To be honest, I wanted her because she was smart.
The 2011 Berkeley graduate was noted in a university press release as the recipient of the prestigious University of California Library Prize for Undergraduate Research. Her 50-page thesis paper, "They Rule the Valley: The Story of How Large Central Valley Landholders Became the Primary Beneficiaries of the Central Valley Project," was also awarded the History Department's Mathilda Morrison Miller Prize.
Now the young scholar, Christina Flores, would be going back home to the Central Valley town of Bakersfield, CA, degrees and prizes in hand -- the first in her family to have graduated from college.
As an editor for Off the Bus, I was looking for people with insights and perspectives on American life, who could contribute a unique voice to the standard practices of political reporting during this election year. Given her superlative efforts to study what had made California's Central Valley the class-divided place she knew it to be, she looked to be a likely candidate as a citizen journalist. While she was job hunting, I said -- would she be interested in writing some dispatches from her hometown?
Yes, she said, yes she would.
"I strongly identify as a native daughter of the Central Valley so I really hope that anything I produce provides an accurate account of this region," she would write.
She also told me that she was a new mother. She had gotten pregnant during her senior year, and it was a race to see if she could finish her thesis before the child was born. And so, at the end of her final semester, she went home to Bakersfield to have her baby daughter. The prize money helped pay the hospital bill.
Over the next few months we corresponded, discussing angles of approach to the social realities of the Central Valley and the significance to its population -- if any -- of the coming elections. Did people talk about it at all? Did it seem to matter? Was there a single candidate, of any party, national, state or local -- who lit their fire?
In late August she wrote:
I apologize that it has taken me a while to get back to you but I have been extremely preoccupied with personal matters. My return to Bakersfield has made me personally aware of the particular economic situation this region of the state is facing. Not only have I, like many 2011 college graduates throughout the country, been having a hard time finding a job in this jobless economy, but as I look around my neighborhood I see abandoned houses everywhere. Also, I have been noticing that robberies and violent crimes have increased since I left Bakersfield in 2007 to go to college, so I might look into how this increase correlates with the recession. I would very much be interested in interviewing local people struggling to make it through these tough times and possibly a local politician, Rudy Salas, who I believe is interested in poverty issues.
Good idea, I said. But no story materialized.
In October, she told me that she had not had the time to write because she'd decided to apply for graduate school, and had to study for the Graduate Record Exams (GRE). I thought it was the right decision for an obviously bright student like Christina, that it was probably the only way she could find a way out of Bakersfield again, and I told her so. But she hadn't forgotten her promise to write about her experiences there.
"The good news is that I was able to interview Rudy Salas a little over two weeks ago at the Kern County Fair...I decided to postpone it for a bit in order to study for the GRE, but now that I have taken the test, I will try to get the article completed as soon as possible," she wrote.
And still no article materialized. I sent her a Christmas greeting nonetheless.
Just after the holiday, Christina wrote to explain the long delay in delivering on her promise. Upon reading her letter, I felt that, without even realizing it, she had in fact written a piece that was an essential account of her world. Bakersfield, located between Fresno and Los Angeles in the top oil producing county and one of the top five agricultural producing counties in the nation, is also one of the places in our nation hardest hit by the recession. Her story is illustrative of what the Occupy movement is all about and what any electoral candidate must ultimately address. Christina has, in fact, delivered on her promise, and you should read it, here.
Dec. 28, 2011.
I hope that you are having a great holiday season. I apologize that I haven't responded to your emails recently, but I got really busy with grad school applications. Guinevere Soledad is now seven months old, and she is a really healthy baby, so I am truly blessed.
About graduate school: I applied to Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, U of Chicago, UCLA, and I am planning on applying to UC Davis in the next couple of weeks. I hadn't planned on applying to mostly private colleges, but I wanted to go to a top history program, so those schools ended up on my list. I hope I get accepted and offered a good financial aid package by at least one of those schools.
About my post-Berkeley life in Bakersfield: It has been quite depressing, and I think that's one of the reasons why I haven't really wanted to open up about it. I am an unemployed single mother living with my single mother and, despite the fact that my mother has been financially and emotionally supportive, my time here has made me feel like I have failed at life. I luckily didn't graduate with any loans, but since I graduated from Berkeley my mom has essentially been supporting me.
I have applied to various county and some school district positions, but other than working a short-term job I haven't found steady employment. I called a local news station a couple of months ago and asked them if there were any openings and they told me that my English and History degrees from UC Berkeley made me unqualified for any journalism positions.
When I went to a written exam for a county position there were 150-250 people also taking the exam, and after I passed the written, physical, and oral exam I was placed on the 'eligible for employment' wait list.
Trying to find a job in a jobless city has proven difficult. Most of my cousins in their twenties, who were also born and raised in Bakersfield, are either unemployed or underemployed, and they all live at home with their parents or their partner's parents. I believed that by being the first in my family to attain a B.A. I would show my younger cousins that going to school would pay off in the end. I don't think my unemployed status has proven my case to them.
Bakersfield as I knew it before I went to college is a lot different than Bakersfield as it is now. The East Hills Mall, which used to be full of shops and people, is now like a ghost town, and the only place that gets a lot of activity is the dollar theater. This week my aunt, mom, cousins and I went to the East Hills Mall and my aunt noted how empty the place had become and I told her that it reminded me a lot of Detroit, Michigan. When I went to Detroit as a college freshman I remember feeling like something had died, and that is how it felt like walking through the decaying East Hills Mall.
There are rumors that Community Action Partnership of Kern, a non-profit organization my mom works for as a Preschool Supervisor, might be under new management next year and the only people who will be considered for employment are those with B.A.s, which the majority of the workers don't have.
My two uncles work for a recycling center and there are rumors that here will possibly be cuts there next year too. Overall, Bakersfield is not the Bakersfield I remember it to be.
My mom, daughter and I live in a house that we moved into in 2006, and it's a miracle that my mom was able to keep the house while she was helping me pay for college. All of the houses in this area were built in the early 2000s, and a lot of working-class people were excited to move into these new houses, but now most of the neighbors we had before I went to college have left.
As if the vacant houses surrounding us weren't constant reminders of a failed American Dream, we recently learned that this area of houses will be part of a class action against Lenox Homes. It seems that in their haste to build houses the company didn't follow building regulations so most of the houses in this area are anything but perfect. When we first moved in my mom and I were really happy to move into our first home, and it was brand new, so it made us twice as proud. But little by little, like the rest of our neighbors, we found that there were many defects with the new house. Now, even though we still have our house, we still don't feel like we are living the American Dream.
If you are interested in coming to visit Bakersfield I would be more than happy to show you around. I am currently available anytime. I apologize if you have tried calling the cell phone number I gave you last time; I had it disconnected for financial reasons. But feel free to call my home number.
I have strong hopes that Christina will be accepted into a graduate school and that fellowship money will be available. I'd like to think that some day she will be a professor, a professional, perhaps the director of a policy institute or even...a writer. But what differentiates her from her cousins, her neighbors, and friends, giving her the ability to clamber over the vast obstacles to a decent life in America today, are variables, at best. Intellligence, tenaciousness, character -- or having a mother who truly values education -- these are not universal gifts. Yet I think Christina would be the first to say, I'm not special. Everyone should be able to go to school, get a job, and raise a family in dignity.
If you are interested in contributing as a citizen journalist to the Huffington Post's coverage of the 2012 elections and American political life, please write to us at www.offthebus.org.