” association? Or are they fortresses that function as silos and reek of credentialism? These spaces can simultaneously serve as potential spaces of inclusion and exclusion.
Another area of the campus that tends to pique interest is the Ross School of Business building complex. Last semester, I learned that this building complex has a hotel. A HOTEL. The interior of the terracotta edifice is lavish and serves as an attractive study spot for plenty of Wolverines. The building’s modestly contemporary assortment of glass panels, wooden neutral colors and overall pristine facilities resembles the cozy corporate offices of large multinational firms. All who step foot in Ross — especially incoming knowledge workers, recruiters and executives — can immerse themselves in an upper-class space where they can see and feel the hallmarks of elite business.
When the pandemic converted classes to a virtual format, I found remote learning to be challenging. In addition to my sometimes unstable home environment, the virtual experience was particularly grueling for me. The same sense of shame and embarrassment I felt when my younger self walked along stretches of highway resurfaced whenever I turned on my Zoom camera. I became self-conscious and worried that others might be able to peer in my household and notice the working-class markers I tried so hard to conceal.
Sometimes I wonder whether it is a curse or blessing to have grown up in spaces that cultivated my sense of class consciousness. My time at the University has equipped me with an arsenal of tools and knowledge — through courses, peers and ephemeral experiences — to highlight differences across various spaces through the lens of social class. As a person of Color, pairing this class consciousness alongside other aspects of my lived experiences, like my Latino identity, enables me to paint and contribute an analytical perspective that is vibrant and holistic. In the context of navigating predominantly white, upper-class spaces like Ross and the broader University, it is especially important to make note of these distinctions, as others might be unaware. Ultimately, one must recognize and cherish the spaces each of us can access and occupy.
MiC Columnist Gustavo Sacramento can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.