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Jonathan Menjivar Rewrites His Story on Class

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Does having money make you a classhole? And what does that even mean? Producer, reporter, and Classy podcast host Jonathan Menjivar joins Amy and Rebecca as they tackle the awkward topic of class, how it butts into the many facets of our lives and our identities, and how we can come to terms with our status — even when it changes how we perceive ourselves.

Spending money on yourself is a thing that for me, just in general, I feel guilty about. You know, like a lot of immigrant children, my parents were sacrificing stuff and not having nice things themselves so that we could have stuff. So there is a real question of, What right do I have to buy a new pair of jeans when my old pair hasn’t worn out yet?

But also, I think this is the life that my parents wanted for me. You know, they wanted me to have whatever I wanted.

Jonathan Menjivar

Make sure to check out Jonathan’s Guide to Being “Classy”.

An Edited Transcript of Our Convo:

Rebecca Lehrer: You’re listening to The Mash-Up Americans.

Amy S. Choi: Hey, I’m Amy Choi.

Rebecca Lehrer: And I’m Rebecca Lehrer, and we are the Mash-Up Americans. And today we’re talking about one of our more complicated identities, class.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca Lehrer: Mm-hmm. Amy, this is something that we’ve talked about a lot because in so many mashup families, class identities are all over the place.

Amy S. Choi: All over the place. All over the place.

Rebecca Lehrer: It’s a mashup that is sometimes hard to figure out how to navigate because we don’t talk about it well.

Amy S. Choi: Yeah. And also because it changes so much and it can change in a lifetime or it can change in a generation.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yep.

Amy S. Choi: I’ve been thinking a lot about mine, especially since last year we did so much work in our grief collected project and thinking about ancestral trauma and what gets passed down to us in all the ways across generations, and I started just thinking more and more about the ups and downs of my family’s finances and class. I grew up upper middle class on the north shore of Chicago, surrounded by a lot of wealth, but my parents didn’t make their money as professionals the way that everybody else’s parents did. Before they immigrated to the US, my dad was an engineer and my mom was a nurse and they thought that they’d work in fields of medicine and engineering, but what ended up happening is that they owned a convenience store. It was attached to a laundromat. This is sounding very Korean American in the Oasis Mobile Home Park, which at the time, was the biggest mobile home park in the Midwest. And so my childhood was a lot of shuttling between a trailer park where I’d help my parents make six packs of beer on the weekends in one of the fanciest and wealthiest neighborhoods in the whole country. And it’s kind of a mind fuck.

Rebecca Lehrer: Right. But did your parents ever talk about class? Was it acknowledged, the differences between the two places?

Amy S. Choi: Rebecca, do you want to hazard a guess?

Rebecca Lehrer: I’m assuming nobody really talked about it, but it’s not just your parents. Also the wealthy neighborhood you were in, nobody’s acknowledging it either.

Amy S. Choi: No. I think it’s also just part of it with our family in particular, and I think a lot of immigrant families, even if you made money but you didn’t make it in the way that you thought you were going to make it or you intended to make it for what you were trained for because of what immigration does to your job prospects, there was so much shame tied into that. And so we never talked about the mobile home park and then living in Glenco, but when I was there on the weekends and I’d start talking to other kids because that’s what kids do, they wouldn’t want me playing with the other kids in the trailer park. That was just not a thing. And I think it was also, again, just going back another generation. My dad grew up in a super wealthy family in Pyongyang before the war, and then he refugeed south during the war. He was eight or nine, and then living in a refugee camp in one of the little islands off the south end of South Korea, just Korea at the time. And then he grew up kind of like dirt poor in Seoul as a refugee. But he always has the posture of a wealthy person.

Rebecca Lehrer: Mm-hmm.

Amy S. Choi: Just the way that people that have infinite money walk through the world. And my mom was the daughter of a school teacher and there were five daughters in the family and she was very solidly middle class, but because they both went through the war, they have that war scarcity, the reason that we always have cash on hand and 12 crates of beans or whatever, that’s in all of us, I think.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yep. Mm-hmm. 

Amy S. Choi: And that definitely followed them and haunted them even today. They would never consider themselves to be as wealthy or as secure as they are because they had to survive with the mindset of poor post-war people.

Rebecca Lehrer: Mm-hmm.

