I grew up on the East Side. Like many black and brown kids still living in zip code 78202, my parents are from the East Side, and their parents are, too.
My mom lived in Wheatley Courts, a housing project built in 1941 and later notorious for high crime and poverty. This predominantly black community remained under-resourced for its entire history.
I didn’t grow up in Wheatley Courts. But by age 10, I had attended six different schools and lived on four different streets: East Crockett, Paso Hondo, Center, and Hays. Small houses with windows encapsulated in burglar bars remain etched in my memory. When I wasn’t living in these houses, I was in and out of homeless shelters.
On any given day, coming home from school, I would find my stepdad punching my mom in the head, dragging her across the kitchen floor by her hair, and punching her in the stomach. I would open up the freezer, grab a bag of peas, and lay it on her face. She’d put my hand in hers, and we would both cry. After washing our faces, she’d start dinner and things would quiet down until it happened again.
Things finally ended when Mom shot my stepdad in the shoulder in our front yard. I woke up to fighting, and soon Mom shouted for me to grab the gun from the roof. I climbed out the second-floor window and threw it down. She caught it, pulled the trigger, and hit him.
He lived, but we left. Years later, he was killed by his new wife in a domestic violence dispute.
I thought life would get better after that, but it didn’t. My mom had too much pride to ask for help. I was left home alone to care for my sister and brother while she worked two jobs, one of them a graveyard shift.
She also worked hard to find educational resources and after-school programs. There were violin lessons and ballet classes on the weekends offered by local churches. My mom enrolled me in every opportunity she could find. If she couldn’t take me, I rode the city bus.
When I was 12, she married stepdad number two, and we moved to Virginia Beach. I hated Virginia, and I rebelled. After my fourth suspension, Mom withdrew me and drove me 45 minutes across town to Cape Henry Collegiate, a private school in a predominantly white, upper-class neighborhood.
The hallways were covered with honors of distinction touting rigorous academic programs and high college acceptance rates. I remember thinking to myself, “Where is the cafeteria? And why don’t I see any kids who look like me?”
I began cursing under my breath. My mom overheard me, waved her finger, and gestured for me to wait outside the admissions office. She walked into the headmaster’s office, and I could hear her telling him I was smart, he should test me, and they needed to admit more black kids.
Somehow, she convinced them to give me a full scholarship. Soon after, I was a student walking through those same hallways with the plaques on the walls.
According to Harvard economist Raj Chetty, interventions such as a move across town can increase a child’s chances of achieving the American Dream. That’s called “social mobility.” My mom didn’t know that term; she only knew she wanted me to have a better life. And I do.
My life is filled with many firsts. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college. I’m the first person in my family to earn more than $100,000 annually. I’m the first person in my family to own my first home by the age of 30.
I’ve broken the cycle of generational poverty. And I’ve achieved the American Dream. But lately, I can’t stop thinking about how life could’ve been had I never left the East Side. I’m questioning that American Dream and how we can really expect all children to dream it.
Years ago, I returned home to Texas and moved to Cibolo, a Northeast suburb outside of San Antonio, where I purchased a four-bedroom, two-story house on a corner lot. It’s not grandiose, but it’s a far cry from where and how I grew up.
I could have gone back to the East Side, but I wanted my kids to have a different life. And they do. They have lived in one house, one neighborhood, and one school district. They don’t know what it’s like to wake up to gunshots, live in fear, or go to bed hungry.
But I have to ask myself: What about the kids still on the East Side? What if their moms don’t find the violin classes and the church programs? What if they can’t hustle their kids into the best possible schools?
Plus, my American Dream came at a high cost. As a young girl who only knew black and brown kids, neighborhoods and schools, my sudden move to Virginia put me in spaces where I struggled to belong and constantly grappled with rejection due to my background and the color of my skin. For a 15 year-old kid fighting hard to navigate her way through unfamiliar territory, it wasn’t just hard, it was yet more trauma, and I feel lucky to have gotten through.
I’m still thankful for my life and the lives my kids have. But I’m also concerned for the kids growing up in my old neighborhood today. And I can’t fool myself about what the American Dream will cost them – if they even get a chance to dream it.