About a month after meeting my new 55-year-old housemate, Liz, I started calling her “Mamacita.” I picked the nickname up from her Wi-Fi username, SF Mamacita. I thought it would help endear me to Liz and her 14-year-old daughter, Bella.
I found both through Liz’s Craigslist ad, posted in October 2015. She was advertising a room in her two-bedroom apartment, located two blocks from the 24th Street BART station. Liz and Bella had been living in the apartment since 1992, but the cost of living had forced mother and daughter to sleep in the same bedroom while subletting the spare. Her most strident demand was, “no sleepovers, please.” I was their fifth housemate and she didn’t want random guys coming back to the apartment — an experience she wanted to forget.
She explained the arrangement: I would stay for three months, and could then sublet month to month. That’s fine, I thought. By that time, my life in San Francisco would be more settled. I could be more selective about where to rent next, and I’d move out and live a normal twenty-something life with other people my age.
I had recently finished grad school at Stanford. I was moving to San Francisco because I was bored with living and working in Palo Alto, and I decided the 80-minute door-to-door commute, a $190 monthly Caltrain pass and higher rent would be worth it for life in the city. I chose the Mission for its proximity to BART and Caltrain, along with its food and culture. But I worked in journalism, so my salary could not compete with those of engineers. I was 25 years old
I ended up staying for 22 months, and only left because I was moving out of the Bay Area. Even then, it was a special familia that was difficult to let go of. My time with Liz and her daughter was a fascinating immersion into their home life, Mexican-American culture and the freewheeling Bay Area lifestyle, which couldn’t be any more different than the conservative Vietnamese and Catholic environment I grew up with in North Carolina.
If you’ve done the math, you know that Liz got pregnant at 40. She says it was an accident, but she also tells me it was the greatest gift of her life. The guy was uninterested in being involved, so Liz raised Bella on her own. Early on, Thomas, a gay housemate, stepped in to help raise Bella. I moved in after Thomas — then 43 — moved to Bakersfield to be closer to his sick mother. Thomas and his girls see each other over holidays and birthdays, and he is there for special moments like the father-daughter dance at Bella’s quinceañera. “Daddy,” I hear her say when she calls him for a near daily phone chat.
I feel a mix of blame and anger about my role in gentrifying the Mission. My peers and I played a part in driving up the rent prices, and contributed to Thomas’s calculation that moving in with his sick mom made financial sense. The decision meant Bella lost her dad at a time when she was still navigating high school.
Liz and her daughter have lived through San Francisco’s changing economy ever since 1989, when Liz packed her bags and moved from Chicago to San Francisco. She arrived after the earthquake and rent was cheap. She worked as a waitress and bartender for 11 years, and says back then, she had more working-class friends in the neighborhood. Now, they have all moved to more affordable places on the fringes of the Bay Area. “Change,” she says “is inevitable, but right now, it’s happening too fast.”
Through the years, Liz inched her way up the career ladder. While I lived with her, she was working two jobs. As a community coordinator at Bryant Elementary, Liz worked to build strong relations between the school and the families at the low-income school in the Mission. The funds for her grant position ended in January, so she is currently looking for a full-time position. In the meantime, she is holding down her part-time job as a Spanish translator.
Though Liz told me that I’ve been her “best housemate ever,” I truly felt like the lucky one. I’ve been the guest to the most authentic Mexican dinner table in the city, a beneficiary of Liz’s wisdom on dating, spectator to a roller coaster of mother-daughter moments, and ever more mindful about the culture and privilege that I come from.
On some Saturday mornings, I woke up to a screaming match between mother and daughter as Bella put up a fight over going to her year-long college-prep program. But they always quickly made up with a round of “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” These heartfelt displays were unfamiliar to me, because my Vietnamese family is much more reserved in our affection.
Growing up, I gleaned from American TV shows that American families get sentimentally verbose (e.g., Lizzie McGuire). But for my two brothers and me, we sensed love not in verbal affirmations, but in the way my mother would spend hours cooking phở or when my father would heat up the car in the winter before driving us to school. If I have kids, I’d like to try mirroring more of Liz’s affection towards her daughter.