Amy S. Choi: That’s who they became.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. And also it’s just these shifting fortunes and also again, the shaping of identity at certain periods that may, how you think of yourself in a certain moment versus in a later moment in time or even going to private school in Los Angeles, all my friends were just, their moms and dads were professionals, and it was fancy, but I didn’t realize how fancy it was in some respect until later when I left the space, I was like, oh, people in Los Angeles, similar to where you were like, no, this is one of the fanciest suburbs in the whole country. There’s so much context for all of this stuff that you don’t know when you’re living in it.

Amy S. Choi: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: And because your parents or grandparents or all of us have this tradition in us, the shifting fortunes and the real fear that the fortunes might shift again, and we live in a country that doesn’t really acknowledge class, because you’re just supposed to become rich by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and just being a really good American.

Amy S. Choi: Right. You don’t really exist until you have money.

Rebecca Lehrer: Otherwise you’ve really done something wrong.

Amy S. Choi: Right.

Rebecca Lehrer: It’s so interesting how class can be so much of our identity and has, as we said, it shifts over time and we’re rewriting the story of ourselves and our class position and what class means to us and what it tells other people about ourselves or what we think it says about us, which brings us to our guest, Jonathan Menjivar. He’s a journalist, podcaster, and producer, and you’ve heard his work everywhere from This American Life to Fresh Air with Terry Gross. We had him and his lovely wife, Hillary Frank, on talking about their mashup marriage years ago. Jonathan is a Salvadoran Angelino like me, and this summer he released a beautiful series called Classy, where he interrogates whether or not he is a class-hole and what it means to be one, and what it means when your class identity starts shifting and who you become.

Amy S. Choi: Well, so Jonathan, first of all, it is so nice to see your face. I don’t think we’ve seen you in, well, definitely not in the pandemic, but years.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yes.

Amy S. Choi: You and Hillary were on our show a long time ago.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, a long time ago.

Jonathan Menjivar: A long time ago. Yeah. I think that’s maybe the last time we saw each other other than social media.

Rebecca Lehrer: Totally.

Amy S. Choi: Oh my God, it’s too much. Well, this is also why I wish to evaporate from this earth and all social media, except that I love when Instagram, I can see your fit checks.

Jonathan Menjivar: Right.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh yeah.

Amy S. Choi: It’s so great.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, I love, I love. Or know whose birthday it is.

Amy S. Choi: Uh-huh.

Rebecca Lehrer: All the good stuff.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah.

Amy S. Choi: It’s so cute. I want to start off because I hope that all of our listeners have also gotten a chance to listen to Classy, and if not, you definitely will want to after this, but the tagline for the show is classy, it’s a show about the chasms between us that are really hard to talk about but are too big to ignore, and I love that and I love hearing you say that at the top of every episode because I just think our whole mode of being as The Mash-Up, Americans, and also as storytellers and journalists, reporters is that we’re just always trying to bridge those chasms.

Jonathan Menjivar: Mm-hmm.

Amy S. Choi: And the way that we do that is just by listening and by asking these big complicated questions. And I’m so grateful that you were the one to tackle this in this way because it feels so, so special, and so congratulations, Jonathan.

Jonathan Menjivar: Oh, thank you so much. That’s really nice of you to say. Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: You’re welcome

Rebecca Lehrer: Also, it’s true.

Amy S. Choi: It’s true.

Rebecca Lehrer: And as my dad would say, it has the added benefit of being true.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca Lehrer: We’ve been working a lot with progressive organizers in the last several years, and one of the things that they taught us is about being agitated and being agitators and how it’s a good thing, right?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: They kept being like, you guys are agitators. And I was like, that’s rude. And then they said, “No, it means that you’re pushing something forward.”

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: And what it has taught me is that when I listen to something or I read something to understand why in my body it makes me feel uncomfortable, and this has so many moments, but in the best possible way where I’m like, oh, yeah, I’m a class-hole, but there’s this agitation that is because I’m seeing truth. Thank you for doing that. Now I get to agitate with you, so that’s very exciting.

Jonathan Menjivar: Fantastic. Yeah, yeah. The thing you said, this never made it into formal language in the show, but one of the things we were thinking a lot about when we were looking for stories and talking about what is this show exactly, is that these feelings of class guilt or ickiness or whatever, however you want to describe it, they happen when you’re bumping up against the borders of class. If you exist in your world, everybody’s like you, you don’t even have to think about it other than being like, maybe I’d like to make some more money. But for instance, I talked to my dad. This tape didn’t make it into the show, but I was just telling him even what the show was and asking him, what are your feelings about class? And he was like, wait, what? He didn’t even get the question because it’s not a thing that I think he has to think about much. In his world, he’s an immigrant who got a working class job and then made it.

