Jairo Gomez never thought he was poor, even though he was one of seven kids and his family lived in a one-bedroom apartment. The cramped quarters made for a loud and sometimes tense home life. When he wasn't at school, Jairo spent most of his time on his skateboard, hanging out with friends. But he didn't always have that freedom.
When Jairo started 10th grade, his mom asked him to stay home from school to watch his younger siblings while she went to work. He failed all of his classes that year.
“I did wrong in making you stay, but I didn't have an option,” his mom said. “At the time I sacrificed you. It was either good grades for you and you’d go to school, or we were going to suffer and lack necessities...it’s a balance.”
Jairo learned that the odds would be stacked against him if he didn't start focusing on his education.
LISTEN to Jairo's intimate first-person account of the very real choices about education and work that kids growing up in poverty have to make every day.
How Jairo’s family has changed:
There are nine of us in my family and we live in a one-bedroom apartment. I share a bunk bed with my sister Judy. I used to think of my family as middle class – we’d go out to eat a lot and I could ask for clothes sometimes. But after my parents split up, my mom had four more kids and that all stopped.
How Jairo calculated his socioeconomic status:
I asked my mom to do the math, and she said right now my family makes $30,000 a year – according to the federal government we’re $15,000 below the poverty line. That kind of scares me.
Jairo reflects on class difference:
It gets me mad that my mom works so hard. And there are people out there who are just born into it, they make money like nothing, they don’t have to clean houses, wake up early, drain themselves.
Jairo on his future:
I know I should be thinking about going to college when I graduate if I don’t want that life. But I’d have to stay at home to afford it. Nine of us in a one bedroom apartment, no privacy, one bathroom, and toys everywhere—I don’t know if I can make myself do it.
The series is part of American Graduate, a public media initiative addressing the dropout crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
NARRATION: There are nine of us in my family and we live in a one-bedroom apartment. I share a bunk bed with my sister Judy
JUDY: It’s just so stuffed up. We don’t have enough space for seven kids.
NARRATION: On the floor we have two mattresses side by side, where three of my other sisters sleep. You have to step toe to heel to get out of the room.
JUDY: All we actually need is a big closet [laugh]
NARRATION: My mom, step-dad and the two youngest ones sleep in the living room.
JAIRO: Tell me about your work, what do you do?
MOM: Yo soy una cleaning, cleaning lady.
NARRATION: My mom cleans other people’s houses and when she gets home she keeps on cleaning, and takes care of my sisters and brother. I used to think of my family as middle class – we’d go out to eat a lot and I could ask for clothes sometimes. But after my parents split up, my mom had four more kids and that all stopped.
JAIRO: Do you think we’re poor?
MOM: [IN SPANISH]
TRANSLATOR: The truth is I haven’t looked it up in the dictionary, the word poor. To me poor is when you don’t have enough for soup or a roll of toilet paper.
NARRATION: During my freshman year in high school, my parents didn’t have money to buy us new clothes. I wore ripped jeans, and my sneakers had holes in them. It was kind of embarrassing, but I still didn’t think I was poor.
[JAIRO TALKING TO MOM]
NARRATION: I asked my mom to do the math, and she said right now my family makes thirty-thousand a year – according to the federal government we’re fifteen-thousand dollars below the poverty line.
I mean…that kind of scares me. I’ve seen articles posted on Facebook about how unlikely it is to get out of poverty, how poor people usually stay poor. If I don’t get an education, I’ll be stuck like my parents.
NARRATION: But I haven’t always been able to make school my priority. When I was younger, I felt like a robot -- all I did was go home and help babysit and clean. I never had that freedom before -- to be able to hang out and skate with my friends...so, in 9th grade I started cutting every day.
Then, when I was in the 10th grade for the second time my mom started asking me if I could stay home from school to watch the kids. If I said no, most of the money she would make would go to a babysitter.
I failed every class that year. That made me finally realize that if I ever wanted to graduate, I needed to be in school. I switched to a transfer school and my first trimester, I got perfect attendance. I told my mom I wasn’t going to take care of the little ones anymore
JAIRO [IN SPANISH]
NARRATION: Remember when I would tell you that you weren’t being responsible for your kids?
