Maya Lau is the creator, host and executive producer of the podcast, Other People’s Pockets, produced by Pushkin Industries and Little Everywhere. She's an award-winning former investigative reporter for The…
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For most of her life, Carmen González has been undocumented, navigating work and school without making money the “traditional” way. She shared why she overspends on her community in spite of it all.
A lot of Black feminists took me under their wings and really taught me concepts of community care. And there was also this idea, which I had already seen with my dad, this idea of until the most oppressed group was free, no one else will be free.
What does it look like to have a job where you can only get paid in gift cards? My guest today is Carmen Gonzalez, an undergrad at Cal State University Long Beach, who's been undocumented for most of her life in the US.
I'm Carmen Gonzalez. I'm a college student, journalist and the proud co-host of a podcast called Analog.
I met Carmen through my husband because he was one of Carmen's journalism mentors at Boyle Heights Beat, a community news outlet run by high schoolers in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Carmen has created her own community radio show and podcast, Queers for the Clout, and now serves as a fellow at Cal Matters. And just a note, in the months since this episode was recorded, Carmen actually became a US citizen.
I'm Maya Lau, and this is Other People's Pockets, the show where I ask people about their money. So the questions we all have about how much other people make and how their finances work can be a little bit less of a mystery.
Carmen, welcome to Other People's Pockets.
Hi, I am super excited to be here and talk with you.
We're going to start with a cold shower. A lot of podcasts have a lightning round at the end, and we're going to do it in the beginning just to be different. Are you ready?
Who are you?
How much money do you make?
Currently, $900 a month.
Have you ever talked publicly about your finances before?
And how do you feel about talking about your finances and about financial transparency in general?
The word that comes to my mind is icky.
Why do you think for you, and why do you think for other people it can be so hard to talk about money?
I think, well, at least for me, at a very young age, I'm told to not share those things. They're private things that you only share with your parents and with very close family. There's this idea within my family and maybe even my community of not everyone is looking out for you. So maybe sharing how much you earn might put you to bad standing with a manager or with your employer. This idea of competition is very prevalent.
What socioeconomic class would you consider yourself when you were growing up and what do you consider yourself now?
Growing up I would say there's levels to low income. So growing up I would say I was borderline, like, "Ooh, this might be a charity project for someone very poor." I would say that's the way I would describe. And then now I would say low income hitting maybe the lower part of middle class. But I feel like everyone describes themselves as middle class, but we're very more comfortable, I would say.
Yeah. No, I know. It's so true. Everyone's kind of tends towards saying that they're middle class. Tell me about your upbringing in general and also any messages you might have heard about money growing up.
Yeah. Well, growing up, my parents are opposites. My mom is a saver. She's a couponer, she likes... The way we describe her is cheap. And then my dad overspends. So money was always something that they fought about. So growing up I was very aware of, "Oh, they're fighting again because of this, or blah, blah, blah." It was always around money. And from a very young age, I knew money was an issue, but the way my dad thinks, my dad grew up a lot poorer than my mom. My mom was actually... And they both grew up in Mexico, and my mom grew up a little bit more affluent than my father.
But my dad has this mentality of even if there's a little bit for us, we still need to share it with everyone. Not just family, but just friends. If there's enough for us, there's enough for everyone. So, even though I was aware and I knew we weren't rich or even had any economic stability, I knew we had to share it, whatever it was, whatever good things we got, it was for everyone. I would like to say I was the one that got involved. My parents didn't necessarily involve me in it, and we could have conversation about being the oldest daughter, like being an immigrant household and what that means. But yeah, I tended to really ask a lot of questions, reasons why I'm a journalist, so my mom would answer them and I would get involved in their financials maybe when I shouldn't have.
What kind of questions would you ask them?
Well, especially, well, "Why did you scream at dad?" And oh, "Well, because he overspent money that we didn't have. But if he earned that money you shouldn't..." Just trying to understand why, what logical reasoning there was to the fight. And I tended to do that a lot with things. Sometimes I don't understand why is that logical for some people, and especially when it came to money. Now as an adult, I understand fundamentally my mom saw money in a different way than my dad saw money. And now as an adult, I'm able to maybe even help them better communicate about money with each other because the issues are still there.
No, the dynamic doesn't just disappear, but you have a good, not totally outside, but you have another perspective for them to be a mirror to them.