He’s got a nice house in the desert. He’s got a wife who’s a teacher, but he’s not running in circles and encountering things that make him feel bad or question his class position at all, really.

Amy S. Choi: Right. Well, what’s super interesting I thought is that, and I was screen texting Rebecca about this throughout all of my listening, which was just that one of the central premises of your approach to the question of class is a discomfort or guilt of understanding the immorality of being rich, and just that that is kind of culturally pervasive. You talk about Scrooge McDuck or the idea that there are no good millionaires or billionaires or what should you do with this money, and not wanting to be a class-hole. And it took me a minute to figure out why this felt odd to me, and I was just like, oh, it’s because literally everything about my upbringing as a first generation Korean American is that for us and for our family and for our community, for Korean Americans in the eighties, everything was about attainment of money and status, and then that meant that you were good. Not that being rich made you an asshole.

Jonathan Menjivar: Right, right, right, right.

Amy S. Choi: In my mind, it was like, no. Getting money is quite literally everything.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: And so now, having gone into a different class as my parents, similarly to how you have, but now I live in a creative class or whatever. I’m a shitty bourgeois person that lives in Brooklyn, but I make significantly less money than my parents ever did. We have less assets than I ever grew up with, and somehow I made that choice.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: I think I did something wrong. I don’t know, but it was wild to realize that my of whole upbringing was oppositional to maybe what yours was as you were growing up and into this story.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah. That’s super interesting to think about. I think my parents always wanted me to do well. They certainly wanted money for me. They wanted me to have a job where I wouldn’t have to struggle the way they were.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Menjivar: Both paying the bills, but also more, I think the thing I heard most often is go to school so that you can get a job so you don’t have to work like me. And that meant working physically. My parents were divorced. I grew up mostly with my mom. I would spend weekends with my dad, but still it was about so that you don’t have to have this damage to your body standing on a concrete floor all day or just lifting things. My mom drove a forklift for a long time. My stepdad was a truck driver for a while. And so it was more about just get out so that you don’t have this physical damage to your body. But yeah, the money thing, it’s interesting. The money thing is another thing that didn’t make it into the show, but while we were making the show, my dad came out to visit my house for the first time and I was really conflicted about it and uncertain how to feel. He’s on his third house, he has a house with pillars on the inside it’s so big.

But he had to move out to the desert to get that house, and he lives halfway between LA and Vegas. I have a pretty modest house, but in a fancy suburb in New Jersey, and we’ve had some renovations and there’s stuff that’s like you’re saying, bougie asshole, that is this house is the embodiment of that.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Menjivar: And I was feeling guilty going into that, showing him the house and thinking about how do I justify this stuff. And he just has none of that. He was like, why are you even asking this question? You should feel super proud of all of this, and I don’t feel anything weird about the difference between you and me based on this.

Rebecca Lehrer: He also probably was like, why don’t you have more pillars?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yes.

Rebecca Lehrer: Is this even fancy? You spent this much money to live here? I have a much nicer house.

Amy S. Choi: With pillars.

Rebecca Lehrer: You made your choice.

Jonathan Menjivar: No kidding. He was like, you have one and a half bathrooms, and all of the rooms are this dinky like, what the hell?

Rebecca Lehrer:

How much is this house?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, for sure.

Amy S. Choi: I think the other question here though is that clearly you feel, we have so many things that we can all feel guilty about, Jonathan, but clearly you feel guilty about enjoying your renovations or your wardrobe, but what do you think would make you feel better about having that money or entering into a different class? Would it have been more morals to not buy this season’s cardigan?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah.

Amy S. Choi: What are you supposed to do with it?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah. Spending money on yourself is a thing that, for me, just in general, I feel guilty about. Like a lot of immigrant children, my parents were sacrificing stuff and not having nice things themselves so that we could have stuff. There is a real question of just what right do I have to buy a new pair of jeans when my old pair hasn’t worn out yet?

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Menjivar: Other than that, nobody wears skinny jeans anymore. And what the hell-

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, you can wear skinny jeans, Jonathan.

