You Go, Girl

“In Mexico the family seems to be a centripetal force; in the US it is a centrifugal force.”
—Carolo and Marcelo Suárez Orozco, Transformations: Immigration, family life, and achievement motivation among Latino adolescents, Stanford UP 1995

“And for those of you who don’t know what Barnard is,” says LaTonya into the microphone, hands on hips, “let me tell you: it’s Ivy League, aright?” Everyone laughs. She’s earned that swagger, along with the scholarship that promises to put her all the way through graduate school before she’s even started her freshman year. Now there are hundreds of grown women in the hotel ballroom, eating salmon to celebrate her and her GirlSource sisters.

GirlSource hires 150 poor girls a year, aged 14 to 18, mostly from the Mission, Bayview, Hunters’ Point. They’re trained–and paid–to run a chatty health information website, by girls, for girls. They design, research, write, and code the whole thing, picking up skills they can sell. “We’re not from the kind of communities where we all got the internet at home,” one explains. As part of the program, they also get tutoring, help with college applications and scholarship research, and a safe place to hang out with other girls.

“Can you imagine that I used to be so shy I didn’t want to open my mouth to strangers?” Marisa says gleefully to 600 strangers. ” I’m Filipina-American. We’re raised to obey authority, but not to have high self-esteem. That turned me into a hater. I didn’t know how to appreciate my own qualities, so I hated on other girls to make myself feel better. Girls do that. They hate on people until that person’s confidence is totally destroyed, and that makes them powerful. But when I’d hate on people and bring them down, I’d still feel empty inside. GirlSource taught me to flip the script. When I met the other girls in the program, I was de-fen-sive, wondering what they were thinking about me. Now I look at these beautiful girls, and all they can do, and I feel sooooo proud to be a GirlSource girl.”

In America, just 4% of Hispanic 12th-graders can read at their grade level. For African-American students, it’s even worse. But in spite of poverty, pregnancies, family problems, and sometimes even homelessness, 96% of GirlSource girls graduate from high school. 80% get to college–and most are the first in their families to do so. The organization directors believe that the best way to change a community is to pick a small number of individuals and stick with them. In their turn, the girls tend to stick with the program.

18-year-old Cristina tells how she’s worked to help support her family since she was thirteen. How she took BART for an hour and a half each way to get to school, and worked after school, and made time for GirlSource, and still kept up a 4.2 grade-point-average.
“There was this one class where I got a B. But it was AP so it counts as an A, right?” She had always dreamed of going to New York City. The hardest moment, she said, was one night when her father was sick and she brought him something to eat in his bedroom and he cried that he was so lonely, that things were so hard in the United States. How could she think about leaving home when her father would miss her so much? And then she remembered what she had learned at GirlSource, about standing up for herself, honoring her own needs, using her new confidence to set boundaries. It made it easier for her to make the choice that was right for her. That’s why, she said–with a delivery Steve Jobs might envy–she was going to Columbia in the fall.

There were whistles.

I clapped too. How can you not clap a girl from Richmond who gets herself to Columbia University?

“It’s crazy, right?” she says, eyes shining. “I mean, they’re gonna pay for my tuition, my housing, my books–I’m even gonna get my own psychologist.”

I walk around the Mission a lot, sharing the streets with Norteño gang kids, Salvadoran toddlers, junkies, vendors selling brain and cheek tacos, tattooed hipster gringos, Sixties acid casualties, street preachers, broken hookers, and slumped day laborers hoping to get hired on Cesar Chavez Street.

In the Mission, fruit and vegetables are cheap, and the buses are studded with nuts. Mariachis strut from restaurant to restaurant in white cowboy hats. Full-throated ranchero songs float out from the bars, but when you peep in, there might be only a few old guys on the barstools. On Sunday mornings, dressed-up families walk to church, the stocky kids exact half-scale copies of their parents. Once in a while I follow a little Mexican or Peruvian family a block or two, enjoying kids who are so sure of themselves that they don’t need to come up with snot-nosed demands just to prove they still exist. I like that these families seem to like each others’ company.

(My friend Alex is principal of a bilingual charter school in Silicon Valley. Though it’s in one of the richest towns in the country, 97% of his students live below the poverty line. Their parents clean houses and mow lawns for the engineers and Biz Dev Directors. “Americans think poor people don’t care about their kids’ education,” he says, “but no one wants their kid to read as much as a parent who can’t.”)

Last Thursday night, in a week when hundreds of thousands of my fellow immigrants had marched for respect in cities across the country, a shy young guy invited me to stop for tamales outside a storefront church at the bottom of my hill.
“De puerco o de queso?” said the old woman with the mantilla, almost hidden behind her styrofoam cooler.
“Meat or cheese?” he said, trying to help me out. He was from the Yucatán. I asked if he missed it. “Claro que sí” he said.”Pero hay que ir adelante.”

