I was born to a 20-year-old single mother with a GED in Caguas, Puerto Rico.
I am writing to you today because a series of events occurred in my life. While none of these events is unique on their own, what is unique is that together they accrued certain privileges that allowed me to become the first person in my family to earn a six figure income in their 20′s.
I’m the first to make a career in tech.
You can contrast this to a cousin of mine, born around the same time, near the same place, who killed himself with alcohol at age 19.
Did I get here thanks to hard work?
But mostly – I got here thanks to privilege.
‘Life is all right in America!’
The greatest gift my mother ever gave me was packing up and moving to New York City, eventually landing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I know with certainty that having access to America – the mainland, the honest-to-god US of A – was the most crucial part of my privilege.
Total immersion in America left me free to absorb and fully adopt the culture. I sometimes forget I’m hispanic. My nerdiness hinders me more than my race with regard to cultural references. I have a perfectly unremarkable American accent – to the point where I can pass for white as far as Texas State Troopers are concerned.
When I got old enough to work, Albuquerque’s unemployment rate was a third of Puerto Rico’s, leaving me ample opportunity to make money and gain experience. I even had a chance to work at Sandia National Laboratory – but my clearance came through too late in my senior year.
I also had tons of examples of what was possible in America. Albuquerque may have been a bit of a backwater, but it’s a beautiful backwater. There’s money tucked away there, and people weren’t shy about making use of it. I saw breathtaking houses that gave me pole stars for what I could achieve in my life.
And let’s not forget the symbolism of New York, buried deep in my psyche.
In short – I have no trouble relating to the group of people who have been 90% of my bosses.
My mom dated a school teacher
My mom speaks two languages, and I give her credit for doing more than I do in the linguistics department. But like tons of hispanic parents, she didn’t have a strong grasp on written english.
So her solution was to date a school teacher for a few years.
I began reading pretty early; I’m not going to do a pissing contest on the age. But it was pretty good. My then-co-parent gave my young mind tons of attention. Reading, writing, the sciences, Sherry knew everything I could possibly ask her to tell me for quite a few years. (Maybe you’re scratching your head – my mom’s gay.)
I still remember being age six and having a conversation about atoms over a slice of pizza. I remember being in day care and arguing about evolution with the adult supervisor.
Lots of hispanic kids have to grapple with a bronze age mythology that places the earth’s age at a few thousand years old – imposed as rigid fact.
So I like my deal better.
Welcome to Macintosh
Sherry wasn’t to be permanent in my life – but she left a legacy of multiple literacies.
In addition to teaching me solid english, Sherry was the first person who sat me down in front of a Macintosh. By then, she and my mom were separated. There was no computer in my house.
But sometimes, I’d go to visit Sherry, and spend a substantial amount of time using the Macintosh SE she’d brought home from her job.
My mom took up the baton a couple years later, buying the first computer in my home by the time I was ten.
Of course, it was a Mac. I insisted.
By 12, I was using a pirated copy of Photoshop. Which is good experience to have if you’re going to make a living as a UI person one day.
Values, Values, Values
In elementary school, I had a friend named Anthony Diaz.
Anthony was a thief.
He was given to visiting the 7-11 near our school and helping himself to whatever candy he wanted. I found this behavior scandalous and repugnant. Because my parents had taught me fundamental values. I knew right from wrong. I knew please and thank you. I knew I had to take responsibility for my actions.
Anthony wasn’t so lucky. He got involved with gangs, he talked back to his teachers. His lack of values held him back.
By age seven, my mom had started her own business – and by her 40′s, she’d be the first in our family to hit the six figure mark. This lesson in self-sufficiency and work ethic is helpful when you want to, say, teach yourself programming, quit your job and switch careers.
My home life was pretty stable. There were a few years of utter crazy at the mid-point of my childhood. Still, I never had to worry about the lights going off, about being evicted, about anyone in my life disappearing into the correctional system.
Since my mom is gay, there were also no surprise kids popping into existence – aside from me.
So, to recap, here’s a conservative estimate of my privileges:
- Access to a college-educated parent
- Access to a stable and responsible parent
- Access to American culture
- Access to American jobs
- Access to examples of success
- English literacy
- Science literacy
- Technology literacy
- A home computer
- Freedom from oppressive mythologies or superstitions
- Spare time to indulge intellectual curiosities (no siblings to care for)
- Values education
- A role model for self-sufficiency
- Overall stability in the home
Have I worked hard to earn my current position? I have. I spent months beating my head against programming books. I worked 30 hours a week on iPhone development, on top of the 50 hours I gave to my day job. I saved tons of money so I could leave that job. I risked homelessness – and almost got there.
And now I have a great career.
But if you start taking away components of my privilege, it doesn’t take very long before the life I have now starts to look increasingly unlikely. For example – what if my grandmother hadn’t been living in Manhattan at the time when my mom had planned to move? We crashed there for over a year before my mom got on her feet.
So I stand upon the shoulders of giants. Holding a winning lottery ticket.
And it’s only because of those facts that I even got a chance to work very hard for my career. Any pride I take in that hard work is dwarfed by the anxiety that I don’t yet know how to help others get to the point where they can work as hard as I have.
If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.