A Poverty of Goods but Not of Pride

Mary Helen Ponce is a Sunland writer who teaches literature and creative writing at Cal State Los Angeles

As I read of recent accusations of welfare fraud, I cannot help but be appalled at how folks can hoodwink el govierno (the government) for years without being caught. More disturbing is the large amount of money--thousands!--said to have been pilfered and that they stand accused of being not working-class poor but of living, if not the good life, a close approximation. But then, this is America, where immigrant dreams come true--if one learns to play the game.

I think back to when I was growing up in Pacoima and of Mexican-American families like ours who had few illusions of being solvent. My father, who sold lumber from our backyard, was his own boss but we were still working-class poor. For Mexican Americans of my generation, to be on welfare was una verguenza--shameful. Rather than seek public assistance, most depended on family, friends and, now and then, a sympathetic pastor whose meager budget allowed for other than the spiritual.

In the barrio it was known what families received ayuda (help) because their pantries were stocked with canned goods (none part of the Mexican diet) given them by the welfare office. Worse, once a month they were visited by Anglo ladies with pursed lips who, in fear of catching lice or tuberculosis (then prevalent among poor families) made the visit short. At one time my good friend's (I'll call her Maria) family was on assistance. Although nothing was said, the print dresses with white collar and cuffs allocated by the government were a dead giveaway--and like a uniform. Maria hated the dresses that set her apart. To avoid wearing them, she tore at the sleeves until they came apart.

And yet, welfare can benefit those who don't abuse it. For single mothers with dependent children, public assistance is what stands between them and the mean streets. For the elderly and incapacitated, welfare assures basic nutrition. But to the public at large, being on welfare indicates a lack of ganas, the initiative to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. To be self-reliant.

When I lived in Santa Barbara I shopped at a market on Milpas Street patronized predominantly by raza--Mexican Americans. One day when in line, I saw the cashier berate a women paying for groceries with food stamps. In a righteous snit, the cashier yanked items off the woman's cart and dumped them on the counter, saying, "You can't buy this with food stamps, hear?" Face flushed a deep red, the woman explained that she always bought chocolate milk with food stamps, but the clerk was adamant.

The recent influx of Latino immigrants to California has awakened feelings of nativism. Xenophobia, even. Most Americans feel that all immigrants are on the dole. When my daughter was a student at UC-Santa Barbara, some Anglo friends assumed she had received "special consideration"--and money. Was she not a Latina?

As I read claims of welfare fraud, I think back to the woman at the market--and los pobres, the poor, like my father, who rather than apply for assistance worked their fingers to the bone, paid taxes on time and never even thought of cheating el govierno. They never got to travel to faraway places, or wear designer clothes and expensive jewels. They did what most of us do: worked for what they hand and stayed off la ayuda.

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