By Henry J. Gomez
Excerpted from Car Bombs to Cookie Tables: The Youngstown Anthology 2nd Edition, now available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.
What I remember most about my mother’s graduation from nursing school is how hard I tried not to cry.
In a picture of us taken after the ceremony, you can see my chubby cheeks looking puffier than usual as I held back tears. I was nine. She was twenty-seven. I was able to sense something about the importance of that day, but it took me years to fully appreciate what it must have meant to her.
She had been pregnant during her senior year at a Catholic high school in Youngstown. Her devout parents supported her. Her church did not. My father, twenty at the time, was there for her. A good job at the steel mill was not there for him.
My parents spent much of the 1980s underemployed. My mom waited tables. My dad took warehouse jobs. Early on, they rented an apartment just across the city line in Boardman, to be sure their children would attend better public schools. (Catholic school, given our family’s tight budget and my mom’s crisis of faith, was out of the question.) Just before I started kindergarten, they bought their first house, a small bungalow in an older, blue-collar neighborhood along the Southern Boulevard railroad tracks. A few years later, on the nights she didn’t have to race from nursing school to a shift at an Italian restaurant, my mom would sit at the kitchen table, studying her flashcards or marking up her medical dictionary with a yellow highlighter.
So much of what led to her graduation — and so much of what came after — calls back to me at this time of political upheaval in which Youngstown is seen as a battleground. So much of our family’s experience defies the Mahoning Valley’s long-cherished conventions and institutions: the Catholic Church, the collapsed but always rumored-to-return steel industry, the mob.
Our family’s experience cuts against the white working-class narrative in what I’ve heard too many national reporters refer to as Donald Trump Country. My parents didn’t wait for a savior. They didn’t wait for the mills to reopen. They weren’t nostalgic.
They couldn’t afford to be.
Youngstown is a complicated place, and the recent political intrigue has introduced a particularly tricky question: What is Youngstown? Is it only what’s within the city limits? Do you include adjacent areas, such as Campbell, that were just as dependent on the steel industry? How about the suburban townships, such as Boardman, that owe their growth to white flight? Or perhaps you view Youngstown as I do: a wider region that extends to similarly post-industrial Trumbull County, where the 2019 shuttering of the General Motors’s Lordstown plant echoed Youngstown Sheet & Tube’s demise more than forty years earlier.
These are sensitive considerations in the Trump era. Youngstown is a majority-minority city. There are more people of color than there are whites. The city proper remains somewhat segregated, too. The old white guys day drinking at the west side bar will tell you stories until the last of the lamb and chicken comes off the spit. But they won’t tell you the whole story.
“Youngstown” can be a confusing catchall. “Mahoning Valley” might be the more precise and encompassing geographic identifier, but it means nothing to those who aren’t from there. (I write this from my home in a Cleveland suburb, but when my reporting takes me elsewhere, I tell people I live in Cleveland. I grew up in Boardman, but I tell people I’m from Youngstown.)
The point is, Youngstown is bigger than what’s between its borders. It’s not the monolithic, white land of bigots it can sometimes appear to be on the pages of national publications. Working-class people in the Valley share a common grief over a long-distressed economy, but their experiences vary along lines of race, community, and culture. There are plenty who can’t let go of the past. There also are those who have rolled with every punch Youngstown has thrown them.
I can speak only to my family’s experience.
Growing up, I don’t recall ever hearing my parents call themselves working-class, though the label applies. And white working class was a misnomer, given our multiethnic family. My mom is Italian, German, and Irish. My dad is full-blooded Mexican. Our Christmas Eve spread was pasta and red sauce one year, tacos and enchiladas with homemade tortillas the next.
We never strongly identified one way or the other, though when I asked my parents if my sister and I were white or Latino, they described us as biracial. My sister, dark-skinned like our dad, once came home from school confused because a classmate had called her “Arab.” I, on the other hand, didn’t look Latino. But I heard my fair share of questions (“Where are you from?”) and taunts about my last name. Peers and teachers — some well-meaning, others menacing — called me everything from Gonzalez and Ramirez to Go-Go Gomez. Racism exists in Youngstown. Just like anywhere else.