MOM [IN SPANISH]
TRANSLATOR: At first I felt annoyed, like, “How could this kid dare to say that to me?” When I feel that I try my best to give what’s necessary. But then I thought about it, and I thought, “Maybe I’m not doing my job right. I’m not providing enough.”
NARRATION: Hearing her say that made me feel selfish, especially since now my sisters are stuck at home every day.
JUDY: Sometimes I wish like yeah you would stay home and like help.
NARRATION: Judy is 14. She and my older sister are always home babysitting, cleaning up after my little sisters, and helping feed them.
JAIRO: Is it our responsibility?
JAIRO: So why do you still change diapers and do all that?
JUDY: I don’t want to put this all on Mom.
JAIRO: Compare yourself I guess to me, what do I do around the house?
JUDY: Nothing? Nothing!
NARRATION: My older sister Sarahi is like the second mother— and she’s in college.
SARAHI: Right now I have to finish my paper, this eight-page paper.
JAIRO: Ok but, what else am I irresponsible about, cause I don’t think babysitting is my responsibility.
SARAHI: Why is it not your responsibility?
JAIRO: Because I didn’t make ‘em!
NARRATION: Sometimes I feel like I blame my mom too much for having more kids than she could afford. She’s always telling us we’re lucky because we’ll have each other to go to. But when we still had two of our sisters in diapers and the pregnancy tests came out positive again and again, Judy, Sarahi and I were like, “I’m not washing the bottles this time.”
JAIRO: is that why you had us, so many of us?
NARRATION: I ask my mom why she had so many of us.
MOM [IN SPANISH]
TRANSLATOR: With each pregnancy I accepted it and let it happen. And I felt happy, but I never thought this son I’m gonna have I’m gonna educate and motivate to become a doctor, or this daughter I’m going to have I’m gonna motivate to become a lawyer. The job of the mother is to feed and clothe them, to give them love, but maybe I didn’t have time to give them each enough love.
JAIRO [IN SPANISH]
NARRATION: Do you remember last year when I had to stay home to babysit? How do you think it affected my grades?
MOM [IN SPANISH]
TRANSLATOR: Academically, it affected you a lot. I did wrong in making you stay, but I didn’t have an option. At the time I sacrificed you. It was either good grades for you and you’d go to school, or we were gonna suffer and lack necessities.
NARRATION: I don’t feel sacrificed -- to me sacrificed is being given up. she just delayed me.
MOM [IN SPANISH]
TRANSLATOR: Sometimes I feel guilty that you haven’t graduated, but I feel like you’ve contributed so that economically things aren’t so tough. It’s a balance.
NARRATION: It gets me mad that my mom works so hard. And there are people out there who are just born into it, they make money like nothing, they don’t have to clean houses, wake up early, drain themselves.
JAIRO: My bed feels like heaven right now.
NARRATION: My step dad asked me if I wanted to work a weeklong carpentry job with him.
ANDY: Who’s up there?
JAIRO: Andy, get out!
NARRATION: I know it means I’ll have to miss school, but I’m failing the second trimester anyways…
JAIRO: Tomorrow I gotta leave at 5:30.
NARRATION: and I want to earn myself some money.
JAIRO: Yeah, I’m tired. I gotta go to sleep.
NARRATION: I’m back in school. My English teacher, Erin, knows my situation.
ERIN BAUER: Before I found out that you were working I inferred that maybe you were home babysitting or maybe you led yourself to believe that you couldn’t pass your classes so you decided to take the week off.
JAIRO: I still had a chance of passing? I did?
ERIN BAUER: Yes. You definitely could have passed my class. Did failing your classes push back your graduation date?
JAIRO: I think it did
ERIN BAUER: Okay.
JAIRO: I was working for less than minimum wage. I don’t want to do that for the rest of my life.
NARRATION: I know I should be thinking about going to college when I graduate if I don’t want that life.
But I’d have to stay at home to afford it. Nine of us in a one bedroom apartment, no privacy, one bathroom, and toys everywhere—I don’t know if I can make myself do it.
Now I’m working 13-hour shifts making food deliveries on a bike. Honestly I’d rather do that and earn money for my own place. We’re told, “if you work hard, you’ll get results.” But for my family, there haven’t been any results, just survival.
For WNYC, I’m Rookie Reporter Jairo Gomez.