And also, I'm known as an over spender in my family unit. And I'm not ashamed of it at all because I think we live under capitalism and I'm young, so thank you. I will spend my money. That's enough. That's enough oppression already. I can spend my money and my mom, she gives me advice on how to save and she's like, "You would have a car by now," and I'm like, "Public transportation is fine. I'm thriving." But my dad, on the other hand, he sees himself reflected on me and he's like, "Yo, you need to stop spending so much."
Oh, does he come down even harder on you than your mom?
Oh, don't trigger me with that question. Overall, he does.
No. Yeah, he says he's preparing me for the real world. I don't know what that... I'm like, "So you're traumatizing me before?" Okay, thanks. He does. He really does and I can understand because his whole life, he's struggled with money so he knows what it is to be a over spender, and he has had to live the overspending life with three kids. And I remind him, I'm like, "I don't have kids so is it technically overspending?" It's just maybe irresponsible spending. So yeah, my dad does tend to go a little harder on me, but I ignore him.
Where did you grow up?
So let's go down this wild journey. I'll take you. So I'll pause in the middle of it so you can take it in. Okay.
Awesome. I'm here, here for the journey.
Yes. So mom was born in San Bernardino, California in 81, and then her sister in 82. They leave in 83 to Mexico, Sinaloa and that's where my mom grows up for most of her life. My grandma has more kids there. My dad whole life grew up in Mexico, Sinaloa. They meet there, they date there, they fall in love there. Once my mom got pregnant with me, my grandma was like, "You should really go to the US. You're a citizen. Your kids should be a citizen." And my mom being a 19-year-old who was scared and pregnant, didn't want to do that because that's a country she didn't know. She didn't anyone in the US. So my dad decides to move to Tijuana and my mom follows him. The goal was that she was going to cross. She doesn't cross, and she has me in Tijuana. And then we moved to New Mexico. I lived there until my siblings are born, so around five years. And then we moved to Arizona. In Arizona I start school. And the first year of Obama, I was, I believe in third grade, my dad gets deported to Mexico and we lived in Mexico for four-ish years, three years, four-ish years and then my mom and I and my siblings moved to California.
I was in eighth grade so 2014. We left my dad in Mexico. Now he's here with us. So when they asked me where I grew up, I'm like, "All over the place." But I tend to say Arizona and Mexico, because those were the, I guess, more formative years.
And so your mom is a citizen, and it sounds like your siblings might be citizens too of the US.
Yeah. Yeah. I'm not. I'm currently going through the immigration process, but as we all know, it's a very long and tedious and expensive process. Actually, one of the reasons why we didn't start it sooner was because my mom and the family was never economically stable to be able to do that process. And now we're a little bit better where we can pay lawyers and pay all the applications and stuff.
Just to give people a sense, how much money are we talking about does it take to go through that process?
I believe my mom is, I don't know how you explain it in English, but she's paying it by small increments. But so far it's been like $12,000. The amount of makeup I could buy with $12,000. And we see as a necessary thing. I can't get a legal job without work permit so we know it's a necessary thing for me to continue pursuing my career and my education. So my mom doesn't complain so much about the price tag, but it is hefty.
You mentioned the gymnastics you have to do with looking for a job with undocumented status. Talk about that more. I mean, how does that affect the types of jobs that you go after?
Oh, it really messes with your brain and the way of how much I see myself valued in. My first job job was Boyle Heights Beat and they paid me through gift cards. And you can't really do much with gift cards.
Like they had to, because legally they couldn't actually give you cash.
Or I couldn't be on the payroll. I didn't have anything, no social security number to be on the payroll. So that was the first time where I was earning a little bit more money, and it was for me. I was like, "Wow, okay." If I wanted to buy something over the card amount, I couldn't combine all the cards.
And it was gift cards to where?
It was Visa gift cards, so I could technically, it was like a debit card.
Okay, so you could spend it anywhere that they take visa, but you couldn't combine them.
Yeah. So when I wanted to splurge on my makeup, which is what I spend the most on, there was a limit. I had to do it in a couple orders because I couldn't combine the cards. So that was my first introduction into, "Okay, so this is what working as an undocumented student looks like." I hit college and I was like, "Okay, California is a great state for undocumented students," so I wasn't paying a lot of money out of pocket, but I also wasn't pocketing any money, so I don't get any refund checks. I don't get money from the federal government. So I was going to school in zeros, basically, compared to my friends. It would hit October and they would get their refund checks, and they had a little bit more money to spend. I was going completely zero. I wasn't paying the school because California has grants and stuff, but I also wasn't pocketing any money.