Jonathan Menjivar: I know. The low rise, I can’t believe how low I used to wear…

Rebecca Lehrer: No, I’m sorry to those people, but I’m still not doing it.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: You know what, the high rise is meant for a grownup’s body. Okay.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: I am not Britney Spears in 1996. Okay.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: Sorry to this man, but no.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah. Yeah. But also I think this is the life that my parents wanted for me.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Menjivar: They wanted me to have whatever I wanted. I think a lot of it is way beyond parents. A lot of it, I’m an eighties kid and my vision of why this stuff is bad is like every preppy eighties villain.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca Lehrer: 100%. It’s like Andrew McCarthy just over and over.

Amy S. Choi: Blaine.

Rebecca Lehrer: Blaine.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah. To be a yuppie is one of my worst fears, but arguably I totally am. I don’t think we’re using that word anymore, but all of this stuff, a lot of my taste. Even down to wearing some pretty preppy clothes sometimes.

Rebecca Lehrer: Well, I’m literally wearing a button up with the collar popped right now, but sometimes-

Jonathan Menjivar: It looks fantastic.

Rebecca Lehrer: I feel really great about it and it’s very confusing.

Jonathan Menjivar: Uh-huh.

Rebecca Lehrer: But Jonathan, how do you think you define guilt for yourself?

Jonathan Menjivar: How do I define guilt?

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah.

Jonathan Menjivar: I mean, I guess related to class and how we thought about it in this show, we never used the phrase income inequality in the show at all, but it’s kind of a given that that’s what we are talking about. There’s just an acknowledgement that some of us have things and some of us don’t, and there’s a lot of overwhelming feelings that go with that. Some of that is warranted, I think. Some of it’s not, and I think that’s the thing that it turns out that the show ended up being a lot about is just really staring at that and talking about just where does this come from and how much of it is real and how much of it is things we make up in our head. So much of this stuff is stories we are telling ourselves, at least for someone in my position, I think. For someone of a lower class, the sort of made upness of it is there are very real issues that people are facing.

Rebecca Lehrer: Well, I think especially when you can become a bridge or you have certain moments where you’re able to be the kind of truth teller of some of it, it’s true when you can tell people, oh no, I’ve been there. Trust me, everyone’s making it up. You think that they know what that almond syrup thing on the menu is, but they also don’t. Or they read books at home and are kind of preparing in their own way or we’re sent to a school to learn that stuff.

Amy S. Choi: It was interesting actually though, speaking of fancy schools and stuff and signifiers, is that one detail that you share in Classy is that when somebody asks the question of where you went to school, it’s an immediate trigger for you, and it’s like the chip on your shoulder, just more comes chipping off.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: I want to know how does that feeling sit in relationship to the guilt you feel for having achieved a lot and having made money and living your fancy New Jersey suburban life?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah. I mean, I think that is one of those clubs that I don’t belong to. That chip comes from the experience of having said one time when somebody asked, where’d you go to school? And I said, Cal State Fullerton, and then people’s eyes just go to the ground. And they don’t know what to say, at least some people.

Amy S. Choi: What fucking assholes.

Jonathan Menjivar: But I don’t blame them though because, and then I’ve seen the other thing happen where people have a shared school that they went to. God, what’s the school in Ohio that so many people in radio have gone to?

Rebecca Lehrer: Oberlin.

Jonathan Menjivar: Oberlin, yes.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah. When people bring up Oberlin, I have seen so many people in our radio podcast community, they’re just there again.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Jonathan Menjivar: And it just feels shitty. It feels shitty to not be a part of that club. At the same time, there is a way in which my version of saying I went to a state school, I commuted there every day, I lived at home. It’s both pathetic and also a little bit of a badge of honor.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Menjivar: But even that, I’m just like, man, why am I pretending like this struggle that I had or the story that I tell about my college existence that that somehow gives me something?

Amy S. Choi: Do you feel the opposite feeling? Or what does it feel like when you’re in a crowd or a work or an event like this where people are kind of sussing each other out and you’re like, oh yeah. Well, I worked at This American Life and I worked with Terry Gross and I did… Does it give you that Oberlin feeling?