Hay que ir adelante. You’ve got to move forward. I suppose that’s what drove our forebears out of the primordial ooze, onwards and upwards towards seven-fifty an hour. It’s what pushes Cristina from Richmond to New York City, armed with a precocious biography of self-esteem and boundaries. But still, I’m uneasy for her. Her story is too neat, too Oprahfied. I don’t know how it will serve her when she’s surrounded by slick, expensively-trained classmates at Columbia. What will it be like when she’s three thousand miles from the family who so wanted her to have a better life–and who needed her?

Cristina’s not leaving a village in the Yucatán. She’s already just a BART ride away from one of the best-loved cities in America, and from Stanford and Berkeley. Choosing Columbia means that she’s grasped the California mantra of personal choice, and so her decision brings you-go-girl cheers: distance equals independence equals strength. But I want more for her, and from her. I want her to show Americans how to include love and family in success.

Maybe she still can. Her own Oprahisms are as sincere as they are canned. She’s of a generation that knows how to try on and package identities, and this one is wrapped up for the convenience of the busy women in the hotel ballroom. We’re looking to feel good about throwing a few hundred bucks to young women fifteen years or twenty years behind us, and it works. I believe in GirlSource enough to set up the direct deposit donation, to read through their essays and wonder if I could tutor, or hire some of these girls as interns. (They’d find out what the snacks are like in an innovation consultancy, and we’d learn more than we’d teach.)

But even as I write the checks, and cheer Cristina and her friends, I think, oh baby, you’re going to need that Columbia shrink…

The CalTrain Penal Code

“In October, a schizophrenic homeless woman threw her three young sons into the San Francisco Bay. The mother, Lashuan Harris, had been living with her children in an Oakland shelter, and had stopped taking her medicine because she believed she was cured. But voices, she later told police, told her to throw her sons into the water. Relatives told the press that they had sought custody of the boys, but that social workers had failed to act. Less than two weeks later, a homeless man, Johnell Kirk junior, died after being set on fire by another drifter, who was said to suffer from schizophrenia.San Francisco has struggled to deal with the many homeless people who come to the city for its temperate climate and generous welfare programmes. Gavin Newsom, San Francisco�s mayor, has made the issue a priority. His controversial �Care Not Cash� initiative, which offers homeless people services rather than welfare cheques, took effect in May 2004, and there are signs of success. The programmes have reduced the street population by 28% and housed nearly 1,500 people…But the city has a lot more work to do.”
–The Economist

“You heard what she did? Three little kids. They struggled, man. She had to _work_ to do that. That took hard work, harder work than she’d ever probably done before in her goddamn life. They found one of ’em, but I don’t know if they’ll get the other two, tides and all. Filthy water. Can you imagine? She just walked away, pushing a fucking empty stroller like no big deal. Said she heard _voices._ Said the _voices_ told her to push her three little kids into the San Francisco Bay and hold them down until they drowned.

“And you know what’s going to happen to her, right? You know, right? She’s not going to jail. She’s going to go to some psych ward and get the medication and the good food and the gym and the therapy. She won’t do a day in jail. And she’s going to sit there, her and her _voices,_ you and me paying for her doctors, and she’s not going to pay for squat. Not for rent, not for her dinner, not for her _occupational therapy,_ not for her doctors, and sure as hell not for what she did to those three little kids.

“Know what I’d like to do to her? I’d like take a manhole cover–nice big round one–and explain to her how the _voices_ told me to chain it to her ankle and roll it off the pier, right there in front of the sea lions. Or–no, wait–I’d put her in a giant microwave. Rig it up in Giants Stadium so she could sit there in her chair in her giant microwave, and I’d set it to High for as long as it takes to drown three little kids. Multiplied by two. And I’d bring the whole city out to watch her cook, so they’d get the idea it’s not smart to listen to the voices. Or, know what I’d do? I’d stake her out, tie her down, so she couldn’t move a muscle, and I’d pour sugar syrup over every fucking inch of her. And then I’d bring out the fireants, man…Real slow, that’d go. Wide awake.

“You know they don’t even use the electric chair any more? Said it was _inhumane._ It took a whole five minutes to die. And they’re doped up with valium, having sweet dreams. Oh, what a crying shame, to take five minutes to die, after you probably tortured someone for three weeks. These people with the prisoners’ rights, man. You give up your rights when you take someone’s life, all right? I’ll give ’em rights: hang ’em with an American flag. That’s their right. It’s God’s job to condemn, not ours, but let’s just go ahead and arrange the meeting, you know what I’m saying? Fire up Old Sparky, cut the crap.

“I hear they tried to rape Scott Petersen already. I hope he’s getting it good, after what he did. Know what I’d do? I’d let five of the largest, strongest relatives into that cell, armed with baseball bats and let ’em blow off some steam. Or maybe a very large, sexually-deprived silverback gorilla…”

The train slowed. A woman stuffed headphones into her bag, stood up, and excused herself. He jumped to his feet, head bowed, voice soft.

“No problem, ma’am.”

“You’ve been pumping a lot?” his friend asked when he sat back down. He pushed up a sleeve, examined a bicep and frowned. His scalp gleamed.

