EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was developed in the writing program at Youth Communication, a nonprofit publisher of true stories that give readers insight into the issues that matter most to young people. Readers can help support the future of teen writers with a tax-deductible donation to Youth Communication: youthcomm.org/donate
My family collects cans and bottles from sunup to sundown all year long. I started when I was 12, watching my parents glazed in sweat, as if it had just rained on them. Despite the aches and the tireless nights, their smiles shined as they worked.
The recycling center is loud with the chattering of people and clicking of bottles and cans bumping into each other, and old Latino music plays on the radio. My mother leaves at dawn to collect cans, and when she returns 12 hours later, I help her pull the shopping cart the six long blocks to the recycling center through the streets of Bushwick. Three blocks before we reach the center, we are greeted by bees and the stench of beer and compost. Although this center has been like my second home for the past 10 years, I have kept it mostly a secret. I usually did this work after school, except for Mondays, when I would go early to bring my mom breakfast and supplies like gloves, tape, and beer boxes.
One morning in sixth grade, beer spilled on my school uniform and backpack at the recycling center. The smell followed me into the classroom. A chain reaction of “Eww” erupted from the students. I joined in, saying “Eww” too and fanning my face with my hand, trying to play it off. My cheeks got red and I hoped no one noticed. Then I sprayed myself with vanilla perfume. From that day on, I’d bring spare clothes so my uniform wouldn’t smell.
My mom often asked me, in Spanish, “Why don’t you bring your friends here?” I smiled and said, “No lo sé.’’(I do not know.) But I couldn’t bear the idea of my friends knowing our family lived off other people’s garbage. I felt guilty for being embarrassed, but I couldn’t help it.
Eighth grade was even more financially stressful for my family, because I had to pay senior dues—about $400. My parents argued late into the night about who pays which bills and expenses. But at school, I still hid from my amigas how poor we were and what my family did for their income. My friends would go out to eat, but I couldn’t afford to do that. I’d say, “I am too good for fast food,” and make excuses.
But these lies started wearing on me. I felt like I had to tell someone, so I chose my friend Kip. We were in the lunchroom, and I blurted, “My family collects cans for a living.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me! With those lies, you hurt our friendship,” she said. I felt so guilty. Before I had time to think it through, I suggested that she come with me to see the recycling center herself. Before we went there, she said, “No one can know what you told me. You were good to hide it. I would be ashamed too.” When she said that, everything around me went silent, and I had trouble breathing. Inside me, there was a battle raging. One part of me regretted telling her, and the other felt some relief to share my secret.
After school, Kip and I ran together to the recycling center. As we got closer, the smell of beer got stronger, and she started making gagging sounds. I questioned whether taking her was a good idea. We made it there and when I saw my mom, a smile appeared on my face. But then Kip started freaking out about bees and flies near her. She started screaming curses in Spanish as she flailed her arms at the bugs.
The recycling center is an organized place, but the sticky beer and soda left over in the cans attracts bugs. There are 12 containers around the perimeter housing the clear bags of cans that are organized by brand. It is crowded with people sorting cans and bottles, buzzing with activity.
Kip began screaming and running in circles to try to get away from the bees. I told her to ignore them and they wouldn’t bother her, but she didn’t listen. Other workers stopped to stare at her and asked each other, “Is she OK?” I could tell my mom was mad at me. My friend was causing a scene, and it was unprofessional.
I quickly pulled her outside before my mom could say anything. When she finally stopped screaming I was about to say, “That was super uncool of you to embarrass me,” when she said, “This place is trash. I am so happy I don’t have to live like these people.” I regretted bringing her. “I am sorry for bringing you here. You should just go home. Can you forgive me?” She smiled and said, “I loved the adventure! But I’m going to go now. Are you coming?” I was angry at her but still felt the pressure to fit in and not lose her as a friend. We didn’t talk on the way home.
But I lost her as a friend anyway. She avoided me after that. I never asked her why she was avoiding me, because I was scared of the truth. I don’t think she ever told anyone, because she didn’t want people to think she had a friend whose parents worked recycling bottles. It hurt that I had finally trusted a friend and she reacted so horribly.
When I got to high school, the secret was still in hiding. Even though I had a lot of friends and was a social butterfly, I was not ready to trust someone else. Then, in the summer before my senior year, I took a college essay course at Long Island University in Brooklyn. The essay prompt was: “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
I chose to write about the impact my neighborhood’s gentrification had on me, and how that led me to volunteer with officials in my community who were trying to fight it. At the end, there was just one sentence about can collecting. One day after class, my teacher asked me to schedule a one-on-one with him during lunch to discuss my essay draft.
“Your story has potential; however, it is not about personal growth. How about you tell me about the can collecting?” So, once again, I was faced with sharing my secret. But he was my teacher and I trusted him, so I rewrote the essay. Two days later, I found out that we were expected to read our essays out loud after lunch, but I was ashamed for my peers to know. As I headed down to the cafeteria, I met up with a friend, Mason, whom I always have lunch with. I was less talkative, and Mason caught on that I had something on my mind. We sat down, and he asked me what was wrong. I told him I was embarrassed about my family’s story and wasn’t sure if it was significant.
“Every struggle makes us who we are. Talking to her was the first step in a process of shedding your shame,” said Mason. “My aunt actually collects bottles and cans too, and you should be proud that your family is hustling to take care of their loved ones.” Then we hugged and I cried. This was what I needed to hear, and I felt like I could finally breathe after all those years of hiding a part of myself.
When we got back to class. I felt ready to read my draft out loud. But rather than me reading the whole thing, I asked if we could do it popcorn style, with other students reading sections of it. We sat down in a small circle. I was so sweaty, and scared about how they would react. As they read, they brought my story to life. After, I shared that I hadn’t told anyone about this.
The other students were so supportive! They said things like: “Each of our stories is unique to our experience and shapes us.” “Your being ashamed only hurts you.” “Accept your home and community, because they are your true family.”
Now, I am not ashamed to say that a sticky Heineken can holds enormous value. It is what feeds me every day and pays for my clothes. It unites my family and helps me understand the value of hard work. It represents my family’s strong values and their dreams for me of getting the opportunity to go to college and lead a stable life.
Now, when people ask me what my parents do for a living, I tell them not with embarrassment or shame, but with pride. My parents are can collectors. Because my friend is right; my family is hustling to take care of their loved ones. That is something to be admired.