BwogSalon: Sanctum

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Bwog has hopped, poked, and swiftly skimmed, but now we’re inviting other writers into the Bwog Bubble. We think there’s lots of fantastic campus journalism out there that sometimes slips under the radar. In the spirit of Enlightenment salons from centuries past, we present our newest feature, BwogSalon. Bwog asked the editors of each publication on campus to send us a teaser article from their most recent issue—something distinctly representative of their point of view, but still accessible. Below, check out Carlos Blanco’s piece from Sanctum: The Undergraduate Journal of Religion at Columbia University. You’ll make your fave French intellectual and your spiritually searching sister proud.

I Got It from My Mama

I was pretty young when I realized my family was poor. I think it had something to do with seeing what my family had versus what the American media told us we should have. We didn’t have a second-story house, there was no pool in our backyard, and going out to eat meant a very special occasion. But, while my family saw our share of struggles, every Sunday during mass, my mom would donate twenty dollars to the collection pin.

Now, I know twenty dollars is not a hefty amount of cash, but, to a seven-year- old kid, twenty dollars was the world. Thoughts of the things I would have bought—Pokemon cards, toys, and candy—would haunt me as I saw my mom give her weekly tithe.

But, more than lamenting the things I missed out on, I never understood why my mother gave up her hard-earned money to St. Bernadette’s, and it often angered me. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the hypocrisy: how come the Church needed more money than we did? If God was so powerful, then why should we have to help him?  It was all the more perplexing, given how much those donations affected us; most Sundays, my mother would quietly pat my head and tell me we couldn’t even afford to buy donuts on the way home, like the other kids.  My mother’s actions only seemed to reinforce some of the doubts I began to have about religion in general.

During my first year at Columbia, my financial situation stood out with a new starkness against the backdrop of mostly wealthy students that surrounded me.  It reinforced how poor I was, and I have to admit that, once again, I felt ashamed. Back home, the kids in my community tended to reach an understanding: they knew they had to cut corners and find creative ways to be active that didn’t involve spending.  I couldn’t say the same about Morningside Heights.

My first group of friends at Columbia loved to spend money. I was newly liberated and having a bankcard didn’t hurt, so I tried my best to keep up with them and to leave the limitations of my childhood behind. Inevitably, I couldn’t afford frequent sushi dinners and to see every concert or new movie, as my newfound Manhattanite lifestyle demanded. I felt defeated, and, at the same time, terrified of missing out.

I had another very scary realization during my first semester of college as I struggled to fit in: Columbia University breeds classism. We don’t like to say it, but, in reality, these institutions of higher learning exist to replicate the privilege that established them. If you’re poor here, it means you have to invent your social life, not just buy it.  Columbia did its best to make sure that, as a student of color, I would have the resources I needed to feel empowered, but not as a student of low income.

Truthfully, it was a bitter moment when I realized how out of place I felt during my first semester.  But, after making some pretty embarrassing admissions to my mother over winter break about my spending, I resolved not to succumb to those social pressures any longer.  I had lost sight of the values with which I was raised.  Money became solely about satisfying my own exaggerated material “needs” and not about helping to ease the pain, and dire situations of others.

It was also the year I realized why my mother—despite our struggles—donates money every week to the Church. I had grouped together the Catholic practice of tithing with all the other traditionally Catholic rituals in which my family engaged.  Many of them seemed thoughtless and repetitive. Many of them I don’t practice on my own when I’m at school.  But I understood that it had been a mistake to group my mom’s contributions to charity with the rest of the things with which I grew up, because supporting the poor doesn’t have to depend on religious affiliation.

My mother donates money because she understands what it’s like to be poor.  It’s the same reason why she gives money to people on the street or tips annoyingly well at restaurants:  she grew up in small-town Texas in a poor Mexican family. But, just because she’s been able to provide for herself, doesn’t mean she could forget her community. When my mom makes a donation, it doesn’t matter that we’re poor or that we’ve struggled—what matters is that someone will be fed or clothed or given something special. In reality, actually knowing what it’s like to be poor can be one of the most powerful catalysts for charitable activity. As I learned at Columbia, many of the privileged people with whom I was surrounded dedicated a much smaller percentage of their ample time and resources than my mother did back home, despite their advantages.

