You Don't See Poor People In Travel Memoirs Because You've Already Assumed We Don't Travel

BySamantha Leal
Courtesy of Samantha Leal

“You’re never home!” I get that comment a lot as a travel writer, and generally, as a travel lover. I’d rather prioritize my time and money on things that let me in on new experiences — which I know sounds very cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Because when you grow up with little money, you figure out what things you aim to do when you do have even the littlest bit. For me, that’s always been travel.

But there’s the rub: Many people, when I tell them about my background — that I grew up poor, in a neighborhood where free lunch programs and social services were the norm, as a Mexican-American in a small town —  figure that I never traveled until later in life. They figure that I had never explored faraway places or eaten different types of foods or that I hadn’t talked to people outside of my family and social circles until after I went to a prestigious university and got a journalism degree that opened up many doors. They figure that those experiences — the ones that came in adulthood — are the real reasons I’m so well-versed in travel. But, in doing so — in creating these narratives of poor or working class or minority families and how devoid of travel and cultural experiences we are — they belittle our experiences. They belittle us.

"Because when you grow up with little money, you figure out what things you aim to do when you do have even the littlest bit."

Every year, my mom and dad would pile my sister and me into the car — I’m actually one of five but my siblings are older — and we’d head off on the road. My parents would plan a getaway once a year to a different part of our country. One year, we explored Hannibal, Missouri and learned about the work of Mark Twain, an author I loved reading. Another year we explored D.C. and learned about our presidents, including my favorite, Abraham Lincoln. From Mackinaw Island, Michigan to Hershey, Pennsylvania to Cincinnati, Ohio, we racked up the miles in our Buick or covered pickup, sometimes throwing a blow-up mattress in the back so that me and my sister could catch some Zzzs while my parents powered through the interstate highways. (Look, it was a different time of seatbelt safety awareness.)

"But, in doing so — in creating these narratives of poor or working class or minority families and how devoid of travel and cultural experiences we are — they belittle our experiences. They belittle us. "

Yes, we were lucky. My parents scraped together what they had to give us the gift of an experience. They knew it would be worth it, that the extra hours they put in at work or the stretching of resources at home that would help to introduce us to a new place and way of living would give us a better understanding of people. Others around me didn’t have the privilege, but there were some families just like mine, with the same challenges as mine, who did the same. We certainly weren’t the only family with little means making a way. As far back as I can remember, my family got out of our hometown at least once a year. Yes, it was by car. No, we never stayed in fancy hotels or ordered room service. But it was enough. We ate and we explored and we talked to people and we learned that the world was big — heck, that even our own country was big.

And the years when money was too tight to make it happen, I took my trips in my imagination, going to the library with my mom who was never, ever short on reading recommendations. “Sam,” she’d say. “You can go anywhere when you read.”

"We learned and we ate and we explored and we talked to people and we learned that the world was big — heck, that even our own country was big."

Working class and poor people do travel. They do it by driving to a neighboring city or driving 17 hours to visit their family in Texas who will let them stay. They do it by scrimping and saving and staying in motels, like my family. Sure, they sometimes do it by walking to their library or watching movies or treating themselves to that new fusion place that opened up in the mall. And yes of course, there is privilege involved — any sort of expense other than housing and food is always a privilege. But to think that all poor people don’t travel is comical — they do it when they can and how they can. Our lives are a bit harder, sure. But poor and working class people do still find joy and find love and make memories and leave their homes. They do. And we need to have writers that feel validated in sharing their travel stories and writing their travel memoirs and giving meaning to their experiences — even if it differs from the stories we’re so used to seeing.

"Our lives are a bit harder, sure. But poor and working class people do still find joy and find love and make memories and leave their homes."

We’re still not there in reading stories and memoirs of different types of travelers. The narrative is still very much about a particular type of woman figuring out who they truly are, where the backdrop of brown people serves as a setting or the one local “friend” serves as a foil. When I was an editor, the amount of pitches I received about far-flung, luxurious places versus domestic, budget travel was at least three to one. And writers themselves? Well, let’s just say that many non-POC writers found their experiences in travel to be very relevant for a pitch, even if they weren’t — and writers from marginalized communities, or writers with a different, nuanced travel-take were few and far between. Thankfully, online and Instagram communities (like Black Girls Travel Too and Travel Latina) are spotlighting different types of travelers that we’re not seeing in the mainstream. Because, yes, women of color and working class and disabled and 40+ and LGBTQ and humans in general have the urge to travel, and they do it in the ways they can — and those experiences and takeaways are just as relevant and just as story-worthy as anyone else’s. So here’s to reading more of them.