“Eighteen inches. But I want to get it to twenty. It’ll take a lot of work. A lot of _focus.__ I wanted to get to the gym tonight, but my little guy has a soccer game, and it’s important to me to be there. Sends a message. My dad never made it to my soccer games. I know he was working to put a roof over our heads, so it’s not like I mind. But I’m going to be there for my little guy at his games. It’s the kind of role model I want to portray.”

He squinted at his bicep again.

“Takes a lot of work to build up the right dimensions. But it’s fun to have the size. Especially in bars. I am not a violent person. It’s part of my credo. I’m very controlled. But I get some guy in a bar, someone _inappropriate,_ maybe being a jerk to some woman, and you know what I say? I say, real quiet, “You’re going to apologize. Or I’m going to break your arm.” Total control, total calm, total polite. And my friends say, ‘Uh, yeah, he will.” And then you just get to watch this asswipe back down…”

He folded his arms in satisfaction.

“Only bad thing is it can make it hard with women. You meet these women who just like big guys, that’s their thing. Makes it hard to tell. They can be fine as a person, quality people, but they’re not necessarily candidates for a serious long-term relationship if they’re only with you for size. I’m seeing a woman right now, she’s a quality person, but she’s not over her divorce, she’s just getting used to dating. And she’s really into the muscles. Likes the big guys.”

“Not over her divorce? Fuck that shit, man. Get divorced, move ON.”

“Right. Move the fuck on.”

They looked out the window. Palo Alto passed.

“Karl Rove. You know what’s going on there? You been following it? Karl Rove is guilty of treason. He deserves to share a large, smelly cell with the most horrible inmate…”

No Ronald McDonald?

Discovery Channel viewers have picked a shortlist of the five greatest Americans of all time. It’s one of those memes that starts on the BBC or the CBC and spreads to US television, like _The Weakest Link_ or those LiveJournal “If you were a bodily fluid, which one would you be?” exercises. This particular soap opera is sponsored by Tide.

The top five does not include Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, Frankln D. Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, or Mark Twain.

It does, however, include Ronald Reagan.

The Home Equity ATM

From Andie in South Africa, further reading on the housing bubble: Riotous Real Estate.

…Accordingly, if “values” were the basis for the Bush victory last November, they were property values not moral principles or religious prejudices. In the face of the perverse housing bubble, the Kerry campaign, as with healthcare costs and the export of jobs, was simply running on empty. It offered no compelling alternative to the status quo. But the Republicans have more serious things to worry about than Democrats. As the real-estate bubble reaches its peak, George Bush may discover that he has been surfing a tsunami and that a towering cliff looms ahead.

The bubble has already burst in San Francisco, and the April 11th issue of Business Week headlined fears that a general deflation – perhaps of international magnitude – is nigh. What will life be like in the United States (or Britain or Ireland) after the home-equity ATM shuts down?”


I’m learning a new language, with a one-word vocabulary. In California, everything is organic, down to the bottled water they fly in from New Zealand. Organic oats Organic cayenne pepper. Organic cotton cleansing pads. Organic jicama. “Is it or-gan-ic?” they ask in restaurants, even when the menu is bloated with the word. After New York City’s grubby bodegas, where a Slim Jim cost as much as a pallet of strawberries here, I am round-eyed at this west coast feast. (The proof: I’ve put on five pounds in five weeks.)

I’m glad that I’m rich enough to afford gently-reared food, even if it’s fertilized by the bullshit of fussy white people. I love the Bernal Heights Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings. The pro-dooce, as they call fruit and vegetables in this country, tastes wonderful. Still, the prissiness of it all makes me want to lick an oil tanker.

In the Trader Joe’s parking lot I stuff the saddlebags of my little bike while all around me people load up their armored vehicles with well-travelled organic artichokes and Eurotrash water. Their bodies are well-cared for, but the planet is still battered.

The World is Flat

When Elvis sings “I’m just a hunk, a hunk of burnin’ love,” I’m ready to sign up for U.S. citizenship right then and there. Only a country of genius could produce that kind of art. Nevertheless, America needs to get out more. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist , has recently discovered that the world is flat, that Indians are smart, and that other countries have workers and telecommunications infrastructures as sophisticated as the homeland’s. Perhaps we foreigners can even produce glib essays for a tenth of Friedman’s wages (as long as you pay us in Euros).

Eight years ago I shared H1-b visa gripes with Indian engineers in Times Square, while we worked to fix bugs with the Hyderabad colleagues who lived twelve hours in the future. The older IIT(Indian Institute of Technology) engineers, who had gone to graduate school in the US, acted as cultural brokers for the delegations that went back and forth between Hyderabad and Broadway. We could have told Friedman what was coming, if we’d been at the right cocktail parties.

Gokul, my colleague and running partner then, went on to MIT graduate school and now runs Google’s AdSense program. We’re neighbors again, in a region where fully a third of start-ups were founded by immigrants, including Google. Eight years on, at a time when USCIS(United States Citizenship and Immigration “Service”) has made it much harder to come here, we could now do just fine or better where we came from. The next generation of Gokuls can start their empires at home, and that’s why the US Ambassador to Ireland has had to tour the universities to beg Irish students to take up summer visas to visit the US. They’re not interested.

Armistice Day

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

–Wilfred Owen