the role of social class in our physical spaces

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Growing up as a kid with a key, I often squirmed not to reveal where I lived to others. Instead, I would lie. I used to tell friends that I had already taken a walk or that it was okay for me to walk home. I would do or say anything to obscure the details of where I lived and distract people from seeing my dilapidated house. The faded blue paint that covered the wooden panels was slowly chipping away, and so was my self-esteem. Needless to say, I was petrified at the thought of inviting a friend over to my house. My house was generally organized and clean, but my kitchen had a small intrusion of cockroaches that refused to be exterminated, despite numerous attempts. In the end, I didn’t want my peers to pity me and think I was living in a state of misery.

Along the same lines, I have memories from my childhood when my mother, older sister and I frequently took buses to get around. Although bus fares are cheap, routes are not optimal in suburban areas given the indirect routes and large swaths of untouched land. As a result, parts of our commute – whether to dental appointments in distant offices or shopping at distant factory outlets – would involve walking along stretches of freeway to reach disjoint bus stops. It was especially troublesome in the scorching heat of the summer sun. Drenched in both sweat and embarrassment, I wondered if the passing drivers weren’t momentarily judging us. I often worried that a classmate would recognize me as he drove past me in his parents’ car.

These anecdotes highlight some of the spaces I have occupied in the past. The spaces each of us individually traverse, occupy, and access are often influenced by a myriad of factors. Through my writing, I have attempted to express and capture some of these differences by sharing personal experiences and relating them to larger themes, primarily those related to social class. A tool that helps illustrate these differences from a macro perspective is the Atlas of opportunities website (I strongly 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 in a respective space.

Unlike my last name, I’m not from the capital of California! Yet sometimes my personal introductions are followed by people who happily ask me if I’m Actually of Sacramento. These lighthearted interactions never cease to amuse myself and others, and I bet these instances will continue to happen in the future. However, a fair number of Wolverines are surprised when I inform them that I’m from New Jersey. But I’m not from the affluent northern suburbs of Millburn, Basking Ridge and Morristown. I come from Freehold which is a modest town in the center of Jersey. Like most parts of New Jersey, it’s relatively dark as it blends in and then gets lost in the sea of ​​suburbia. Some will brag about the town’s association with Bruce Springsteen or the Battle of Monmouth, but I admire another side.

A considerable portion of the population in my hometown is Latino, many of whom are of Mexican descent. The influence of this community is evident in the presence of las panaderías, las tiendas and many other businesses that cater to the cultural preferences of this population. Since these stores are clustered in the downtown area where I live, I can easily indulge in sweets like pan dulce, barritas, and chicharrones! Coupled with the happy phase of post-graduation, I’m more excited than ever to be back home.

However, the backdrop of where my city sits contrasts sharply with the surrounding suburbs, which are solidly middle, upper-middle, and upper class. In fact, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in New Jersey is less than ten miles from my hometown. My city is an anomaly compared to adjacent affluent, predominantly white suburbs. Approximately 70% of students in the borough’s school district, particularly for K-8 education, are Latino. Similarly, approximately 70% of students are entitled to free and reduced-price lunch. In addition, a considerable part of the Latin American community is illegal immigrant.

The differences between the suburbs and my city were always obvious to me, as I frequently noticed the visual landmarks of neighborhoods. Sprawling suburbs have their fair share of ostentatious McMansions that hug cul-de-sacs and winding roads along pristine stretches of manicured lawns. Likewise, there are several garish gated communities — filled with fairly spacious single-family housing units and modern condos — offering comfortable amenities funded by homeowners’ association fees. Even within my city, there is a clear difference between middle and working-class neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods contain quaint single-family homes and townhouses, while other neighborhoods have apartment complexes and smaller homes that look a bit run down and drab. In the city center towards the evening, one can observe obreros — in their long sleeves, dirt-stained jeans and boots — heading home after a grueling day of fieldwork. Freehold’s predominantly Latin working-class community is held captive in the suburban sea that defines a fair share of the tri-state area.

I didn’t yet have the knowledge or the lexicon to describe social class, but the social class dissonance I observed growing up was sometimes shocking. I could note the rudimentary visual cues and differences between different parts of the city and surrounding neighborhoods. So, my hyperconsciousness of social class can be partially attributed to the backdrop of Freehold.

Over the past few years, I have passed through many other spaces whose existence and overall composition I could not conceive of before. The university’s North and Central campuses are environments that all Wolverines pass through throughout their time at school. The University is picturesque and especially stunning when the foliage is in full bloom. The trees surrounding the Diag are home to cute, stocky squirrels. These furry inhabitants regularly swoop in and are a simple, yet endearing facet of the Diag. Several remarkable buildings not far from the Diag have masonry and architecture that give them a sense of grandeur that pierces the horizon. Several of these landmarks include the Michigan Union, Law School, and Michigan League. Are these the bastions of egalitarianism that favor the association “Leaders and Best”? Or are they fortresses that function like silos and give off a stench of degrees? These spaces can simultaneously serve as potential spaces for inclusion and exclusion.

Another area of ​​campus that tends to attract interest is the Ross School of Business building complex. Last semester, I learned that this building complex had a hotel. A HOTEL. The interior of the terracotta edifice is lavish and serves as an attractive place of study for many Wolverines. The building’s modestly contemporary assortment of glass panels, neutral wood colors, and immaculate fixtures resemble the cozy offices of large multinational corporations. Everyone who sets foot in Ross – especially knowledge workers, recruiters, and incoming executives – can immerse themselves in a higher-class space where they can see and feel the hallmarks of elite companies.

When the pandemic converted classes to a virtual format, I found remote learning challenging. In addition to my sometimes unstable family environment, the virtual experience was particularly difficult for me. The same sense of shame and embarrassment I felt when my younger self walked on stretches of freeway resurfaced every time I turned on my Zoom camera. I became embarrassed and worried that others might be able to look into my house and notice the working class markers that I tried so hard to conceal.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s a curse or a 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 lessons, peers and fleeting experiences – to highlight the differences between various spaces through the lens of social class. . As a person of color, associating this class consciousness with other aspects of my lived experiences, such as my Latino identity, allows me to paint and bring a dynamic and holistic analytical perspective. In the context of navigating upper-class, predominantly white spaces like Ross and the wider University, it’s especially important to note these distinctions, as others might not know. Ultimately, it is about acknowledging and cherishing the spaces that each of us can access and occupy.

MiC columnist Gustavo Sacramento can be reached at gsacrame@umich.edu.


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