It is would be too simplistic to say that America is the country for exceptional social mobility opportunities. It is not a tried and trusted formula that if one is born in one social layer, is an American citizen and has the basic willingness to work and aspire for something bigger in his or her life, such premises will inevitably bring this person to the next level. This is too an idealistic perception and does not unfold all the complexity of modern life with such factors as the ethnic or racial background, the financial conditions of parents and their occupation, and the general social and economic factors peculiar to a certain area. Of course, one should not go to the opposite extreme and say that there is no social mobility opportunities anymore in the contemporary America, since the present-day America is not the one that it was a century or centuries ago. The latter statement being obviously true, it would be too prejudiced to claim that America presents very few opportunities for real climbing from one socio-economic level to another or even others. Each life story is different, molded by a myriad of different factor with varying level of importance. The factors that I am going to discuss on the basis of the case that I have been able to examine pertain to the family background, ethnic background, local socio-economic conditions and culture. I argue that these factors were major underlying determinants of the level of the social mobility of the individual under discussion, since they played a limiting role in that they neither facilitated nor encouraged a greater level of social ability for the person’s under examination. Moreover, this story proves that social mobility is still possible even in the case of low-income families, yet, to some extent, it is limited by the external factors, seriously affecting the internal factors (dreams or aspirations), and thus resulting in a low level of social mobility. It should be likewise mentioned that the level of social mobility exerts a direct influence not only on the socio-economic background of the person under discussion, but also brings about changes in how the person sees the world and understands life in it. Such internal changes have a profound effect on the person’s private and family life and indicate how penetrating a change of social status can be.
The person under discussion is Diego V., a 33-year old bartender in Vallejo, California. It was my choice to find a person exactly from this sort of establishment to talk about in this project for the reason that, to my mind, people working in bars stand on a bridge, figuratively speaking, that unites two different worlds – the world of official legal employment and the world of unofficial underground employment, criminal circles and people, whose working habits are hard to delineate. Such is the person that I would like to introduce to you. I will dwell more here on his biography, starting, first of all, from his family background.
Diego comes from a Latino family, both lines of which have been living in Vallejo for the second generation. Their great grandparents emigrated from Mexico, but none of their relatives has been able to go places in terms of building a spectacular career or at least starting one’s own business. All of the lines that it was possible to trace down had relatives working for low wages and always for someone else. An interesting fact is that I was able to notice a tendency that his relatives could be described as descending in regard to their social status, if one can accept that being sentenced to prison for drug trafficking (or generally doing a sentence in prison) is the second lowest point in social structure higher only than being a homeless bum on the street.
It appears that Diego’s father, who worked at a laundry, was shot on the street when Diego was still a little boy, possibly because of his connections or dealings with drug trafficking in the criminal world. Diego would not feel comfortable about talking deeper into this aspect of his biography. However, it was enough to know that since he was 7 years old, Diego was left to make his own path in life, together with two more brothers. Their mother worked very hard all her life, being a housemaid, with low wages and many hours of work, since she was trying hard to earn enough to provide at least a minimal living for her three sons. Diego spoke very respectfully about his mother who died several years ago. It was a clear observation that she appeared to be the greatest authority in his life, and since her death, there are basically no people he wants to look up to. All his brothers and he himself went to one and the same public school. The difference between his brothers and Diego was that they were older, and wanted to compete to take up the role of the “leading male” in the house, and got themselves in trouble at school with their misbehavior, and in street fights outside school time. Their mother never remarried, investing all of her time into working hard for the sake of family provision and never tried to find another man to be a father to her sons. It could have been a mistake, one may say, yet, this way or another, according to Diego, they all grew up very “self-sufficient” – that is, they relied only on themselves for protection and earning a ”spot under the sun”. As Diego said himself, it was a major effect upon his life that his father died when he was still little. Paradoxical as it may sound, but he believes that it was the turning point in his life when he promised himself that he would never be affiliated with the criminal world, and in particularly, with drug trafficking. It appeared that his brothers were not that decisive about that fact, one of which is already dead because of an overdose and the other doing a sentence in prison for drug dealing. All of this happened when their mother was still alive, and it was a major shock for her. It proved to bring a lot of pain to their mother’s heart and even more assuredness to Diego that drugs would put a stop to any advancement in his life and he appeared to be right when promised himself to steer clear of them whatever it would take.
Diego was the only brother of the three sons who studied well at school, but he never made it to a college, because he simply could not afford to pay even the lowest tuition fees he was able to find. Yet he never lost hope and his determination to take himself far away from the historic record of his family, where males were characterized by a certain level of connection with unlawful practices and always paid a high price for that.
