I’ve been here with the UFW for almost a month now, and along with learning about all the organizing techniques, farm worker stories, campaign strategies, etc. I have also begun to learn about… (cue corny music) myself. For just as the grapes on the vine are coming to their maturity and ripeness, I too am undergoing personal growth as these summer months pass by…WOW, just kidding I’m not that big of a sap. But Anywho, working here has made me come to some realizations about myself that I never knew about before. For example, I never thought of myself as privileged. But now I understand that I am. Just having an education is a privilege. When I get introduced by the organizers to the workers, I am always known as “la estudiante,” like it’s a job title or something. But now I realize that for the overwhelming majority of the farm workers, and indeed some of the organizers themselves, education is a privilege that many of them never got the opportunity to have. To be completely honest, I never had considered myself to be that privileged. By no stretch of the imagination am I saying that I came from a low income background, because I didn’t. But my parents’ combined income is under $50,000, and a huge chunk of my Mac education is paid by government financial aid. And just because I wasn’t super rich I didn’t assume I was privileged or recognize the privileges I had. But my privilege is evident everywhere: it’s in the ipod I listen to as I work, it’s in my personal laptop that I bring to the office, my ability to fluently speak English, it’s in the fact that I am able to go to college. Even being born a citizen of the United States marks my more privileged background. Plus, the fact that whenever privilege is talked about in academia, or at least at Macalester, it’s almost always in terms of “white privilege,” which really threw me off. So here I was thinking, “all right, I’m not privileged, I’m tan, my dad’s from Panama, I should be able to fit right in with these people.” But this, my friends, was my ignorant assumption based off of 21 years of growing up in middle-class white-majority Minnesota. Neither the color of my skin, nor the ethnic background of my father have or could make it any easier for me to assimilate to this different environment. Here, the vast majority of the workers and organizers are Mexicans. They are immigrants. Many of them are undocumented. And they are making less money than my family does in order to support their own families, or have to split their incomes between expenses here in the United States and remittances being sent back to their relatives in Mexico. How in the freaking world did I think I would just be able to come here and “fit in?” Granted, everybody on the organizing team is really nice, real cool, and hella fun, and me ‘n these guys get along like peanut butter and jelly (…or chile and limon, take your pick)- but still there are certain instances when my privilege comes out, and it challenges me to rethink about how I saw and currently see myself.
But anywho, another thing I have come to terms with is that I know absolutely completely nothing. Before coming here, I never realized how little I knew. For example, when I was doing house visits with one of the organizers, we started talking about politics a bit and the topic of welfare was brought up. Being the flaming liberal that I am, I was like of course we need welfare because the purpose of the state/government is to provide a social safety net for its population, our tax dollars contribute to the greater good, welfare improves people’s lives, blah blah blah. But much to my surprise, the organizer I was with held more conservative views and was totally against welfare. He gave the whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, waste of tax dollars, government handouts, people take advantage of the system” speal. Naturally I got pissed as hell, so we started going at it. But as we were debating, he provided personal anecdotes of what he had experienced growing up in a low-income community to support his arguments. As much as I disagreed with him, I couldn’t do that. This is what I mean by knowing absolutely nothing. I was born in a middle class neighborhood, I went to good public schools, I speak English, and I am a citizen of the United States. What do I know about escaping poverty as a Spanish-speaking non-US citizen Mexican immigrant? What do I know about growing up in a low-income community where me and all my neighbors receive food stamps and government assistance programs? I thought I knew. I thought I had it all figured out. But hearing it from someone who had actually lived it really made me question on what basis I was making my assumptions. That said, however, I still uphold my same principals and liberal viewpoints with respect to social issues such as welfare. And at the end of the day, the root cause of our disagreement came down to whether we tackled welfare and issues of poverty from an individual (him) or societal (me) level. But this lil debate, combined with all the other discussions/experiences I’ve had so far have really made me start to wonder…how much do I really know?
P.S. I don’t mean this in a bad way like I’m calling myself stupid or anything, but have you ever just sat in your room and seriously contemplated about all the things you don’t know? REALITY CHECK.