¡hola papi!

‘I Lie About My Family’s Wealth’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

Long story short, I’m embarrassed about where I’m from, and I think it’s affecting my ability to be intimate with someone. I’ve been painting a somewhat intricate story for people (both friends and lovers) of where I come from, embellishing details, and making my upbringing sound more impressive than it actually was. I’ve lied about this ever since my teens to people I thought were wealthier or had more impressive backgrounds. 

I tell people my parents have better careers than they do, that we go skiing and do interesting, “elitist” things when in reality I am just from a run-of-the-mill, lower-middle-class, loving home. Nothing about my background should be cause for pity, but I still can’t help painting a not-entirely-true picture of who I am to others. 

I can get deep and vulnerable with my close friends and potential romantic partners on almost all topics except this one that I constantly skirt around. I’m getting closer to drawing the conclusion this is a major reason why I haven’t been in a proper relationship yet (I’m 29). Again, it sounds ridiculous as I write this, but it feels like I’m swinging between an inferiority/superiority complex. I’ve been very lucky and have built a fantastic life. I’m well on the path to achieving my aspirations for life. Why can’t I be happy with who I am today and how far I’ve come? 

Would love your thoughts. 

Class Self-Conscious

Hey there, Class!

Oh, you’re pretending to be from a wealthier family? As a Brooklynite, that’s actually refreshing to my ears. I’ve met far too many trust-fund babies who pretend their parents were working class. Sure, Archibald. You went to Dartmouth and you work in music journalism and live in a brownstone, but your old man taught you how to fish and took you hunting all the time.

Hunting for what? Pangolin meat in Bhutan?

I clearly have some baggage around this, but despite my best efforts this column is about you, not me. So I guess we’ll talk about you.

What you’re describing, Class, is far more common than most people would probably admit. It seems to me that, more and more, people are dissatisfied with their backgrounds. They want interesting, they want better, they want to impress, to dazzle, to awe people with their origin stories.

Historically, this has looked more like what you’re doing than what “Archibald of Fort Greene” is doing. People want to seem relatable to the social circle they aspire to, and those aspirations have often included wealth, luxury, comfort, and opulence. If you don’t have those things, then you want to come off as close as possible to at least reference a proximity to them.

I think, for example, of my abuelos, who were poor and brown but touted a mysterious ancestor from Spain who was rich beyond imagination. He lost the family fortune when he married a nonwhite person. ¡Qué lástima! All that money we were supposed to have, am I right?

Even though they quite obviously didn’t have wealth or whiteness, they nonetheless pointed to an imagined pedigree that, in their minds, anointed their present status with a certain dignity. “Sure, we’re poor. But we’re not supposed to be.” It attributes poverty to a kind of bureaucratic error. It assures, “They’re not actually better than us.”

This behavior makes sense in the context of a near ubiquitous power structure that equates class to morality — if you’re poor, you’re lazy — and whiteness to superiority. It also explains the reverse, which sees people putting emphasis on more humble beginnings, on ancestors who came from nothing, even if they themselves live in comfort.

The idea is to put yourself in public conversation with a legacy, to provide a compelling narrative that culminates in you. Politicians do this a lot, but so do essayists on Twitter. It’s an attempt to wear your bonafides on your sleeve. Both cases are exercises in branding. Both are attempts at announcing, “I’m interesting, and I’m one of you.”

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being proud of where you come from, especially in the context of a world that has deliberately minimized and outright suppressed certain histories and identities. It’s great, I think, to be proud of where you come from and to celebrate survival against the odds.

But the reality is that all this peacocking is mostly done for people who aren’t even part of your material community. It’s boiling one’s ancestry down to its most salacious parts to win over people you don’t know. Just look at the type of ancestors people prefer to claim: kings, nobles, revolutionaries, and so on. It’s rare to hear people boast of cobblers or bakers or builders, the people just trying to get by and make it through life as best they can, working with whatever hand they were dealt, even if the bulk of human heritage is built on such backs.

It’s even worse on social media, which encourages us to think of ourselves as a collection of stringent identities rather than as fluid human beings. Online or off, there’s an emphasis, it seems, on presenting various, easily identifiable signifiers in order to announce to others, “This is me.” It’s not new. It’s not interesting. I don’t care for it.

I like the way you tied this phenomenon in with vulnerability. That’s true, isn’t it? We want to be known, yes, but we want to tailor ourselves to accommodate a specific flavor of knownness. We seek out and claim a certain history not to better understand ourselves, but to customize the public project of ourselves. The facts, as you illustrate in your case, can be manipulated toward that end.

It points to a certain deficiency in your sense of self. You think you’re not enough. You think that if you’re honest about yourself, people won’t like you as much. Of course real connection frightens you — why would you let someone inside just for them to get, in your opinion, an unflattering view of you? It can feel better, feel more comfortable, to give people a curated, edited version of yourself. It can feel better to brag about facets of your life that aren’t entirely accurate, like your socioeconomic class growing up.

But the truth is, anyone who would exclude you for such things is not worth knowing, and anyone who would be genuinely impressed by such things is impossibly dull. I would challenge you here to embrace radical acceptance. On your next date, try, for example, telling the flat-out truth without any frills.

It might just feel more exciting than fibbing. There’s nothing more boring, after all, than being bored with yourself.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published on November 8, 2022.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘I’m Embarrassed by Where I Come From’