What was Diego’s choice if he was not able to pay for his college? Diego had a good friend, who was a bartender himself, and likewise a Latino. Diego’s father and this man used to be friends until his father’s death, but this man always tried to keep an eye on the family and to help their mother in ways he was able to. He had a total disrespect for Diego’s’ brothers, since he considered them totally foolish for continuing the practices their father was involved in, which left their mother a widow and them fatherless children. It seemed like he wanted to pour all his love into Diego as the only son of that family that he saw would have a different life and different perspectives. Therefore, he trained Diego on how to be a good and professional bartender with regard to serving clients in such a way that they would respect him both as a person who simply serves people and also someone who is an agreeable person to be with. What is more, he taught him a whole set of tricks with a bottle and glasses, such as joggling for example, that he uses from time to time to promote himself as a professional bartender, even though he never took any professional bartending training. He said that he had never had time for that – something we have heard before in relation to his mother, who was totally focused on bare family provision and did not want to think about things other than that, things that could bring her family to the next level. According to Diego, she realized that their sons had no chance to enter a college, so at least she wanted them to have everything else, the “all else” being healthy food and clothes to wear.
It was at this point in his story that I realized that there was such a factor as a low level of expectations that can characterize people like Diego’s mother, and to some extent, Diego himself. Because of the poor living conditions and bad police records within a family, it seemed too unrealistic to dream about social mobility in the sense of climbing the social ladder. Thus, Diego has been working only as a bartender for more than 10 years and boasts a good reputation as a man who is “clean” and can be trusted by bar owners. He has managed to build a good reputation amongst bar owners and has changed several bars in his career with increasingly higher salary. He is able to rent a separate apartment, has a girlfriend that he wants to get married with and has saved some money for their potential wedding trip to Niagara Falls. His dream is to save enough money to help at least one of his children to go to college and have a life that he was never able to have. He shared that he dreamt of that he would be a good father to his child or children, something he had never experienced himself and badly wanted to become a reality in his family.
Generally speaking, when talking to Diego I received a feeling that I was talking to either a “reformed criminal” or a man who did not deserve to be where he wasbecause of the family background he had. I am positive that if this person was given a chance in his life to enter a college or go to some university, he would have a great career in his life because of a number of his qualities that make him different from a typical image of a bartender that comes up in our minds when we hear the name of this profession.
First of all, the thing that made a great impression on me was the kind of a purpose-oriented person he was. He set goals in his life and he tried to achieve them within the scope of his resources, since the family resources were not taken into consideration as negligible. He wanted to have a legal profession in his life and did his best to become a good learner of all what his father’s friend, a bartender, was ready to teach him. It was this man who gave a small chance for Diego to do something other than what his brothers were involved in. He has taken this chance and is very appreciative of the start and the recommendations that this man, although not a blood relation, gave him for his future career.
Secondly, he dreams of starting a decent family, who would live in their own apartment- something like an American dream. It is not definitely some sort of a gangster’s dream. He makes a modest living, working long and late hours, tries to save as much as he can, and thus can be described as a planner. His plans do not include crossing the line of law. He seems to sound like a man with conservative beliefs of that hard work and dedication to one’s principles will one day pay back and result in something very beneficial in one’s life.
Thirdly, he is a foreseer in a sense that he tries to see years ahead of what is going to happen to his future family. He is not only planning his wedding trip to Niagara Falls, he is thinking of the amount of money that should be saved monthly to help his firstborn go to college.
I am greatly impressed by this man who I have the luck to get to know and write about in this project. He does not represent what could be referred to as a classic example of social mobility, when a person climbs from lower to higher social status without the help of their parents, but totally as a ”self-made” person. However, if we take a look at his life, the background of his family and his extremely limited opportunities, it becomes clear that Diego has made a giant leap away from the level of his father or brothers, and makes a legal living, goes to church, wants to start a family and dreams of his children’s future education. It seems like this man stands out from all his family and the decisions they made and suffered from.
Therefore, if we compare him to his brothers, one dead because of a drug overdose, the other sentenced to prison for drug trafficking, his father, shot dead and connected with some unlawful practices, and his mother who lost all hopes for her private happiness, he is by far ahead of them in his social standing. If we take into account, that his girlfriend is a medical student, it becomes clear that he has earned the respect of a person from a family of a different social status and has all chances to begin a new page in the life of his family.