And then the other instance where I realized how difficult it was, I joined a fellowship with UCLA Labor Center, their dream center, a fellowship specifically for undocumented students and while I was doing that fellowship over the summer, I met another fellow who was in their late twenties, and I was like, "Oh my God. Wow, you must be a grad student. You're a little bit older than what I'm used as a college student." And they actually shared that they continue to be in school because that's the only way they can work, because internships and fellowships are open sometimes. If you're a student, they're a little more flexible with help. They pay and they stipend and stuff like that. It really shocked me because I was like, "That's kind of what I'm doing." If I had papers, if I would even do school as undocumented student, school is very much valued and it gives you worth.
And then it's like if you're not in school, then you're not looked at as... That you're not as valuable or your potential is different or something. In a capitalist system, in an immigration landscape that doesn't actually reward people for what they're actually worth, how do you view that because I know that what we get paid or what the jobs that are offered to us, of course, they don't necessarily reflect what we're worth, but at the same time it can feel like it has an impact on your self-worth. So I'm just curious how you view that.
Yeah, I think even with all my identities and all the systems in place that make living as Carmen difficult, I tend to say I'm a very privileged person because I have the knowledge that these systems are in place to make it difficult. So I really don't have any of that guilt or any of that... Maybe I should have a little more guilt, but any of that shame. I didn't grow up religious, so I don't have that religious shame. My parents always told me to ask questions even to authority figures, which they later regretted because I was asking them too many questions. They always said that I don't necessarily have to respect people just because they respect me, because sometimes mean people are passive-aggressive. And I took these things really to heart. So when I entered the workforce or somewhat of the workforce, I really was like, "I'm not making enough."
That's very clear to me. And it's not because I'm not capable and it's not because I'm not worthy or I don't have the skillsets, but I'm not getting paid enough because there's some white man as a CEO who thinks I am not worthy enough. And for that, I'm like, that's not my problem. I'm not going to feel that shame that sometimes... Capitalism wants you to carry that weight and I'm like, "I'm already carrying everyone else's weight. I don't need capitalism's too." So I tend to not, but some days it does get heavy and on those days I'm like, "Damn, you've lived in another country. I'm only have nine years here. There's so much I've already done." So I try to not think about it as much. And maybe that's an immigrant mentality of don't think too much because then panic starts setting in but yeah, that's the way I would answer that question. I think the way I deal with it is I put the blame on someone else, on a bigger power, not myself.
I mean, it sounds like you've always been a question asker and always liked to question authority. Is that what got you into journalism?
Yeah, I think I started out as a student activist and I realized that it was very tiring and I wasn't earning anything at that time, but it demanded so much of my time, and I always liked writing, so I was like, "Huh, maybe I can spotlight these communities that are struggling in a different way." And then I joined Boyle Heights Beat and with them I realized that there was so many other issues within the Boyle Heights community, within LA City. And I was like, "Huh, maybe I'll stick around a little bit." And then somehow I got sucked into radio and I fell in love with it. And that's... I don't know. It was a natural progression. My parents thought I was going to be a lawyer. Law school's not happening for me, ever. But once that they've realized that I was very serious about this career, they were like, "Yeah, it makes sense." They never questioned it. They were like, "Yeah, that's where she should be.
I love that. Yeah. My mom always used to say that she thought I would become a lawyer just because of my argumentative ways and logic, bullying ways and I probably didn't realize that journalism is also an outlet for that. So I relate to that.
And it's also a lot cheaper. I'm like, y'all really willing to put me through law school? I don't think so.
Going back to Boyle Heights Beat for a second, describe a little bit more about what it is, who does it, what it's for, because it's a very cool program.
So Boyle Heights Beat is a hyper-local news publication, and they recruit students in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. It's pretty cool because recently they had homeschooled students, they had charter kids, a mix of all the kids in the community, and they get to report on the community about the community. And I was part of Boyle Heights Beat from 2017 to 2019 as a youth reporter. And then when I went off to college, I was doing on and off gigs for them and now I'm back as staff as their like a community outreach coordinator and they're like a staple in the Boyle Heights community for all Boyle Heights news and also Los Angeles City news.