When my parents started dating in 1980, after being set up by mutual friends, they never saw themselves as a biracial couple. My dad had recently graduated from Chaney, the public high school on the west side. My mom was still at Cardinal Mooney. It wasn’t until she began looking at college applications and saw a different box for Hispanics that it registered: “You can’t check the ‘white’ box,” she told my dad. It was never an issue with their parents, though. It wasn’t an issue with her peers either, until she got pregnant. “Knocked up by a Rican,” she recalled hearing at school.
Officially, Mooney administrators didn’t know my mom was pregnant. If they had, she likely would have been asked to leave. Soon it was going to be obvious, so her parents came up with a cover story to withdraw her from school gracefully, months before commencement.
The second youngest of ten children, my mom had modest ambitions. Her father worked at Republic Steel and made enough to provide for his large family, but the kids were expected to go to college — and to pay their own way. She hoped to become a special education teacher and, from her jobs at Idora Park and Arby’s, had saved money for tuition.
My dad, who had three older half-siblings but was the only child born to his divorced parents, figured he would follow his own father’s footsteps to Republic. Around his sixteenth birthday, he did well enough in a pre-employment screening to believe a job would be waiting for him after high school. But this was 1977. Black Monday — the day Youngstown Sheet & Tube announced it would close its Campbell Works and signaled the end of Big Steel in the Valley — was months away. My dad at least had a solid backup job working in the warehouse of a downtown electrical supply company. His other backup, never far from the back of his mind, was an apprenticeship in organized crime. He grew up close to one of the lieutenants to Joey Naples, the capo for the Pittsburgh mob’s Youngstown operations. Fortunately, he found honest, decent-paying work.
No one pressured my parents to marry. Quite the opposite. My mom, who still found comfort in her faith, called the local diocese for advice. But the church refused to be party to the nuptials of a pregnant, underage girl. The woman on the other end of the line was blunt and dismissive (“He doesn’t love you.”) and gently suggested an abortion. That was not an option in my mom’s mind — and certainly not one she was expecting to hear the diocese quietly bless. Instead, my parents eloped to West Virginia in March of 1981. They lived with my dad’s mother, my Nana, until a bonus check came through, and he could afford to move them into their apartment. I arrived that September.
My dad’s job paid just enough to support our young family. Because of some minor health problems I had, we briefly were eligible for public assistance. A few months after I was born, my mom took high school equivalency classes and received her GED. Higher education was on hold, though. My parents knew they wanted a second child and decided that would come first. Once my sister was in kindergarten, one of them would go back to school.
In the meantime, my mom took a string of serving jobs at local restaurants. My favorite was probably Don Pancho’s on the west side, which, as I remember it, had some of the best salsa my undeveloped taste buds could handle at the time. Then came the move to Boardman. And a few years after that, after my sister joined me at the now-closed Market Street Elementary, our mom enrolled in the licensed practical nursing program at Choffin Career and Technical Center
To me, these years did not seem like the financial struggle they surely were for my parents. We never went without, a justifiable point of pride for them, is how they reflect on it today. And it’s true. But they were in their late twenties, raising two young kids in one of Youngstown’s more affluent suburbs, on the paycheck of a warehouse manager and tips from the patrons of Pancho’s, Park Inn, and the Isle of Capri. They worked jobs that weren’t their first choice, jobs that didn’t make the best use of their substantial intelligence. Never once did I hear them complain. Never once did I hear them blame someone else — not their parents, not Ronald Reagan, not an immigrant — for the fact that they didn’t have more.
Sure, we had breaks others didn’t. My parents came from supportive families. My mom borrowed money from her mother to pay the Choffin tuition. Her brothers and sisters, especially my Aunt Jeanette, offered free childcare. I can think of few people more generous than my Grandpa Gomez, who treated us to so many Saturday and Sunday breakfasts before cancer took him from us just as my mom was finishing nursing school. Nana, my dad’s mother, was a dignified matriarch in her own quiet way. After my mom graduated, with a 4.0 grade-point average, she repaid her loan and gave most of her textbooks to my barber, who was interested in nursing. It was years before we had to pay for another haircut.