I haven’t always been the devout Catholic I was raised to be, but, despite a few missteps, the values of social justice I learned from my mother have stayed with me. I may not be able to afford the luxuries available in Morningside Heights, but I’m doing significantly better than a lot of people, well enough to contribute my share. My mother gives a damn. And now, so do I.

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  1. Anonymous  

    wow, awesome job carlos!

  2. Hooah  

    This is truly a great read and an inspiring story. Thank you for sharing.

  3. lovely

    i teared up reading this. i remember my own confusion as a kid, eating dry cereal for dinner after watching my father put money in the collection plate. it wasn't until i was older that i realized that money was put towards helping people that couldn't remember what it was like to sit at a table in their own home. even when you don't have a lot, there is someone with less, and no matter what you believe about God, you can't forget that.

    also-columbia is classist. i've never felt out of place being a student of color, but i've definitely felt out of place because of the lifestyle i've lived up until now. i am now the only person i know from my life before high school that's enrolled in college-other people had to drop out because they couldn't afford it, they have kids, or they just never went to begin with. i know this has made me self conscious, coming from a shitty public school system, sitting in classes freshman year and realizing i didn't even know some of the basics. i had to find someone to teach me how to read a graph in frontiers of science. but humiliation has become humility for all the reasons you described-i'm lucky to be here, i try to remember it always. i just feel that some of my luckier classmates don't. no one should have to apologize for how they grew up, but sometimes it seems like people here aren't even aware.

    to tie up this rant...carlos, i love you!

  4. go carlos!  

    important, well written and inspiring

  5. Anonymous  

    Awesome piece. Thumbs up for Bwog for sharing this.

  6. Anonymous  

    How come there's no thumbs up/thumbs down on the entry?
    Carlos, you are freakin' amazing. And like the commenter above, I can't agree more about the fact that Columbia is classist.

  7. oh boo hoo  

    this story sucks.

  8. anonymous  

    truly inspiring-a well examined account of low income living at columbia, and an important message to get across to anyone-and particularly college students

  9. Anonymous  

    thanks for sharing - interesting and powerful

  10. Anonymous  

    the piece is interesting but could be better if it explained what exactly "classism" is. does it just mean that students on this campus have different amounts of money to spend and lead different lifestyles? because if that's it... well then.. this piece is pretty boring. if you were saying that students who have more money care little for people with less money, then you haven't argued that very effectively. our campus is not a good place for observing this because students don't have money of their own to give to the less fortunate. what you're really saying is that the parents of students do not care, but you have no way of going to people's homes and assessing this.

    this piece is full of blanket statements worthy of any sociology paper. what you also ignore is that you came from a poor background, but here you are in the same boat as people of a wealthier background. doesn't this show a transcendence of class barriers? just because some people have more disposable income than others doesn't mean that this system is grossly unfair. maybe your point is that wealth creates a lack of empathy, but columbia is famous for its bleeding heart liberals... despite its wealth... so what are you saying?

  11. SK  

    Very nicely written Carlos!

  12. anonymous  

    Mad love to Carlos for this piece. So many poor and working-class people on campus experience this struggle, and it's nice to give some voice to it.

  13. Well

    1) Great feature idea, Bwog. Keep it up!

    2) Overall, excellent piece. The above commenter is right, though. It would've been better if you were a little more tight with your language. But let me try to develop the idea of 'classism' as I see it, and I think Carlos might see it.

    When you come to Columbia from lower middle class or poor background, it's a bit of a culture shock. It's not just the money - being shocked that people can spend so much more on clothes, food, entertainment etc. than you even thought possible. It's a long way from shopping on a budget at Marshalls to buying broadway tickets. If your parents aren't highly educated, you just don't know about things. It's a tough learning curve - how you're supposed to dress (for work, for an interview, for a formal dinner,) how you're supposed to act, etc. Our parents can't offer us guidance. They haven't been down this path. We weren't exposed to some of the things some of you may take for granted.