And it's cool because it's not just news for high schoolers, it's news for the community, like adults and everybody but the reporters are youth reporters, and there's a newspaper element. There's like a live radio show element.
I've done stories on TPS, stories on gentrification. I've also had the opportunity through Boyle Heights Beat when I was in high school to do play reviews, which is I think, not something I do now, but it's such a cool experience to have. And a lot of people join Boyle Heights Beat with... It's an internship for high school students. You'll get paid for each article. Cool but you honestly leave with this huge network, a better idea of what the community truly is and also it really sets you up for college in a way that I don't think regular schmegular like K through 12 does. It makes you just think critically of the world of society, of your own community and Boyle Heights Beat always encouraged its reporters. No one gets to talk about Boyle Heights like it's high school students. They know their community, they know all the drug dealers, but they also know all the popping places. No LA Times reporter will ever be able to cover Boyle Heights like its reporters.
How would you define your style of journalism and what's your ultimate goal in the field?
I don't know. I think the way I see my journalism is what community is not being talked about in a holistic way. And recently, I am a Cal Matters fellow, and my first story with them was a story on how undocumented students... Now we're entering an era where most DACA students are full on adults with kids so the new undocumented student generation that's entering college doesn't have protections and they can't work, so how are they paying for college, especially the bigger UCs here in California. So I got to cover legislation that recently passed to ensure there's fellowships and internships specifically for undocumented students in California. I talk about that story because I think that's what my journalism is about, is there's always issues within minoritized communities. With undocumented people, they always tend to talk about the emotional and just the hardships of being undocumented in the US, but we rarely talk about how hard it is to live financially as an undocumented person.
People are afraid to talk about those things, and there's plenty of reasons why people are afraid, but I also think if we don't speak up on it, there's really no one's going to pay attention and try to find a solution. So that's the purpose of my journalism is to highlight issues that aren't highlighted and just get it out there. There's stuff that disabled students live through in college, and no one really talks about that stuff. So I don't know. That's how I describe it. And I think my long-term goal in the career is to... I don't know. I think I would love to be able to do more fun reporting in the sense of, I hope I get to a point where I'm not needed anymore, and my perspective and my point of view is not needed because I'm okay with that. I'm okay with not being needed. So I think I would love to do some food blogging. I don't know. I think that's something I haven't tried. I haven't tried sports reporting either, but I'm okay with not trying that. That's hardcore, I'm not the hardcore.
They have to put out stuff fast. I don't know how they do that.
And then honestly, the way my brain works, I'm like, "Let's talk about the issues here, the societal issues that happened because of sports."
Wait, but you could be a commentator, the live commentators, and then they have the "color commentary" where they're filling in like, "Oh, well back in 94, blah, blah, blah." I feel like you could be a color commentator for sports about the things that you want to talk about, but without having to do, this is the score but you could talk about the other stuff that's interesting. I actually feel like that would be really cool.
Oh, this player was accused of domestic violence.
So was this one.
For you, as you think about the kind of life you want, the kind of career you want, how do you think about money and the kind of money you want to make. I don't know, how do you think about all that at this point in your life?
Yeah. My dad would say I don't think about it that much. I love school and I love learning, so I would like to continue onto my master's and hopefully PhD. That's the mentality I have right now. And I also know that for a PhD or a doctorate, that very much sometimes means staying in academia and you don't really earn a lot of, as a college professor or as a researcher. So I know... I don't know. I know the life that awaits me, but also... I don't know, this might be TMI or not, but I really don't care.
I don't care either.
I'm like, I already trauma dumped that I'm like, oh, this might be TMI. I don't want kids. So I know I'm very much the goals I want, the goals I have and the path I'm taking is very much with that idea. I don't want kids. I actually never really wanted kids. I told my mom since I was eight years old. I was like, "I'm not a motherly figure. That's not my thing. I want to learn and meet the world. I want to spend a long time doing that." And now they're like, "Okay, that's fine. We'll be grandparents to dogs and cats," and they're happy with that. My sister is on the same boat, and we're both... She takes photos. She's a photographer. She's younger than me, so our dream has been to create a magazine where I write and she takes photos...
... So maybe that will be in the plans. I'm very much like I love creating things, so I see myself doing that. I don't know. You don't really earn a lot of money, so I'm very aware that I'm going into this with not earning a lot of money when you create things and try new things. So I'm very aware of the lifestyle I might have.
