Monday, December 19, 2005

A Little Reminder for Why I am a Liberal

I got to accompany my mom today to her salon on Saturday. This is one of her favorite Saturday rituals, and what I forgot was how much time she spends at the salon when she goes. We arrived at 10:00 am and didn’t leave until almost 4:00 pm (PST). I hardly ever indulge myself in such pampering when I am at home.

Today I talked for hours with a young woman who is a manicurist. She is 27 years old, and has two daughters who are 11 and 7. She has been married to the same man for 11 years, which I found to be utterly amazing.

While listening to her story today, I kept remembering why I am a liberal. Being a liberal is not merely a position; it takes root in people who have real stories, real tragedies, and real hardships.

Let’s call the young woman Melissa.

Melissa grew up in a small town. Most of the people in her town were working class folks. The main industries are ranching, fishing and agriculture.

A single mother, who got pregnant while having an affair with a married man, raised Melissa. She didn’t even know who her Dad was until she was in high school and only then because the Medicare folks went after him to pay for medical bills that her mother incurred after being laid off.

Melissa had dyslexia and was put into the “special ed” classes when she was in 3rd grade. This experience marred her entire educational experience and she still struggles to read. She enrolled in the vocational classes in her high school and then discovered she was pregnant. She married the father, who was 5 years older than her and had a good job as a mechanic. Despite his decent pay, they nonetheless were struggling quite a bit financially.

Then, her husband hurt his back at work. His job did not offer medical insurance, nor could he qualify for workman’s compensation, so the couple quickly went bankrupt with a tiny child. She went to work at a credit card company, and he stayed home with their eldest daughter.

They pulled themselves out of debt and have scraped and saved every dime they could find to finally buy themselves a house. They moved out into the country, near where my mom lives and Melissa’s husband now works building new homes. They are still barely making ends meet since buying their home because in the area where she lives, which is one of the cheaper places to live in this state, they couldn’t buy a house for under $250,000.00.

She and her husband both work and try to put all their free time into raising their daughters. Talking to her, I could tell she was a wonderful mother. She told me how they moved out to the country to find better work, a home they could afford and schools that weren’t overcrowded.

She had wanted to home school her daughters, but feared she wasn’t smart enough to do a good job. When she told me that, my heart just broke.

Many working class families like Melissa’s move out to the old gold mining towns and foothills. The land is still affordable and plenty of work can be found building new houses for the retirees and other folks wanting to flee the congestion and traffic of big cities.

Most of the people that live out here are white, and work in ranching or agriculture. These are definitely red towns. You see a lot of trucks with gun racks and men wearing hunter plaid. You do not see any people of color, unless they are picking grapes during harvest season.

I mention this because I think about how Melissa’s story is so emblematic of how our country works. She comes from a working class family, struggling to keep out of debt, buy a home and provide for her kids. She flees her hometown, which has become overrun by Mexicans, Vietnamese and Filipinos who have crowded schools, and have lowered the wages for all working class folks around.

Melissa’s family moves up to the country, where a white, working class person can still make a decent wage because the immigrants are kept out. This is land where racism is overt and scary.

Her family is just making ends meet as long as her husband does not endure another injury. If he does, they are facing serious debt again. They watch every single penny that comes into their household by shopping at big discount places like Wal-mart.

This is a hard-working, good family. This couple took on responsibilities that most of my students have not taken on when they were even younger. They want their children to go to college, but they have no ability to save money to afford tuition. Even if their daughters excel in school and get offered scholarships, they might have to send them to community colleges.

When I think about how many families are in this situation—worried about jobs, paying bills, sending their children to college, fearing medical bills that their non-existence insurance cannot pay—I remember why I fight for liberal policies. I also remember why labor unions are so important to working people.