I was born in a hospital in Tacoma, Washington, but grew up in a neighboring city called Puyallup. When I tell people I’m from Puyallup, most don’t know where that is and I usually respond with “it’s about 45-50 minutes south from campus, it’s known for the fair they have every year,” and if the person is from Washington, they know exactly what city I’m talking about. While Puyallup doesn’t have much to make it stand out other than the fair, what stands out to me the most is the fact that there’s a drastically low BIPOC population. Whenever I say I’m from a predominately white area most people (if they’re also BIPOC) say something like “oof, I’m sorry.” But I’ve had some say “well yeah, we all [meaning all BIPOC] come from predominately white areas.” While white people are the majority in most cities, Puyallup is honestly a whole other level. Not only is it mostly white, but it’s mostly white affluent people. The city of Puyallup has 43,040 people in it, and a whopping 83% of the population is white. The median income of the city is $73,248; my parents made half of that while I was growing up.
I lived in a fairly poor area of the city, and because of school boundary lines, I was supposed to go to an elementary nearby called Sunrise. Instead, my mom decided to enroll us into the same elementary school my uncles had attended when they first came to the U.S. This school’s boundary lines were around a pretty wealthy part of town, I’m talking mostly two-story house neighborhoods with HOA’s, nice cars, and all of that. And compared to our tiny one-story home that resembles that of a slightly bigger trailer house with a huge backyard and used old cars, this was a dramatic difference.
I had learned English as a second language as my parents were still fairly new to the country, and the preschool I had attended was taught by bilingual teachers, so we spoke English and Spanish there. When I first started kindergarten, I was placed in an ELL (English Language Learner) class. I’d get pulled from class to go into a separate room to read out loud, talk and practice writing with an ELL teacher (who was an angel, by the way). On the last day of school in second grade, I was presented with a certificate of completion for my time in the ELL classes. I myself didn’t really know what ELL classes were; I just enjoyed coloring and making crafts while talking to the nice lady. To this day, I’m still not sure why I was in ELL classes (my parents don’t remember if my English was actually not great or if I was just pulled into it because they realized I was brown), but I think about this moment a lot. I remember smiling proudly while my class clapped for me for receiving the certificate, but I had no idea what that really meant. Now looking back, I’m sure the adults probably thought “oh yay, this little brown girl can finally speak English well!”
School for the first couple of years was fine. I had plenty of friends to play with at recess and would occasionally chase or be chased by boys in my class. But this was during a time my family experienced a brief period of economic prosperity. My parents worked decent jobs; my dad worked at a windows and door company making these items, and my mom was a secretary for a warehouse nearby that packed house phones into giant boxes to get shipped to stores. But, around 3rd or 4th grade when the 2008 recession hit, sh*t hit the fan. My parents both lost their jobs, and with that, I suddenly wasn’t as liked by my peers.
Before this, my mom would take us shopping almost every Friday and would spoil my sister and I with clothes from Macy’s and JCPenney and new shoes. We were nowhere near the level of rich my peers were, but for our standards, we were rich. After my parents lost their jobs, my dad struggled to find a new job in the same area of work and after searching and searching, he was forced to take oddball jobs that provided little pay in order to pay bills and put food on the table. My mom had luckily found a job at a nearby Wendy’s fairly quickly, but trying to feed and clothe 2 children on minimum wage is challenging, and my mom ended up getting pregnant with one of my brothers later on. With the little wealth/decent income my family had, I noticed that my peers treated me differently.
I had a ton of friends beforehand and would often get invited to birthday parties and sleepovers (although my parents never let me go to sleepovers because they’re brown and that’s a no go in our culture with strangers) but after we became poorer, that was gone. I had also started gaining weight and that combined with the fact that we had little to no money to pay the bills, I was wearing clothes from Ross and other stores that sold cheap clothing items. While there’s nothing wrong with wearing clothes from there, kids at my school were always wearing name brand clothing with nice new shoes and the same couldn’t be said about me anymore. My parents did their best though under the circumstances, as my mom would sacrifice her paycheck to get my sister and I nicer clothing so we wouldn’t stick out from our peers. The little money we had that didn’t go to food, rent or other expenses went to us, and my parents were stuck wearing the same clothes and shopping from thrift stores, because they knew the area we lived in wouldn’t be too accepting of us if we didn’t look the part, and my parents had sacrificed too much for us to not have a chance of succeeding in this white world.
