Yachting, brow lifts, and nights at the opera: We are the 99%.
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Tiny is excited by the energy of the Occupy movement, but she is sure that for real change to happen, “the poorest of the poor” need to be heard.
“Welfare queeeeens, super baby mamas!” a diverse group of women, holding hands, shouted in unison in front of an Oakland, California, welfare office, their voices overlapping as they weaved around each other on the sidewalk. The welfareQUEENS, a performance-poetry group composed of mothers who have survived and cared for their children through extreme poverty, were part of a series of actions staged by POOR, a 16-year-old arts-and-action nonprofit, on a sunny day last November, when POOR invited Occupy Oakland protesters to march out of their City Hall encampment to sites that “occupy” poor people throughout the Bay Area.
At 12, Tiny created an alter ego named “Rent-starter,” an ideal tenant no landlord could refuse even though she had no cash or credit. Rent-starter embodied what Tiny describes as an odd mix of “sincerity, strength, and extreme sycophantism.” The performance worked many times: Landlords who might have turned away Dee, seeing a dark-skinned single mother (Dee was black and indigenous Puerto Rican, Irish, and Roma) as a bad tenant, believed that a white-looking 12-year-old Tiny (her dad, from whom she’s estranged, is white) was “a 25-year-old making $65,000 a year.” If Tiny couldn’t come up with enough money to pay rent on an apartment or motel room, she and her mom lived in their car. When they were cited for the illegal act of sleeping in a vehicle, penalties they couldn’t possibly pay piled up and turned into arrest warrants, which turned into stints in jail. Dee and Tiny learned that, when you’re poor in the United States, many of the things you have to do to survive are illegal.
For my grandmother, teaching was a triumph. For my mother, it was a good job. For me, it could be a dead end.
Whenever I visit my family in Los Angeles, my mother and I invariably gather around the backyard table at my grandmother’s house to correct papers in the late-afternoon sun. As my mom makes her way through a pile of college blue books, I tackle a stack of freshman English papers. Sometimes my grandmother, now 90 years old, comes out to observe our work, admiring the way we scribble comments into the margins and scratch out split infinitives. The sight almost always functions as a cue, prompting her to recite the now-familiar tale of her long career as a teacher.
Unlike my grandmother, I entered the professional world in a time when women had many choices. “Follow your dreams and the money will come,” my father always said. We were told, especially as girls, to aim high. We could be presidents of the United States, Nobel Prize–winning chemists, the next Great American Novelists—whatever our hearts desired.