Lisa Gray-Garcia is best known as “Tiny,” but her memoir is a giant tribute to the power of hope and one’s inner strength to overcome social and personal obstacles. The creator of POOR Magazine, Tiny’s life story is so unique that it would make a great movie. But whereas The Pursuit of Happyness tried to show that “the system” works, Tiny’s story describes how it fails. Instead of a Will Smith character having responsibility for a cute young child, Tiny cared for a mother (Dee) whose childhood sexual abuse left her suffering from depression and other mental health problems. But the message in Criminal of Povery is surprisingly upbeat. Tiny’s social critiques are far more subtle than those familiar with her advocacy work might assume, and her work should have book groups and college classes debating its themes long into the night.
I first met Tiny and Dee two decades ago when they came into my office with a summons and complaint for unlawful detainer. The reason I remember them is that they told me that they had been evicted over 15 previous times, which led me to wonder how they succeeded in getting landlords to rent to them in the first place.
After reading Criminal of Poverty, I know the answer. While Tiny does not reveal all of her specific tricks to get landlords to rent to people with a long eviction record and no stable income, her skill with getting what she needs from landlords comes from the same inner drive that kept her and Dee above-ground during their decades of poverty.
After her wealthy father divorced her mother when Tiny was four, Dee struggled mightily to keep her family afloat. Like a young child in a rural town in a third world country, Tiny became responsible for generating money for her and Dee’s survival.
In what may be the most astonishing revelation in the book, Tiny’s financial responsibilities meant that she did not attend school after 6th grade. She became a writer, editor, and publisher despite this lack of education. While her fellow teenagers were talking on the phone with each other and going out on dates, Tiny was either at home with her mother or out selling t-shirts, first on the Venice Boardwalk and then on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue.
While Tiny expresses deep love and enormous sympathy for her mother, she does not flinch from acknowledging the obstacles Dee posed to her daughter’s happiness. Tiny’s personal relationships could not withstand her mother’s absolute dependence on her, and Tiny does not dispute a boyfriend’s assessment that, at age 23, it was time for her to break away from Dee’s dependency.
But Tiny had a remarkable inner drive that enabled her to psychologically accept the burdens her mother placed on her. She knew her mother was interfering with her own progress through life, but felt that Dee could not survive—literally—without her.
Tiny’s inner drive pushed her to get out of her “room” in the rundown apartments and motels where she lived most of her childhood—- Tiny’s “room” was usually a closet—and hit the Venice Boardwalk or Telegraph to begin hawking t-shirts. She and Dee made these shirts in their room each night, so prior to being eligible to drive in California Tiny was already working 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
When rain prevented them for raising rent money from their outdoor sales venues, Tiny and Dee spent considerable time living in their car. Given that this often occurred in Berkeley, legendary for its obsession with issuing parking citations, the two soon had parking fines amounting to thousands of dollars. Tiny’s failure to pay these fines resulted in the police pulling over her car and then taking her to jail. It was this bizarre experience of being jailed for failure to pay parking tickets that led to Tiny’s realization that poverty had become criminal.
Tiny is surprisingly and unfairly contemptuous of public defenders—repeatedly referring to them as “public pretenders”—but her life changed when Berkeley attorney Osha Neuman gets her community service to make up the cost of her outstanding parking fines. Tiny’s “community service” became writing, and POOR Magazine and the rest of her literary projects were the result. The last portion of the book describes POOR’s origins and principles, and allows Tiny to reflect upon her mother’s death last year.
Criminal of Poverty is subject to multiple and complex interpretations. Although Tiny repeatedly criticizes America’s criminalization of the poor, one could readily conclude that her deprivations were more a product of her family situation than the capitalist system. Tiny never explains why her mother did not apply for SSI, as she was clearly unable to work due to a disability. America provides this guaranteed, though minimal, financial safety net, which could have given Dee enough income so that evictions could be avoided and Tiny could attend school.
A reader could also conclude that Tiny is the living embodiment of the American Dream, as she pulled herself up by her bootstraps to become an enormously effective writer, spoken-word artist, and publisher. In fact, Criminal of Poverty is ultimately so optimistic, so life-affirming, that one even concludes that Dee triumphed over a set of adversities that nobody, least of all a young girl in a foster home, should experience.
As much as Tiny may have wanted readers to come away angry at our society’s mistreatment of the poor—and this emotion is most strongly evoked when she describes her dental problems —the dominant feeling may instead be one of amazement at what she overcame in her life. One must read the book to understand the full story, but Tiny’s dedication to social and economic justice after a lifetime spent in a daily struggle to survive is heartrending.
Like Teresa Funicello’s Tyranny of Kindness, in which the low-income author shows how the New York City charity industry demeans, shortchanges, and ultimately profits at the expense of the poor, Criminal of Poverty is a harsh indictment of America’s priorities. But whereas Funicello extensively details the policymaking process, Tiny typically ignores which specific politicians are to blame for the “criminalization of poverty” and instead frames the problem as systemic. Does her own success conflict with such an analysis? Or is her example so unique that it does not change her fundamental critique that the system is designed to keep poor people in their place?
Criminal of Poverty is one of the most-thought provoking memoirs in recent years. Some readers may disagree with Tiny’s social analysis, but all will agree that the book provides a springboard for productive discussion and debate.
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