When my family’s economic situation worsened and I gained weight and became the “fat friend,” I started getting bullied in elementary school. Girls who were once my friends and had invited me to birthday parties were now making yucky faces at me in school as my mom tried her best to hide that we were poor so we could fit in. I’d get taunted in the halls for being fat and ugly in comparison to my thin white peers. Gone were the birthday invitations, the group of friends, and I had no idea why.
The bullying continued into junior high, with boys from my Intro to Tech class following me to my math class calling me a “fat hippo.” I remember my sister putting my hair in an odd hairdo the night before so I could have heatless curls for the next day. I woke up and put on a white sweater with white lace my mom had recently bought me from Ross that I loved and wore my go to leggings with it and for the first time in years, I felt pretty and confident going to school. So, when these boys started taunting me in class and proceeded to continue by following me to my next class, I was crushed.
Also, in 7th grade, I was sitting outside the school after attending an art club meeting waiting for my mom to pick me up. The new principal that year came outside and saw me and decided to sit next to me and spark up some conversation. He made some small talk and then said “So, were your parents born here? Where are they from?” I remember being incredibly uncomfortable with this question and since I was alone with him outside, I just quickly answered “No, they were born in Mexico but have residency.” I said this because I felt like what he ultimately was asking with “Are your parents from here?” was “Are your parents legal?” I remember him continuing the conversation, but I don’t remember what he said because I was too nervous and uncomfortable that I just kept checking my phone and the road to see if I saw my mom pull up. Thankfully she pulled up a couple minutes later and I quickly said bye and ran to get into her car. I didn’t even tell her what happened because I felt so uncomfortable, I didn’t want to make her feel that way too.
Afterwards, I kept my distance from him because I didn’t feel comfortable with him. Everyone in my class loved him and when he ended up leaving at the end of the year, everyone talked about how much they were going to miss him and how he was the best principal ever. The entire time I just felt relieved, because every time he came up to me or my friends throughout the year, I didn’t feel comfortable. I thought to myself “Why does everyone love him when he asks such weird and uncomfortable questions?” when I realized that no one felt uncomfortable with him because they were not me; they were white. Of course, he didn’t ask any of them if their parents were born or from here because there was no need to; their legality and belonging to this country was unquestionable. They were all white, blonde or brunette, and blue eyed. Here I was, a probably and visibly poor, brown girl, how could I be from here?
When I got to junior high, I was placed onto the honors track. I remember my mom really pushing me to go into these classes, not only because my grades in elementary school showed that I would be okay, but also because she wanted me to be in those classes so I could be in pre-AP and AP classes when the time came. But what she didn’t know was that by pushing me towards this track, she would be pushing me to be in even more of a racialized environment. Honors classes in junior high were mostly filled with white students, with albeit maybe eight students including myself who weren’t white or white affluent. As a result, the little diversity that schools had in Puyallup, especially in the school area I went to, disappeared as soon as I got to junior high and didn’t really end until I left high school to do Running Start.
They were all white, blonde or brunette, and blue-eyed. Here I was, a probably and visibly poor, brown girl, how could I be from here?
At that point, given the bullying I had experienced and the alienation I felt as a result of being in honors classes that were predominately white, I learned that the best way to get by was to go unnoticed. So, I did what my parents always told me, focus on my schoolwork because that was more important than making friends. I sat in classes doing my work, did well in classes but hardly raised my hand because the less attention I called to myself, the less I would be bothered and feel more alienated. I alienated myself in order to get through school, because no one could make me feel lonely if I did that to myself. Of course, I did have some friends, but the ones I had at the beginning of junior high were all affluent white kids who at the end of the day, I had nothing in common with; it was just people I hung out with at school so I didn’t eat lunch alone. While I would spend my time with them and text them after school and occasionally go over to their houses, I never felt like I belonged or that these were genuine friendships, because we were nothing alike. They didn’t know my family situation; they had no idea we hardly had money and they would never understand that my life was completely different to theirs. While they were worried about boys and the club sports they played, I was worried about my performance in school and just getting by.
This sense of alienation and solitude never really left. I had different friend groups but at the end of the day, most of the people I interacted with through mutual classes were white and rich; they would never understand that while they had the privilege of being able to do whatever they wanted and be whoever they wanted, my path was already chosen for me. Besides, as much as these people were my “friends,” they would constantly point out that I was not like them. I was not rich, I was not knowledgeable in past American culture, the “American classics,” my family didn’t care about American sports, nor did they care to watch things like The Breakfast Club. I would be told I “smelled like tortillas” all the time by these friends. I was constantly reminded that at the end of the day, I was not like them. Soon enough all of this became internalized, and I called myself “foreign” as if I hadn’t been born and raised here. I figured if I called myself these things and made a joke about being brown, I wouldn’t have to suffer through the “jokes” and microaggressions of others. But I was wrong.
