Ileana Mejia: Community Care

Ileana Mejia

In January, I visited my father for the first time. It was my first trip out of the U.S. after moving from Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania when I was three months old, then to Minnesota when I was 14 years old. My dad lives in the Dominican Republic and speaks mostly Spanish, and I speak mostly English. I was not sure how I would talk to him and communicate about who I am and what these past 26 years have been like for me.

After I left customs and saw him in front of me, emotions took over. We ran to and held each other for a long time. 

He had arranged so much for my visit to his home in the capital city of Santo Domingo: meals, getting clothes washed, translators, he always had a plan.   

My mornings consisted of reading a book in front of his home in the warm sun. In the middle of the afternoon, my dad brought me bowls of hot soup made by his neighbor. When I visited his family and friends, they immediately asked if I wanted coffee. Neighbors passed by, waved, and wished me a good morning. The neighborhood consisted of corner stores, people outside playing cards on makeshift wooden tables, and food vendors driving the streets selling fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs. I was surprised by the friendliness. It is not something I often see in America. 

In the U.S., people will ask me “what are you?” I describe myself as Dominican and Puerto Rican. I never feel that I can choose to be American because of my skin color. Yet in the Dominican Republic, that is how people described me — American. It frustrated and confused me. What was I, really?

After I returned to the U.S., I cried a lot. I missed my dad. I told my sisters and best friend about the experiences I had — the laughter, tears, food, people, and culture. 

My Childhood

I grew up low-income in a single-parent household, so my relationship with money has never been healthy. I knew that we did not have money for trips or new shoes. I read fashion magazines and looked at the $300 price tags and thought about how much that would feed our family. 

While getting my master’s degree in public policy, I took out a loan and served tables to pay bills. I never got tired of the instant cash gratification. I could make $100 in one day, which felt like a lot. I could pay my car insurance in one shift. However, when business was slow, I had to figure out if I could pay my cell phone bill. 

After graduating, I could not find a job in my field. I did ten months of AmeriCorps, which did not pay well, so I continued the double shifts with restaurants. I had gotten stuck in the “American dream” mindset that getting a graduate degree from a top 10 policy school would allow me to stop living paycheck-to-paycheck. 

I was exhausted by feeling like I was doing everything “right” while not being financially compensated. 

After multiple interviews, I finally got a job in my field with a local nonprofit. I was so excited. I felt like I had ticked the last checkbox on a success list in my head. For the past eight months, I have received a salaried paycheck. I make more money now than I ever have. I continue to work part-time to pay off my debt. I feel secure — even through COVID-19. I can start to financially plan for the long-term. I want to create generational wealth in my family so that future generations do not have the same experience with poverty as I did. 

I also feel guilty about my financial security. More than half of my friends and family do not have jobs right now because of the pandemic. The other half are afraid of losing their jobs. 

Money seems to control so much of our emotions and behavior. It took me 26 years to get financially secure — yet now I have a different kind of insecurity. Should I save my stimulus check for my family and friends in case they need support? Should I donate it to an undocumented family? Do I use it for myself, to pay down debts? What if I lose my job and become upset that I donated my stimulus check?

Has someone written a manual for a 20-something Latina who wants to create generational wealth during a pandemic? I should be feeling secure, and do, but frankly, these questions cause me anxiety. 

I think about how it felt to be in the Dominican Republic, where values seemed focused more on family and friends than money. I experienced Dominicans who lean on each other for support. When I was living in low-income housing as a child, my mother was friends with the neighbors and could turn to them when she needed something. 

Is it that people without money are more emotionally vulnerable with each other? Is it about not feeling judged when we ask for help? 

As a poor college student, after a friend got paid, she made sure that our Friday night had beer, pizza, and movies. I could count on her to provide, and the next time I got paid, it would be my turn. 

As I moved through different spaces this  year — Dominican Republic and U.S., salaried and paycheck-to-paycheck — I have begun to wonder if, in most U.S. communities, we only rely on each other when something bad happens, like a blizzard or a pandemic. 

I am sad that it is special when we come together globally to act with compassion. 

In my utopia, there is no up or down required. We simply are always in this together.

Ileana Mejia (she/her) is a public policy advocate at Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. She is passionate about inclusion and racial equity work. She has a Master’s in public policy from Humphrey School of Public Affairs. This story is supported thanks to our COVID-19 Fund donors. 

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