SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Alex Forbes

A World of Difference

    When I first moved to Arizona sixteen years ago, I remember my family driving through a Latino lower-class neighborhood on our way to a newer residential area to look for a house to buy.  During the drive through the old neighborhood, I noticed a difference in the houses first.  Most of them were very small and old-looking, and had tiny front and backyards.  Surprised by this and being so used to the large house that my grandmother was letting us stay in until we bought our own, I asked my parents why the houses looked the way they did.  They explained to me that some people are less fortunate than others, and have no way to afford the things that others do because of the low paying jobs that they work.

    As we stopped at the freeway intersection along the way, I saw a man standing on the corner holding a sign in front of him.  It read, “Homeless…Please help, will do anything for work and food.”  Being a young child at the time, I curiously asked my parents why this person was on the streets.  They further explained to me the status of poverty and how many people do not have the jobs they need to afford a home.  This became my first learning experience of the differences in social class among people in our country.  I was shocked that there were individuals who were so poor that they could not afford a house to live in.  I remember thinking that all the homeless man needed was some money, so why wouldn’t anyone stop to help?  It was difficult for me to understand why someone did not have the things that my family had.  It was something that I had, until then, always taken for granted.  I wondered to myself, “How did he end up here?  Why did this happen to him?  Didn’t he have a family to help him get what he needed?

    As we neared the residential area where our future house was located, I noticed a gradual change in the appearance of each neighborhood.  The neighborhoods we drove through seemed to get cleaner and more elegant as we drove along.  We finally arrived at the homes we came to look at.  They were large, two-story houses with tremendous yards.  The landscapes were very neat and everything looked new.  In comparison to the first lower-class area that we drove through, this brand new development was completely different.  Living in an upper-class area before we decided to buy our own home had prevented me from seeing the difference between upper-class and lower-class areas.  I had seen a world of change within a short driving distance between only a few different residential areas.  This experience had opened my eyes to the types of socially constructed differences that existed outside of the world that I was accustomed to at my grandmother’s house where we once lived.

I can only imagine what my mother in the front seat must have thought as she answered all my questions while we drove along.  She too was an observer, but from a more experienced position.  I’m sure she had observed the difference that was new to me at the time, but to this day I still wonder what she was thinking.

I couldn't believe my eyes.  Were we really on our way to a better place to live?  As we drove through the run-down old neighborhoods to the model homes on the other side of town I found myself feeling relieved.  Not relieved to see the ghettos and the poor families that lived in them, but relieved that my husband had gotten that well-paying job as a flight operations scheduler with the air national guard after he decided to leave the air force for a new career.  The new job may have been the only reason why we were driving through these low-class areas instead of driving to them, considering that that we were now financially secure enough to move to a better place.  I looked around at the homes and wondered, “Could this have been the alternative?”

    My son Alex in the back seat was wondering too about this new and intriguing place we were passing by, but his questions were those of a curious child; he was only seven at the time.  We had just passed a homeless man by the freeway overpass when the questions came in flying.  “What’s that man doing over there Mommy?  Why is he holding that sign up?  Why is he asking for food?  Doesn’t he have a house like us?”  My husband and I explained to him the best we could how some people are less fortunate than others and have no way to afford the things that others do because of the low-paying jobs that they work, if they even work at all.  I think he was too young to fully understand what all that meant, but it seemed to satisfy his questions at the time.

    As we neared the residential area where our future house stood, I noticed a world of difference.  What a beautiful place.  A sense of overwhelming anticipation to see the rest of the homes in the area came over me.  Alex yelled out, “This place is much better!”  I guess he noticed a difference too.

    I am often reminded of this incident; a time of recognition and realization for me as a child.  My dad’s new job had made us financially secure enough to afford a new house in a nice area.  I realize that now.  Back then it was just another family trip to a new place.  The area we were moving to was much more upper-class.  The places we passed on the way there were so much different.  The neighborhoods had old houses with tiny yards, dirty streets and tremendous trees, and large Latino families all living in tiny homes.

As a child I wondered who the children were on the streets we traveled.  Today I can see how poor they actually were.  Many were wearing old clothes and torn jeans, and some had no shirts on at all.  The houses were small to me back then, so I can only imagine how tiny they would be to me now as an adult, and how my parents must have felt.  I can only guess that they were a little saddened, but certainly relieved as well to be moving away from all of this.

    It may have been completely different for those who we passed by.  The minority families living there definitely saw us, a white family in a nice car pulling their new trailer to what they probably imagined to be a new house.  Or maybe they wondered what “they” were doing here…“this is not a place for them.”  Of course as a child I only saw the faces of strangers peering at us as I would have if any car drove down my street, but now I see the difference they must have seen, especially the adults who lived in those old ghetto homes.  Were we the outsiders?  It didn’t seem like we were then, but now I know this was definitely the case.  We were the ones who were different, not them.

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