What does privilege mean to you?
Don’t worry – I’m not going to define privilege “in my own words” or give you a dictionary definition as a way to subtly suggest that your definition is wrong. What I DO believe, though, is that my personal definition has a lot to do with the environment I am in and perspective I have. When I was in fourth grade at a struggling public elementary school, privilege meant getting the cool brand-name snacks in your lunch bag. When I got my license on my 16th birthday, privilege meant having a car to drive. When most of my high school class had their licenses, privilege had become having a nice car to drive. But now? I’m not sure.
It is a warm November evening and the entire extended family is together to celebrate my tío’s birthday. Over plates of rice and papas chauchas, my family laugh semi-explosively. My brother, Andrés, is “speaking” English based on a classy selection of four-letter words borrowed from U.S. pop music while goofily break-dancing.
“Qué Dice?” [What does he say?] shouts pápi Lauro over the warm gurgle filling the room, sparking a new round of laughter.
“¡Pregúntele a la pelucona!” [Ask the pelucona!] Choked out Fenny, my cousin, between gasps for air.
In an instant, every set of joyous, watering eyes flicker to my face in expectation. The smile freezes on my face. Pelucona.
“Pues…no quiero traducirlo. Es medio vulgar y no me gustaría lavar mi boca esta noche.” [Well…I don’t want to translate it. It’s somewhat vulgar and I dont’ want to wash my mouth tonight.] I reply. Again, more laughter.
Here, a “pelucon” or “pelucona” means a rich person. But not just any rico, any rich person. He or she is a rich person who flaunts their wealth. One of those rich people. And by the unhesitating eyes of each person in the room, I was equally identified as one of these peluconas.
Growing up, I never considered myself “privileged.” In 4th grade, I didn’t have fruit roll-ups or the cool gushers in my lunch box. When I got my license on my 16th birthday, we didn’t have a car I could drive whenever I wanted. When most of my high school class had their licenses, I didn’t have a new or luxury car to drive. I always thought about greener grass, how much more I would have if I was “privileged.” But sin embargo, nevertheless, here I am seen as “that privileged person.”
The following week, my pápi sat in the smoky shed cooking a pot of mote over the candela, flame, and mashandonos, warming up. The pops of burning Eucalyptus branches harmonize with the frog songs. The burning leaves perfume the air with a musky scent that warms me from the inside out.
“Pápi?” I mumble tentatively.
“¡Mande!” [What?] he replies.
“Cree usted que soy pelucona?” [Do you think I’m a pelucona?] I blurt out.
“Creo que es pelucona?” [Do I think you’re a pelucona?]
“Sí, eso” [Yes, that.]
“Con lo que me ha dicho, no creo. Usted no es pelucona.” [With what you’ve told me, I don’t think so. You aren’t a pelucona.]
“Mmmmm, ya.” I nod. I’m not a pelucona. I’m NOT a pelucona. I’m not an outsider.
But am I?
There are definitely certain things I consider a necessity, and even a right – going to college being a big one on my mind right now. And there are so many things I’ve experienced. I’ve traveled in an airplane, and I’ve even left my nation of citizenship. My family in the U.S. eats out almost every month. I know how to drive. I get new shoes even when the ones I have aren’t completely broken. And these realities of my life, on a global level, represent wealth and fortune. And that my growing-up así, like this, is all in chance, gives my sense of entitlement an even sicklier shade.
I wrote this passage you are reading in mid-December, and it sat in my journal for a long time. What has brought it back to the front of my mind was a conversation I had with my pápi over breakfast last Monday. Setting the freshly made patacones on the table, I sat down. I had finally gotten the technique down, and I reached a bronzed hand forward to grab one of the semi-burnt plantain patties (I like them crispy). It was my first day back after traveling to the Amazon rainforest, el oriente, during the past week.
Pápi shot every sort of question my way – “what is the food like? Did you see waterfalls? How long did it take on the bus?” But the question that made me pause came later: “was it really expensive?”
Was it really expensive? Well, yes. In my U.S. community terms, it was not cheap to say the very least. But in terms of my Ecuadorian family, it was ridiculously expensive – more than they make in a year.
“Sí, sí era.” I mumbled. It makes me uncomfortable to talk about money with my family. Not that it’s bad, but just challenging, starting from day número uno, day one.
My first night in my new home, I was shown into my room. As my pápi opened the door to my charming attic bedroom, he laughs. “Disculpe nuestra pobreza.” [Excuse our poverty.]
Marcela and I lean over her English homework. She calls out, “pápi, necesito un lapiz” [Dad, I need a pencil]. “Hay uno arriba” [There is one up there], he mumbles, pointing to the book shelf. Marcela grabs the nub of a pencil stored on the highest shelf and uses rusty razor blade to sharpen the pencil. Jokingly, she complains to an imaginary teacher, “somos tan pobres y mi pápi no puede comprarme un lapiz nuevo” [we are so poor, and my dad can’t buy me a new pencil].
As he slowly chews a bite of rice with his remaining teeth, pápi explains the shift from Sucres to Dollars, dólares, in Ecuador almost 15 years ago. “Antes, teníamos plata. Pero la noche que cambiaron del dinero, la devaluación era increíble. Cada dólar valuó 25,000 sucres. Teníamos casi un millón de sucres de vender mi terreno abajo en la loma. Y solo quedamos con cuarenta dólares. Cuarenta dólares no hacen nada.” [Before, we had money. But the night that they changed the currency, the devaluation was incredible. Each dollar valued 25,000 sucres. We had almost a million sucres from selling my property down the hill. And we were left with only forty dollars. Forty dollars don’t do anything.]
I can’t deny that I am privileged – more than I can imagine or understand. Am I a pelucona, though? I have thought a lot about this question, and I don’t know. I don’t want to think of myself as one of the “rich” people (I mean, the 1% in the U.S. doesn’t have the best reputation), but my gut whispers “you are one of them.”
Whether or not I am a pelucona, I look towards the future. What can I do with my wealth – both financially and in the opportunities I have – during my lifetime? Being in a wealthy family by chance (and note that I don’t say luck – wealth has little relation to quality of life), what responsibilities do I have? How has, does, and will my family’s financial situation define who I am?
And equally importantly, how do I share my wealth of experiences, of questions, with those around me? This blog is my first step.