There also were setbacks. A relative outside our immediate family, on my mom’s side, went into business with my dad, in an effort to land contracts reserved for minority-owned companies. The venture didn’t end well. And a few years after my mom finished at Choffin, the drywall company where my dad had been working left town. He scrambled for a bit, taking odd jobs and driving a truck for The Vindicator. I remember these being the leanest times for our family. They coincided with my middle school years — and the age when kids are particularly cruel. We still lived in our starter home by the Southern Boulevard railroad tracks, in the poorer part of Boardman. One of my classmates, after riding by with his parents one weekend, told me the next Monday during home ec that his mother said she could never live in a house so small. The comment stung. But Boardman was competitive like that, especially when it came to money. It wasn’t the easiest place to wear hand-me-down shirts from your cousin. But I am ashamed by how ashamed I allowed myself to be back then.
Despite the challenges, we never got back to the point where we qualified for public assistance. By this time my mom had a decent job at a nursing home. It was my dad’s turn to try something new.
Eager for a more stable job with solid benefits, he began preparing for the civil service exam to be a letter carrier. He approached it much like my mom had her studies: poring over notes and study guides into the night. In his mid-thirties, he started from the bottom with an enthusiasm
that would be hard to believe if I hadn’t seen it every day. One of his older brothers had been delivering mail for years. At every family cookout, my dad and Uncle Joe would stand around the grill, talking about this route or that route. He could have complained that unfair circumstances forced him into a midlife job change that kept him on his feet outdoors for hours a day, often in unsafe neighborhoods, and destroyed his back and joints. Instead, he embraced the fresh start, worked his ass off, got involved in the union, and eventually became president of the National Association of Letter Carriers’ Youngstown branch.
It occurs to me this story won’t strike the Youngstown natives among us as particularly extraordinary. You know people like my parents. We went through tough times, but overall we were pretty fortunate. To the extent my family’s experience informed my point of view as a political reporter, it may have left me with a blind spot as I covered the 2016 election for Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.
I grew up with Jim Traficant, a precursor to Trump-style populism, as my congressman.
I grew up around plenty of people bitter about the Valley’s plight and passively waiting for things to improve. And yet I underestimated how angry people were. Despite my exposure to bigotry at a young age, I wasn’t prepared for the racism and xenophobia brewing — and plaguing my inbox. I regularly received hateful emails from Trump fans who were sure, like Trump was about a Mexican judge who presided over cases involving him, that I could not possibly be objective.
Those who indulge in this ugliness — or those who simply hew closely to the cliché of the unenlightened voter easily swayed by Trump’s promise to bring back steel — have received outsized attention since his election. In these accounts, Youngstown is simplified and stereotyped.
Like many from Youngstown, I’m sentimental. But for different things. I think of my parents. I think of our move from the apartment to the tiny house by the railroad tracks. I think of the red sauce and the tortillas. I think of the stack of nursing textbooks on the kitchen table and of all the good mailman gossip around the grill at Uncle Joe’s. Life wasn’t always easy, but life was always good. My parents made sure of it.
Years later, Mom and I talked about the night she graduated from nursing school. She didn’t remember the old photo and hadn’t picked up on my emotions at the time. Why, she wondered, was I trying not to cry? Was I happy she would no longer be juggling work and school? Worried that I would see her even less because she’d now have a full-time job?
Neither, I told her. “I was just proud.” ■
Henry J. Gomez is a national political reporter for BuzzFeed News. A graduate of Boardman High School and Youngstown State University, he worked for twelve years at The Plain Dealer and its affiliate website, Cleveland.com, where he started as a business reporter before covering local government and becoming the newspaper’s political reporter. He also has written for the Tribune Chronicle in Warren, OH, and Crain’s Cleveland Business. He lives in the Cleveland area with his wife and daughter.
Cover image of a postcard depicting the Republic Steel facility in Youngstown, Ohio (Public Domain).
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