Jonathan Menjivar: I guess it does, although I pull the classic kind of the way people talk about, I went to a school in Boston instead of saying Harvard. Yeah. When I worked at This American Life, I used to say, yeah, I work at this radio show. It’s called This American Life. And people are like, of course I know what that is. Stop pretending. Yeah. Working at those places, to me, as much as that was the only thing I ever wanted to do, it sort of felt like showing off the clothing I was wearing or something.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Menjivar: I both loved the cachet of it and felt guilty about it, for sure. Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: There’s something that we think about a lot and that I hear you wrestling with throughout all of this, which is just all the different kinds of classes that there are, right?

Jonathan Menjivar: Mm-hmm.

Amy S. Choi: There’s actual wealth and social class, economic class, and then there’s an intellectual class and there’s creative class, and then there’s not just when you have money, but new money class or old money class or what… Right now as a closed horse, the past year of quiet luxury being the epitome of what class is now or now, the shit that I get fed on Instagram is because I like nails, I like nail art. I’ll get like, oh, these are the new quiet luxury colors. And it’s like some hideous top for your fingers, but what does that mean? And also now you occupy so many of these classes and you are belonging and you create stuff that other people in the intellectual and creative classes are listening to and talking about and are part of. Does that make you feel more like you belong?

Jonathan Menjivar: I guess so, yeah. It’s taken me a long time to feel like I belong somehow. Yeah. Because I really did not feel for a long time working in some of the places in media that I have worked that I belonged and that I knew what I was doing at all. And I mean, in some ways it really is. Making this show is the first time I have felt 100% confident in the thing that I’m doing. It’s a little bit of an exaggeration for sure, but having a thing that I’m running, and a lot of it is my creative vision has kind of forced me into that. But even that, sometimes I go back on that and I’m just like, why is the thing that the first time that I am in the press at all and my photos out there and stuff is me laying out my sad, badass working class story? Why can’t it just be a breaking investigative podcast or something? There are all kinds-

Amy S. Choi: Is this how you got to be queen for a day, Jonathan?

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh yeah. Jonathan’s queen for a day.

Amy S. Choi: Jonathan is queen for a day.

Rebecca Lehrer: But let’s hope there’s less secrets.

Jonathan Menjivar: I’m queen for a day.

Rebecca Lehrer: Jonathan, let’s not tell Hillary you’re surprised there’s a child somewhere. But that question then, Jonathan, first of all, as we’ve been joking, we’re over the discourse. Not everything needs to be discourse, but I think in here, things are more complicated and the internet doesn’t allow that or the way that we consume information.

Jonathan Menjivar: For sure.

Rebecca Lehrer: And also over your lifetime, you evolve and you’re still made up of the stuff that you grew up with. And so in some ways you’re trying to say, no, this is still me. I’m made of this stuff.

Jonathan Menjivar: Right.

Rebecca Lehrer: It’s in my DNA and your brain, whatever, it’s constantly being made anew or things are constantly happening. That’s science, everybody.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: But I think that there’s a way in which America likes to place very binary ideas about identity and who you are on all of us, right?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: It’s like you’re black or you’re white and you’re like, well, we’re kind of a lot of other things.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: Or you’re poor or you’re rich, and actually you might have gone from brown to white in the course of your lifetime. In the way that America currently understands, understands is a really generous word for America. The way America currently approaches what whiteness is or what any of these things are is my dad as a 70-year-old Jewish son of immigrants was an immigrant kid, first gen kid, and now they’re like, oh, that old white man.

Jonathan Menjivar: Right, right.

Rebecca Lehrer: And that’s a very confusing life trajectory if that’s the only lens in which you’re seeing yourself. And I’m curious for you as you’re kind of navigating this, when you read the article about you, which queen for a day Jonathan, is how you’re seeing the way somebody else is telling your story versus how you’re wrestling with it just in your day-to-day life?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s been pretty fascinating to see. There have been descriptions of the show where people have said it’s about coming to terms with being okay with being upper class. And I’m like, wait, what? That’s the story that I’m telling? And then I had to be like, wait a minute. Yeah. I mean, I’m not upper class. I think I’m probably technically upper middle class, but I thought all along what I was saying was, I have all this shit that I carry around a working class kid, and I thought, that’s the story I’m telling. And it has been surprising both in the making of it and the reception of the show to understand that people see things differently than I do. Of course they do. Of course they do. We are telling our stories to ourselves based on our own experiences and who we were as children and all of that.

