Tierra and Quay keep their dreams in a one-story pale-blue cottage in a working-class, mostly black neighborhood across from a church. They moved in this June. It’s the first house Tierra has ever rented on her own.
In financial terms, it’s a house of cards.
Ambar Gonzalez took her first steps in the brick house with the brightly striped awnings and the cookout-size back yard. It’s just down the street from the big Catholic cathedral in a neighborhood built by Germans, who gave way to Italians and Poles, and eventually Mexicans.
Ambar’s mother, Marcia Soto Rochel, moved to this neighborhood, Pilsen, as a young bride from the Mexican state of Durango. As a child, she lived in a village so small that one store sold everything. She and her siblings studied at a boarding school in a larger town nearby. It was a simple life but a comfortable one, Marcia says, and she did not want to leave it, even when she agreed to marry a young Mexican-American who intended to take her back to Chicago.
She cried when she walked down the aisle on her wedding day. Thinking that she grieved for her recently deceased mother, the congregation cried with her. Marcia was grieving, yes—for her independence. Her fears foreshadowed how quickly the marriage would end: A few years later, she left her husband.
Marcia lived for a hot Chicago summer in the bed of a canopy-covered pickup truck, with her two toddler sons and the much-younger sister she was raising in her mother’s absence. She waited tables and enrolled in beauty school. She drove south to leave the children with a relative, then north to work, then south to pick them up afterward. She learned to cut and style hair. She opened her own shop. She saved money scrupulously, remarried, bore a daughter, and moved into the house on South Hoyne Avenue just before Ambar’s first birthday.
Ambar has the height and cheekbones of a beauty-pageant winner, which she is. She giggles in small bursts and speaks in a low melody that slides seamlessly between English and Spanish. She grew up surrounded by drugs and violence, but Marcia wanted her daughter to escape all that. When Ambar was in fifth grade, she often forgot to bring her homework from school—so Marcia made her carry the entire contents of her desk back and forth every day.
Mother sent daughter to a private school in the suburbs, a bus and a train and another bus ride away. “She was always there, pushing me, telling me I could do whatever I wanted,” Ambar says over breakfast at Nuevo Léon Restaurant, a Pilsen eatery famous for its flour tortillas. “She always told me that I had to go to college, but I could be whatever I wanted to be.”
That optimism girds Latinos in America. Nearly three in five surveyed by the Heartland Monitor poll said they believe that their children will have more opportunity to get ahead than they did. A similar number said they have more opportunity today than their parents did at the same age.
Ambar seized the opportunities her mother created for her. She earned a political science degree from DePaul University in 2009 and decided to become a lawyer. She prepped for the LSAT exam and worked at a nonprofit agency helping immigrants. She lived with her mom in the three-bedroom house that had become a hub for extended family members rolling in and out of Chicago.
Almost every weekend, everyone in the family barbecued together in the backyard on South Hoyne. Marcia’s salon was just around the corner, and in 2008, she took out a second mortgage on the house to remodel both buildings. She turned the basement into an apartment of sorts, complete with a kitchen, for guests. In the shop, she laid gleaming new wood floors and painted the walls bright colors, in hopes of attracting back the customers who suddenly weren’t coming around nearly as often.
DREAMS IN CRISIS
In 2006, several years before recession ravaged America’s working class and drove so many of Marcia’s customers away, a Harvard University economist named Benjamin Friedman addressed the American Economic Association. His topic, based on a book he had just published, was “Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.” Friedman laid out a simple explanation for why people, faced with similar economic circumstances, react so differently.
Vast evidence, Friedman said, suggests that people judge their standard of living not in absolute terms, but in comparative ones—specifically, they compare how their families lived in the past and how the people around them live. So no matter how rich a country may be, he said, it will never be immune to “seeing its basic values at risk whenever the majority of its citizens lose their sense of forward progress.” Two years before the height of the financial crisis, Friedman worried aloud about how earnings had failed to keep pace with inflation in recent years. “If we continue along our current trajectory,” he said, “many of the pathologies that we have seen in the past, in periods of economic stagnation”—for instance, rising anger directed at immigrants and minorities—“will once again emerge.”