I think that's a good place to be in as a creative person. I think that sets you up to be resourceful and surprise yourself.
And I think, I'm in a very lucky position where my parents said they'll support me as I continue my education journey. So I'm really taking this time to create and fail and do things and try things because they'll support me with rent and transportation.
That's awesome. Your parents sound really cool because there's a lot of parents who might be like, "Oh, I don't want you to go into journalism. You need to go into engineering, or whatever, something that'll make more money." And I think it sounds like your parents get you and are like, "Yeah, we support you."
Yeah. Well, I mean, both of my parents are very creative people too, so I was like, "Where do you think you were going to get a doctor?" That doesn't make sense.
You know that's not happening.
My brother started high school and we saw that he thrived in history and English, and I was like, "There." He's the youngest and I was like, There. Your potential about having a doctor in the family, a medical doctor is gone." I was like, "We're all humanities. We're all readers. You're screwed."
You mentioned earlier the concept your dad, I think your dad had, you said about if we have some, then there's enough for all of us and there's enough for the family. And I don't know if you meant also the community or neighbors or relatives. Can you talk about your perspective on shared resources in community and also as you go forward, is your money for the group? Is it for you? Is there a... I'd love your thoughts on that.
Yeah. When I moved to the US to California in 2014, I joined a lot of advocacy groups that worked on having more inclusive curriculum in LUSD schools. And a lot of black feminists took me under their wings and really taught me, just not the ropes of what it is to be American and to live in America, but also concepts of community care. And one of them, something they repeated a lot was like, there's this Assata Shakur chant of like... Damn, I don't remember specifically, but it's something about, "We have nothing to lose, but these chains." And we chanted that a lot as a group. And I don't know what's up with me that I take sometimes these phrases to heart and I really truly believe them, but I really live by that. There's nothing... What else do we have to lose?
And that community care, that community love, that community aspect really informed the way I went through life and my teenage years. And there was also this idea, which I had already seen with my dad, but they conceptualized it and put theory and all this behind it. But this idea of no one's free until everyone's free, until the most oppressed group is free, no one else will be free. And that really connects to my dad's idea of, "If there's for us, there's for everyone." And for me, it was just such a natural thing to believe in and to do. I think capitalism makes us tired and makes us cranky and makes us think that we're the only ones struggling with whatever we're struggling with.
And makes us want to only look out ourselves. Like, "Well, I got to hoard my money because otherwise, how will I have enough to buy X, Y, Z."
And my mom really thinks like that, and actually we've been working on dismantling that idea with her because it doesn't do anyone good other than the people in power. Now that I earn my money, which is not a lot, but that is truly just mine. My parents don't ask for any of it. I also spend it with that idea. I'm like, "Okay, so I'm going to order something from Amazon Prime, who needs something?"
It's not just your card. It's like, "Hey, while I put together this order, does anyone want to add something?"
So my debit card is known as the family card. If there's money on it, anyone can spend from it. I genuinely don't like... Don't check in with me, I don't care because also my siblings and my parents do a lot. They adjust their schedules to me recording to my interviews. My dad takes me sometimes to interviews and to gigs and stuff like that so I'm like, "I'm not necessarily going to put you on a salary, but I'll buy dinner" or, "Hey, let's go try this place."
You've mentioned a few times your Amazon cart, and we do have another segment we do sometimes called cart to cart and so it's basically we all tend to have things lingering in our online shopping cart, so we just haven't clicked purchase yet. Do you have anything that's sitting in your online carts that's like that?
Yes. Okay. On my Sephora app, I have the Dior Backstage, Rosy Glow blush, and then Dior. And then I have this really expensive perfume that I know for a fact that I'm not buying, but I know it smells good, so I'm going to find a dup for it that's cheaper. And then a lot of Fenty by Rihanna, and then a lot of Rare by Selena Gomez. The total's like... Oh, that's out of stock. I'm so sad. It's above $200.
Carmen, thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you for having me.
Other People's Pockets is written and hosted by me, Maya Lau. It's produced by me, along with Joyce Sanford and Dan Gallucci. Production helped from Angela Vain. Our executive producers are me, along with Jane Marie and Dan Gallucci.
A special thanks to communal Amazon carts.
Other People's Pockets is a co-production of Pushkin Industries and Little Everywhere. To find more Pushkin podcasts, listen on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.