When I got to high school much of this got worse. The high school I went to was even more affluent and white than my junior high. The neighboring junior high also went to my high school, and this was in an area even more white and rich than the one around my previous schools. The high school I attended was built the year I was born, 2001. It was the newest high school in the district, next to neighborhoods that had been recently built. If I thought my junior high was white and rich, this was next level.
Again, the classes I was in were largely filled with rich white kids, with maybe 8-9 of us being something other than white. I would see slightly more people of color, but I’d really only see them in the halls and didn’t even know who they were or if they were the same age as me because pre-AP and AP classes were only for the smart kids, who were largely white kids with albeit some token model minorities.
I had friends in high school, most of them the same ones I went to junior high with, but again, most of these were not friends I could actually be myself with. None of them would ever get me, and I couldn’t tell them the biggest secret that put me even more away from them, and I didn’t dare to. I again decided that the less attention I brought to myself, the better. So I made acquaintances just to get through.
Luckily, in my sophomore year of high school, I had an amazing pre-AP social studies (as they called it in high school) and English teacher was a pretty cool guy. Although he was white, he wasn’t like the rest of the population there. He told us that he grew up in a trailer park neighborhood with drug addict parents and extended family who largely ended up in jail or homeless. He understood what it meant to have education mean everything to him. He understood what it meant to have to work for everything in your life, at least more than most of my teachers really ever had.
My sophomore year was in 2016 and when the election rolled around, he addressed it the next day in class. He started the day with saying “I know that some people woke up feeling different today about things they can’t change, who they are is different today. Whatever we might think about the election, I want us to think about how people woke up today and have who they are changed.” I recalled what my household was like the night before. My family was in the living room around the TV, anxiously watching the election. One of my brothers, the oldest of the two, was yelling that he hoped Donald Trump would win. I asked him why he wanted him to win, and he said, “My friends at school want him to win so I do too.” I tried to explain in a kid friendly way (I think he was like in 1st or 2nd grade) that Trump did not like people like us, but he was adamant about his “support” for Trump simply because his friends’ parents probably voted for him, and their kids obviously supported the same political ideas since they were kids and had no idea what that even meant.
As my family anxiously waited for the results that wasn’t looking too good, I was thinking about what Trump winning would mean. I was scared my family would be separated, that everything my parents worked tirelessly for would be for nothing, that my siblings and I would be stripped of our citizenship (Trump said he wanted to take citizenship away from the children of immigrants) and that we would ultimately be forced to go to Mexico and my little brothers would never get the opportunities we did. When Trump won, my entire family looked at each other in both slight shock and disappointment, we had no idea what was going to happen. At the same time, my little brother started running around the living room “happy” that Trump won. He obviously didn’t understand the severity of this, but I think it spoke to his surroundings. My dad yelled at him to stop it, and ultimately went to his room because he couldn’t take his own child (although unknowingly) supporting someone who hated everything about him.
While recalling the uncertainty my family was facing, a white rich girl in my class raised her hand after my teacher gave us the little speech on the election results. She raised her hand and through her white tears said “I feel so attacked right now and people are calling my family and I horrible because they voted for Trump, but it’s only because they’re small business owners and Trump cares about business owners, and I wish people would stop saying mean things to me.” I don’t remember my class’ reaction, but in my head, I thought “My family is literally being demonized in the media and criminalized every day.” I remember her friends (all rich white girls too) consoling her and telling her that her family and her aren’t horrible people. The lack of self-awareness in the room was astounding.
Junior year was probably the worst for me. I had stopped being friends with people who made me uncomfortable and got a new group of friends who were all taking classes at the local community college instead of going to high school. So, here I was all alone. These were the first friends I had felt like had embraced all of me and although they were a bit better off financially than me, they never made me feel any lesser for that or like a foreigner like others had. I had started working at Dominos the summer before junior year and I ended up diving into work. My life was just being a third parent to my younger brothers, work and school.