I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and my family was involved with the Vietnamese community, centered around the Catholic church. I was a Sunday school teacher. But during college, I struggled a lot with the faith, and decided to leave it after my sophomore year. Liz was also raised Catholic and she moved away from Chicago, in part, to get away from the freezing winters — but also to escape the traditional expectations of her Catholic and Mexican family.
Neither marriage nor children appealed to her. But at 40 and pregnant, she accepted what life had surprised her with. I’ve learned from my familia the many possibilities beyond traditional two-parent families. Liz is the primary caretaker of Bella, but Thomas provides a loving dose of emotional support.
Liz juggled listening to me and Bella talk about our dating dramas, and she’s given advice suitable for our 10-year age gap. As it turned out, Bella and I started relationships around the same time — hers from high school, mine plucked from three dating apps. Both got rocky, ended and then picked back up around the same time. Thank God, with Liz’s assurances, both relationships ended again — because “you girls deserve better,” she said.
In my Mission home, I finally found a family. Although I attended college and grad school in the Bay Area and had various friend groups, relationships were hard to keep. In my relationship with Bella, I offered to help with homework and apply my 10 additional years of wisdom to her teenage problems. In my relationship with Liz, I soaked in her wisdom and admired how she lived so generously and graciously, despite the increasing economic stress. When I first met Liz, I was a ball of anxiety, as I had recently graduated with loans to pay and ambitions to climb the career ladder and keep up with my college peers. I’m grateful for making an “adult” friend in Liz, something which is elusive in the never-never land of San Francisco. Her life example and presence were a constant reminder to prioritize what truly mattered.
My time living in the Mission has also helped me to become more aware of the struggles facing the Latino community and the challenges for undocumented immigrants. My family immigrated from Vietnam through a program sponsored by the U.S. government, which felt indebted to my father’s service in the Vietnam War and his subsequent five-year imprisonment in a Communist work camp. Thousands of Vietnamese veterans and their families arrived in the 1990s immigration wave through this program. My aunt’s family also lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia for seven years before being able to immigrate to the United States. As a result of our own story, I grew up conditioned to think about undocumented immigrants with some resentment. But moving to the Mission district gave me a new perspective.
Liz and Bella shared anecdotes about the hardships of undocumented high school students who have a difficult time qualifying for financial aid in college, and the parents from Liz’s school who don’t accept food stamps and health insurance for their U.S. born children because they are afraid of the repercussions.
On election night, when Trump stunned the world, I drifted back to the apartment after moping around at a hipster bar in the Mission until 1 a.m. I found Liz in front of the TV, and saw her weeping for the first time. It didn’t hit me until then how terrifying Trump’s words were. As an Asian-American, his venomous language targeted at Mexican “rapists” and “bad hombres” didn’t really sting, and I dismissed his downhill candidacy. But with Mamacita weeping on my shoulder, I came to grips with the impending reality for other minorities. I cried with her.
One time, late at night, I saw a man digging through our recycling for cans and bottles. I started talking to him in my broken Spanish. He could turn these in for $0.05 and $0.10 each. The Vietnamese community in Charlotte has low-income immigrants as well, but the struggles facing these groups are vastly different. In the suburbs of Charlotte, you can avoid seeing poverty as you drive from home to school to strip mall. In San Francisco, I see it in my own alley.
After 22 months living with mother and daughter, I decided to return to Charlotte. I was feeling the financial pinch of living in San Francisco and saw the economic burden of my Mission household, and I knew that North Carolina offered a much more affordable lifestyle. Additionally, in the post-election climate, I also felt the tug to work as a journalist in a more conservative part of America, and to tell the stories about my hometown. I recently moved back in with my family, but I’ll be forever grateful to Mamacita and Bella for welcoming me into their familia, and for the incredible privilege to experience a new culture in my own American backyard.