But I mean, I think you can hear me wrestling with that even in the very first episode, just yeah, thinking that I am working class and I call myself working class, and then I do stupid things to try and hold onto my working class cred. I don’t know if you can see, I haven’t been out in the sun a whole lot this summer, but I usually have a watch tan because my stepdad was a truck driver. He always had his left arm hanging out of the driver’s side door and had a serious, serious watch tan. That is a thing that I feel like I need to have. I am at the beach in a watch because I’m somehow trying to hold onto this working class identity that nobody really, until now, I don’t know. This is a secret thing that I’m only doing for me, I think.

Amy S. Choi: The watch tan though, when you say that, I see little baby Jonathan trying to figure out what it means to be a person in the world.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yep.

Rebecca Lehrer: Mm-hmm.

Amy S. Choi: And a person in the world is to be a man with a watch tan.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah. For sure.

Amy S. Choi: And I think we all have those, right? And what is so interesting when it comes to money, and not just money, but class, which I think we’re all saying are different things too, is that so much of what us as all of us being first generation in kind of different forms, all three of us here, is that the whole point is about transformation. The whole point is about more and bigger, and this sense of mobility that everybody says now is like, oh, does upward mobility exist in the US anymore? Is the American dream still alive?

Jonathan Menjivar: Mm-hmm.

Amy S. Choi: And so we’re all sitting here having kind of presumptively achieved some version of that and been successes, but then we’re left with being like, okay, well then if I am now this from that, then who am I?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah, yeah. For sure.

Amy S. Choi: Jonathan, you really went full naked vulnerability in this show.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: Can I ask a question for you then? Where do you feel most at home and the most relaxed and completely yourself, not putting on any kind of show?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah. I mean, God, at the risk of being a total wife guy, it’s here in this mixture of the two worlds that Hillary and I have built together.

Amy S. Choi: Aw.

Jonathan Menjivar: But yeah, see now you made that noise and I regret saying that. But yeah, just our house feels very comfortable to me, but I think it is still working class environments where I maybe feel like slipping into my old self feels very comfortable, where I just can feel most comfortable. There was a diner that my mom and I used to go to in Whittier, the town in California where I grew up. It was like a real working class space run by, I believe she was Filipina, a woman who just had this little diner, just very American breakfast. It was called The Bright Spot. And we’d go there and talk to this woman about, the conversations we were always having were about her kids and the things that they were achieving.

Rebecca Lehrer: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Menjivar: She had kids who had big aspirations and were off at college and doing big things. And so that place is gone. But it is places like that, I think, where I feel most like myself, but I don’t know, man. I’m also super uncomfortable sometimes. A few years ago I was at a party at my dad’s. It was just a big, I don’t even remember what event it was for, but it was a big Mexican kickback, and my dad’s married to a Mexican American woman and just posole and the taco guy and lots of drunk tios in the corner.

Rebecca Lehrer: It’s the dream.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah. A total dream, exactly where I want to be. But then I walk in with my guero self dressed a little fancy and I don’t know. And so there’s always a part of me that’s just like, oh, but they’re judging me in this other way.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca Lehrer: Or they just razz you. I feel like in that world, they’d be like, what are you doing, Jonathan? What’s this outfit? What are you doing, bud?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: A lot of razzing.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: Well, I’m curious too, because your kid goes to school by home, right? Local school, and you described a really beautiful mix of things and exposures there. Amy and I both, our kids are in elementary school, public elementary schools in the cities that we live in, and it’s a whole new social dynamic as a parent as well. And I’m wondering for you, what are some of the markers that when you’re meeting new people, especially let’s say at your kid’s school, you want them to see or think about you or if you have awareness of that?

Jonathan Menjivar: The markers that they’re looking to me?

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah.

Jonathan Menjivar: What I’m projecting?

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: Watchtan.

Rebecca Lehrer: Watch tan.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah. Watch tan.

Rebecca Lehrer: It’s a Rolex.

Jonathan Menjivar: No, no.

Amy S. Choi: But then you gotta take the Rolex off in order to see the tan.

Jonathan Menjivar: I’m actually not into watches. I wear cheap watches. I’m just wearing a Timex that I got at Target, but I could easily, I think I’m resisting because I could be a vintage watch guy. I could really see me being that.

Amy S. Choi: It’s right, it’s on brand, I feel.