I was working almost full time in high school while taking AP classes, so I’d get little to no sleep most days. There was really no push from anyone to work that much and my job clearly didn’t care about labor laws, so I took advantage of being able to earn as much money as possible. The money I earned was mine, I used it for my general expenses to alleviate my parents of them, to save up for college, and to save up to fix up my mom’s old car which would go on to be my first car. My mom would tell me she wanted me to stop working so much since I’d get home at 11pm most days, and I would tell her it was fine; after all, I was still doing well in school.
I would fall asleep in classes, mostly just my AP English and AP Psych class, and for a bit before I transferred out of those because my grade was tanking in my ASL 2 class. Afterwards, I started falling asleep in my pre-calc class. My English and Psych teachers never really said anything since I’d still get my work turned in on time, I’d just occasionally fall asleep since we were on a block schedule and classes were 90 minutes. But my Pre-calc teacher knew that I worked a lot and would call me out in front of the class if I started dozing off. She came up to me during class after lecture and said “Honey, why are you working so much? Is it to help with bills? There’s no reason you should be working this much in high school; you have the rest of your life to work your life away.”
While I’m sure she meant well with that, I didn’t really take it that way. Of course, to her I did have “the rest of my life to work,” because she didn’t understand what it was like to have nothing. My parents pushed college on my sister and I from a young age but made it clear that there was no money for us to do so. So, we had to work hard in school to get scholarships and work on our own to start saving up for college, and since I wanted to go to UW, I knew it was going to be a pretty penny. Instead of saying “Let’s work something out to try to accommodate to your schedule” or “If you need help, let me know and we can find some way to help you get to college,” I would just get told “Wake up Marina. Do you need to stand for the rest of the lecture? Maybe take a walk around the track to wake up?” It’s not like I was falling asleep on purpose, especially not in that class. Plus, I had damn good grades, so I didn’t think teachers would be too concerned with me falling asleep if I understood the material and turned stuff in.
Once I started falling asleep in math, I knew I had to change something. So, I started sleeping during advisory instead. I would usually finish all my homework before I went to sleep the night before and ultimately end up sleeping around 3-5 hours a day, so there was no need for that extra time for homework in the morning. But my advisor started getting angry at me for doing so. He knew I worked a lot, only because he sat me and the only friend I had that year next to him all year and he would eavesdrop on our conversations. He said I needed to pull out homework to do or at least sit there reading but that I couldn’t sleep. This was the one teacher I was a bit mouthy with, only because of his constant need to barge into my friend and I’s conversations and show off his white man Spanish and brag about his time as a foreign exchange student in Mexico.
When he would say these things to me, I’d say “I’ve already finished all my homework. So, I’m going to sleep.” He would say “If I check your grades, are they going to be good?” I would say “Check my grades. They’re fine and you and I both know they are, so go ahead.” He wouldn’t check my grades because he knew I was right and at one point just ended up letting me sleep in there because I said, “Either I sleep now or I fall asleep in classes, choose your pick.” He eventually stopped barging in on my sleeping in that class and gave up, but he still continued to listen into my friend and I’s conversations.
Of course, to her I did have “the rest of my life to work,” because she didn’t understand what it was like to have nothing.
At this point, my friend and I both hated being at high school, and my friends who were doing Running Start kept telling me I should make the switch because it would work with my schedule so much better. After having an AP Psych project that required us to track our sleep and I saw I’d get 10-15 hours in a week, I figured why not, I hate it here anyway. So, my friend and I would talk about how we were going to do Running Start our senior year and of course our nosey advisor had something to say about that. I don’t remember what he told her, but I specifically remember him telling me “Marina, doing Running Start for one year is pointless. No school, especially not UW, is going to take only a year’s worth of college credit. It’s a waste of time.” I figured he probably just said this because our advisory had gotten smaller over the years because many of the students started doing Running Start. So, my friend and I ignored him and set our plans to do running start the following year.
During an AP English class one day, my teacher took it upon himself to spend the entire class talking about the “terror” Running Start was having on our school. He would often not even teach any material in class and spend it telling stories about his life and how passionate he was about running (he was the school’s cross country coach I think). That day he told us that “Running start is taking all the students from our schools. We are getting less funding because we have less students, and we are struggling to secure enough teachers because we don’t have the money to pay them thanks to less students.” In my head I thought, “okay, that sounds like a school problem, not ours.”
He continued on with his rant about how horrible Running Start is and said “kids who do Running Start are trying to grow up too fast. They should be enjoying high school; this is the best time of your life! Stop trying to grow up too fast. Just take AP classes here.” He did at one point say that maybe students were leaving because Running Start was more valuable than taking AP classes, but he was adamant about kids doing Running Start because they were trying to grow up too fast. In my head I laughed and thought “This man really doesn’t understand that this is not a welcoming environment. Plus, kids on free and reduced lunch get to do Running Start for free. Who wouldn’t take 1-2 years of free college credits?”
