Personal Agency: The Importance of Having a Multifaceted Identity
To me, it is critical to have a multifaceted identity, instead of one that has been inculcated into me by my family and surrounding society, because I want to be more than the person I was raised to be. I am an immigrant from Mexico, and, to many Americans that identity suggests that I am a disadvantaged member of a lower socioeconomic class. However, I did not come to the United States as a poor immigrant. On the contrary, I grew up in a relatively affluent family, which shared the prevailing social fixation on business. Mexican society perpetuates the notion that wealth is deserved. While it is ostensibly a capitalistic society, it is much more closed system of capitalism than exists in countries with a true middle class, such as the United States. There is very little opportunity for people to change socioeconomic classes. The result is a de facto caste system, where the notion that those who are in the lower socioeconomic class are there because they are somehow less deserving than people in higher socioeconomic groups. This results in a social stratification whereby it becomes socially acceptable to treat people who have less money as less deserving. Although, I, personally, was privileged in terms of wealth and social status, I was very uncomfortable being rewarded for what was, essentially, a happy coincidence of my birth. I disagreed with the notion that a person should be limited by the identity that society confers upon him, even if this disagreement required me to remove myself from a life of privilege and move to a place where I would be judged by my own accomplishments, instead of on the wealth and social status that my family had accomplished.
As a Mexican immigrant to the United States, I found myself confronted by a number of stereotypes about who I was and my cultural background. People see me and hear me speak and they make assumptions about me that are not warranted and do not reflect my own personal history. "When we shift our attention from the notion of being identical to oneself to that of sharing an identity with others of a particular group (which is the form the idea of social identity very often takes), the complexity increases further" (a. Sen, p.xii). While it is complex, I must acknowledge that these assumptions have helped shape the person that I am. I found myself understanding much of what Barack Obama had to say in Dreams from My Father. Obama is a mixed-race man who grew up in the United States, which makes him a Black man to most people who encounter him. However, to suggest that his cultural background is African-American is a very myopic view of him. He grew up in a white household, raised by a white mother and white grandparents. Moreover, he spent a significant amount of time overseas, raised by a stepfather who was also a foreign national, though Obama did not spend significant time with his own African father when he was a child. His cultural background and identity were not what people assumed when they looked at him, just as my own cultural background and identity are not what people assume when they look at me. However, this presumed identity; the identity conferred by the surrounding culture, becomes a part of who a person is. Obama describes his father being insulted by a white man, who refused to drink next to a Black man, a concept that has very literal cultural relevancy to a person from Nairobi, but the incident still impacted Obama's father's life (Obama, p.11). Likewise, though Obama's African ancestry was not linked through the slave trade and hundreds of years of racial oppression, his skin color continues to make him a target for racism. It would be fruitless for him to deny this part of him or protest the fact that society's perception of him has impacted its treatment of him.
Likewise, it would be pointless for me to differentiate myself from other Mexican immigrants by trying to point out that I come from an educated and wealthy family. Not only would it be pointless, but it would reinforce the very same rigid social class structure that I was eager to escape when I left Mexico and came to America. I may not have understood the extent of the racial prejudice that exists in the United States and how it impacts the perception of any person who is perceived as too brown to be a mainstream American, but I do understand that protesting that I am somehow different from anyone who shares some of my cultural and racial heritage is not the way to combat these prejudices; the real way is to directly challenge those prejudices.
I grew up learning that it was perfectly acceptable to treat people who are in the lower socioeconomic classes poorly. In fact, I would say that I grew up learning that it was okay to treat those people abusively and exploit them. That my wealth and comfort was contingent upon another person's discomfort and economic subjugation was not a matter of shame, but something that was deemed perfectly acceptable. I want to challenge that prejudice. Mexico already has capitalism, but its current capitalistic system is designed to help maintain the current socioeconomic structure rather than give opportunities to the working class so that they can better themselves.
I cannot help but think about Sen's discussion of the workers at the back of the house and how they helped usher in a major change in how restaurants were operated in New York City. Many of these workers were undocumented people with much more at stake than the predominantly white servers who worked in the front of the house at these restaurants. Therefore, when they were asked to organize, the perception was that they might not do so in an effective manner. However, the reality was that "given the chance to speak, the people at the bottom did so loudest and longest" (R. Sen, p.43). After all, these people had already demonstrated an incredible resolve by leaving their homes in a search for a better life. As a result, it should not have been a surprise that they demonstrated a commitment to the idea of hard work and a resistance to allowing their labor to be used solely for the benefit of others. However, even in the United States, the assumption was that, as members of the lower class, they would be more willing to accept abusive behavior.
The fact that many of these workers come from countries, like my own home country, where it is a routine practice for the wealthy to exploit the working class, makes me hopeful that those at the bottom in those countries will seize opportunities to change their working conditions if they are given the chance to do so. My goal in coming to the United States has been to learn critical information about entrepreneurship, so that I can return back to Mexico and introduce some of these ideas to people in the working class. I hope to challenge the social norms that reinforce existing social stratification by economic class. The immigrants who challenged the abusive practices in the restaurant industry realized that, as individuals, they had relatively little power. "All of this, however, starts with the process of organizing the people most affected by the industry's abuses, not just to change individual conditions but to adopt new practices and make new policy" (R. Sen, p.45). Just like in America, in Mexico, those in power have a vested interest in maintaining that power, and the desire to keep that power imbalance leads to willingness to abuse power.
I have to admit that I am not immune to the pull of that power. In many ways, I identified with some of the representations of the prostitutes in India. I would suggest that I was addicted to my carefree lifestyle, the ability to have a siesta on occasion, and allow time to solve my problems, in much the same way that prostitutes in India are addicted to methamphetamines. Like them, I was introduced to the corrosive impact of my culture when I was too young to really appreciate the negative impact of that cultural attitude. I had to leave Mexico in order to find people who had larger goals and were not content to simply live in a day-to-day, pampered manner. That does not mean that I think that no one in Mexico has greater goals, but simply that I was surrounded with people, like myself, who did not necessarily even understand why someone would want to have a greater goal. To me, my flight from Mexico was similar to the prostitutes feeling Indian brothels and trying to end their meth addiction. In "Rescuing Girls is the Easy Part" Kristof and WuDonn describe how the prostitute Momm attempted to leave her life in the brothel. "Momm…