Rebecca Lehrer: I think you’re right to avoid a thing that you know could be a thing. That’s how I feel about many. People are like, why don’t you do that? I’m like, because I know I’m not strong enough. Once I go in, I’ll never get out.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. For sure. Yeah. Vintage watch guy, that’s the thing I’m trying to project, even though I’m not actually into that. No, I think I want to project the thing that’s in my head, which is a super confusing version of down to earth working class guy, but also tapped in creative class person.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Menjivar: And so I think my interest in clothes is half that. Half really trying to be like, no, I’m super hip and I know what’s in and what I like about what’s in, and I’m going to wear things before the other suburban dads are wearing them.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, yeah.

Jonathan Menjivar: I like being that guy a little bit.

Amy S. Choi: Can I just say something?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: Is that all of these things that you hope to project? You are.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. Yeah. It’s true. If I saw you at drop off, I’d say, that’s a cool dude, and I’d like to be friends with him.

Amy S. Choi: Me too.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah. See, I don’t know. I don’t really feel like I’m… I guess it’s working. I guess it’s working. Yes, yes.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yes.

Jonathan Menjivar: It’s working.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yes. Well, the meat puppet, whatever you are, the stuff we’re wearing on the outside is working. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as a person who went to private school. In a way that was a stretch for my family, but now is very much not a choice I’m making for my kids, and so it’s opting out of a certain class system that I know actually is a very, I think about it a lot. Every time I’m doing some kind of bureaucratic nonsense with this huge public school system that I’m a part of, even though I’m having a spectacular educational experience for my kid in it, and I walk to school and it’s all the most delicious local community building things, and I love it. And it’s Spanish immersion, by the way. She read me a book in Spanish last night and I was like-

Jonathan Menjivar: Oh man, wow.

Rebecca Lehrer: This is the best. But it’s also something that I’m very aware of that when other friends who are opting into that other system, class system, I feel that’s where my chip is. I have a chip on my shoulder about it.

Jonathan Menjivar: I mean, the school thing though, that’s not just a personal choice and a reflection of that. I mean, I am a big believer in public school, and it’s a political thing.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yes.

Amy S. Choi: Yeah.

Jonathan Menjivar: If you have the means to send your kid to private school and there are clear advantages to that private school and you’re like, no, I believe in public education and the benefits that that’s going to bring to the rest of the community if my kid is in that system.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, yeah. Definitely a political choice.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: Mm-hmm.

Amy S. Choi: I have two more questions for today. I want to ask one more question about guilt, but also as we’ve talked so much about class, we’ve talked about money and about guilt and all these things, but I want to know why Classy is the name of the show and what does classy mean to you?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah. I mean, naming the show that was a deliberate jab in the eye of anyone who has ever used that word in the way that it’s traditionally meant to say that something is classy.

Amy S. Choi: Like a string of pearls in a white linen tablecloth?

Jonathan Menjivar: All of that shit.

Amy S. Choi: That kind of thing?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think-

Amy S. Choi: Rebecca is literally shaking her head with some distance from the microphone right now.

Rebecca Lehrer: No, when people would be like, I go to Cotillion, I was like, what the fuck words are you even saying to me?

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: Get out of here, fascist.

Jonathan Menjivar: She was shaking her head, yes.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yes.

Jonathan Menjivar: I want to assure you she was not disagreeing.

Rebecca Lehrer: I love pearls.

Jonathan Menjivar: But yeah, my producer, Kristen Torres and I, sort of were very aligned in wanting to say, a thing that we are saying with this show is that you can be classy no matter where you come from.

Amy S. Choi: Yes.

Jonathan Menjivar: And that there is real dignity and beauty and laughter and just three-dimensionalness of people, even poor people. I feel like that’s-

Amy S. Choi: Like actual humanity?

Jonathan Menjivar: Actual humanity, yeah. Yeah. That is so often, even in kind of well-meaning liberal media, not the portrayal of people of that class. And so yeah, title of the show, Classy, is a little bit of a fuck you.

Rebecca Lehrer: Well, we always say that we’re going to do something con class, right, with class.

Jonathan Menjivar: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca Lehrer: That’s our little play on that too. And we were agitated by this series and we were interrogating ourselves around that.

Jonathan Menjivar: That’s the point.

Rebecca Lehrer: And then we were sort of similarly, I think, realizing that part of the, when we say con class, what we mean is abundant and rich of joy and generosity and hospitable.