    And then we have to reconcile everything we're lucky enough to be exposed to here: learning, art, culture, the city, etc. with where we came from without turning into an elitist, condescending snob, looking down on who we used to be, where we came from, and the people we knew. It can be tough coming from a place where Olive Garden was somewhere you went for a nice restaurant meal, to one where it's a punchline. It's a stone's throw from being embarrassed about unwittingly exposing your 'unrefined' background to resenting it. And next thing you know, you're looking down at people who you don't think are as smart as you are, who aren't as sophisticated and cultured as you think you are. The Columbia bubble can get to your head.

    Its about avoiding letting a feeling of inferiority morph into a feeling of superiority. This may sound trivial if you haven't experienced it, but it's not.

    • yes, but  

      i think it's important to remember that poverty doesn't just breed ignorance on the part of people who live "under" it....i might not know how to dress for a fancy dinner, but i had to teach a wealthy classmate how to do her own laundry. i'm not trying to say all wealthy people are clueless snobs, just like not all poorer people are's just a lot easier to learn how to live life with money than to imagine life without it. i often feel like i'm more apt to spot my own deficiencies than a lot of my wealthier classmates, who most of the time seem blind to their own privilege.

  14. Brandon Yanofsky

    Great post. It's something I always lose track of in my life but I'm glad you brought this back to my mind. I took a trip to Dominican republic last summer and saw how others live. I feel it's all of our jobs to help all those less fortunate than ourselves.

    • Anonymous  

      There is a perfect Privilege Denying White Guy Meme for this.

    • Anonymous  

      I'm really glad your trip inspired you to reach out and help those who are less fortunate than you.

      But I do want to point out that this sort of social consciousness is more of a do-good elitism than real understanding of how it is to be poor. It's great, but I feel like its missing this realization that, hey, you might be talking to someone who has never had the chance to travel and can't imagine when or how they will.

      I've encountered this all the time here--I don't want to say that Columbia is overtly classist, but I can't deny that my sense of class consciousness has moved to the forefront of my identity here. The other day, someone asked me, "What's that place where poor people buy clothes?" I was suddenly incredibly aware of the fact that she had absolutely no comprehension that, ummmm, the majority of my wardrobe is from Good Will, Salvation Army, good ol' Wal-Mall, or is simply hand-me-down.

      It's not just about the kiddos in the Dominican Republic.

  15. BC '13

    twenty bucks is still the world to me...

  16. White Guy Meme

    Try watching my ultra stingy capitalist parents put whatever 10% is, every week into the offering. The checks ranged anywhere from 1k-25k every week, my entire life. Then going to Columbia, qualifying for absolutely zero fin aid and getting denied any form of cash help from the parents and having to finance an entire ivy undergrad degree on 8-10% private loans, all based on the premise "when we went to college, our parents didn't help us either and we worked part time jobs to get ourselves through". Thanks Mom and Dad, worst advice ever considering you both went to state school in the 80's.

  17. Hey Bwog,  

    Can we get a feature going, like the Bucket List, but called Free Fun?

    I'm not poor but forever down for some free fun... Even TIC's $6 movies add up, you know.

  18. Anonymous  

    Really love this, Carlos.

  19. Anonymous

    one time Carlos Blanco punched me in the face. IT WAS AWESOME!

  20. OBone

    To those stating this story sucks or not assessing correctly just missed the point. This is not a story about them. It's a story about how Carlos was raised. People that are liberal tend to give back more to the less fortunate because they are for ALL PEOPLE. Most folks that I know that are better 0ff cry for more TAX BREAK, cry that the less fortunate takes more and does less, CRY CRY CRY! Typical of the wealthy and yes I'm making a generalization. MOST PEOPLE...NOT ALL. Great story Carlos and take both the good and ridiculous criticism in check. People will always hate, but most of the time people will always support. Good job!

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