The teacher continued, saying that instead of going to Running Start, kids should be more focused on getting involved in the school, attending games to get some school spirit, and not worry about after high school too much. I honestly thought more people would say something, but everyone was quiet, just digesting what this man was spitting out to us. What his white privileged self failed to understand was not all of us had money from our mom and dad already set to go to college. He didn’t understand that even those who tried to get involved but didn’t fit the image of the rest of the school (i.e., rich and usually white), there was no room for you. That same year, my AP Psych teacher came up to me and asked if I would be interested in joining the leadership team in going to a conference at a school nearby. I figured why not, I’d get the day off of school and maybe I’d finally make friends with some of the people my age. But I was mistaken. Try as I might, they sticked to their clique of all rich students and excluded myself and the other students the teacher had pulled to join in on the field trip. I realized that no matter how much I tried, these students were not open to expand their circle. Granted, I was always pretty quiet in class, and they probably didn’t know me, but the teacher made it seem like the leadership team was an all-accepting group, and boy was he wrong.
In that AP Psych class, we had to do a group project at one point in which we drew the brain and labeled parts of it that we had been learning about. He placed us into random groups, and I was in a group with two girls and the person who’d go on to be our ASB president the next year. The two girls were nice, I had sat at a table with them at one point during the year and they’d smile at me in the halls after working together on the project, normal stuff. But the future ASB president seemed to make a big deal about learning my name for the first time and would always say “Hi marina! How are you doing?” in the halls when he saw me. While I appreciated the nice sentiment, I couldn’t help but feel like this was just an act. It felt like I was some charity case to him, the loner in his class who he had learned the name of and made it a point to make it be known that he of all people, the most popular guy in our class, was talking to me. I again don’t think he meant anything bad by it, but it always made me uneasy especially because we had never talked outside of the project, and he would be calling attention to me in the hall by telling my name and that was the opposite of what I wanted.
Eventually junior year finally ended, and I had secured my spot in Running Start and was set to start my senior year away from that horrible place. I was excited and nervous because I knew this wasn’t going to be like high school and I was nervous about my academic performance, but I ended up doing well and made friends with plenty of people at school. Running Start was the best decision I made for myself, because I actually got to sleep a decent amount and finally felt like the place, I went to school was mine too, it didn’t feel like I was an outsider.
My time in the school district in Puyallup was not the best, to say the least, and I didn’t even get all the honor cords I had earned because counselors kept little to no communication with Running Start students. One might hear about my experience in a predominately white affluent area and say, “Well, what did you expect living in that area?” Well, I had no choice. I was a child, and I had no say in where I lived and where I went to school. Besides, my mom realized that the best public schools around the area were the ones filled with white rich students. My parents sacrificed so much and worked tirelessly to ensure my siblings and I could have a secure economic future, something they never had. My parents didn’t get the chance to finish elementary school because schooling in Mexico was not free. My dad stopped going because he started working instead. My mom was pulled out of school by her parents because she was the oldest and had her become a parent to her siblings while leaving household responsibilities to her at the age of 10.
All of this taught my parents something: education is the key to succeeding in life. Of course, they didn’t realize that living in a white rich town and sending us to schools there would lead to identity issues and alienation at school, they only did so because they knew that we would have a better chance in the world if we went where the money was. Schools’ funding is based off the area you live in, and despite the fact that we lived in a poor area, she did her best to secure our spot in a predominately white and rich area of the district because that would be the best for us. She didn’t do it because she wanted us to assimilate or forget that who we were, she did it because she knew that in this world, opportunities are where the white people are.
But it shouldn’t be this way. Education is a key form of human capital needed to succeed in this world, especially for BIPOC students and just because we went to a school with people who were nothing like us, it should not have determined our experience within these schools. No child should ever get asked by their principal if their parent is from here, they shouldn’t be forced to make a joke out of their own identity in order to avoid even worse racialized comments from their peers and they shouldn’t be discouraged from taking opportunities based on their own experiences. A child’s race and class should never determine their experience in public education and despite schools being desegregated years ago, we still see this. Despite the fact that my skin color is on the lighter side and I was born here, I still had a horrible time in a white rich district. These areas are still very much racialized and classist, and it needs to be addressed.