Amy S. Choi: Yeah. And I feel like that’s true of not just actual hospitality, which is super important to Rebecca and I in particular, welcoming somebody into our space. But I mean, the welcoming of somebody into our space also means even how we treat people on Slack or when we onboard a new editor, a new producer for a project, just making sure that everybody feels welcome and abundant so that we have enough and we are going to make more, so let’s go do it.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: That classiness feels like kind of the opposite, I guess, of what the, I don’t know, the more pejorative term of being exclusionary or that you must have X things to do Y whatever, or to deserve anything. That you just are, so you are, so we will. That’s what it means to do things con class. I don’t know. I feel like abundance has something to do with it, and then I’m like, well, what do either of these two words have to do with each other, other than that we just made up new definitions for it, but…

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: Maybe that’s what we’re doing.

Rebecca Lehrer: If déclassé, let’s just say to be a jerk or to make people feel left out. I’m like, that’s not classy at all. You’re a jerk.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah, yeah.

Amy S. Choi: My last question is, how do we not feel so guilty about existing in the world as we do? What is your advice for our community, our listeners? We have all this stuff that we’re all carrying around with us.

Jonathan Menjivar: Uh-huh.

Amy S. Choi: How do we just not feel guilty about it all the time?

Jonathan Menjivar: I think one thing I have realized, both in making this show and just getting older, is that you’re not going to get rid of it. You’re just going to have it. And the thing to do with that guilt is to sit with it a little bit. Put your arm around it and look it in the face and examine it and try and understand where it’s coming from and make friends with it. And in that way, I think you can both diminish its power over you. And then also it’s okay to feel shitty. To just take that guilt, even if you have managed to reexamine it and be like, oh, no, no, no. The fact that some of us have things and some of us don’t. And if you happen to be one of those people that has, and you feel shitty about it, it’s okay. That’s probably a good thing for you to feel, to be questioning.

Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Menjivar: Like, wow, it’s pretty wild that in this unfair system, I somehow have managed to benefit from it. And I don’t know, maybe that line of thinking leads you down a whole other path of trying to address that in other ways, but yeah, you’re not going to get rid of it, so just befriend it.

Amy S. Choi: Yeah. Make a traveling companion.

Rebecca Lehrer: I love that.

Amy S. Choi: Jonathan Menjivar, this was a delight time three.

Rebecca Lehrer: Times three.

Amy S. Choi: It was really so, so great to talk to you, and thank you for making the show, and I hope that everybody listens to it.

Jonathan Menjivar: Thank you so much for having me here in a space con class.

Amy S. Choi: Con class, that’s the way that we do it.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: I think a good therapy session for everybody.

Jonathan Menjivar: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. Thank you for, I mean, I have a lot more oozing out now, so I’ll take it out on someone else.

Amy S. Choi: Thanks, John.

Jonathan Menjivar: Thanks so much for having me. It was really fun.

Amy S. Choi: Jonathan, I hope you know, you will always have a big, thick, pale watch tan in our hearts. You are not a class-hole.

Rebecca Lehrer: I love that part about thinking about the trappings of something you really focus in on and you’re like, no, that’s what it looks like to be a grownup or to be a man.

Amy S. Choi: I love it.

Rebecca Lehrer: Watch tans for life. Love that. And if you’re a class-hole, we all are. I mean, we actually may be, and you aren’t. TBD. And we’re going to get through it together having these convos. Thank you to Jonathan and everybody, make sure to go check out his incredible podcast, Classy. It agitated me in the best, best ways. Go check it out. And next week, Dr. Pooja Lakshmin will be joining us to talk about real self-care, which is basically boundaries.

Amy S. Choi: Boundaries.

Rebecca Lehrer: But are we even allowed to have boundaries as mashup women? TBD.

Amy S. Choi: I don’t know. I haven’t had one in my life, Rebecca.

Rebecca Lehrer: Mm-hmm. Nope.

Amy S. Choi: Okay. Well make sure to catch the rest of The Ultimate Guide to a Mash-Up Life. We’ll have episodes every week, all fall. Like and follow The Mash-Up Americans wherever you get your pods, and tell your friends. We love you.


This podcast is a production of The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Senior editor and producer is Sara Pellegrini. Production manager is Shelby Sandlin. Thanks to DJ Rob Swift for our theme song, Salsa Scratch. Additional engineering support by Pedro Rafael Rosado. Please make sure to follow and share this show with your friends. Bye.

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Team Mash-Up is the brain trust of smart minds and savvy creators, that builds all the cool stuff you see here.

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