Status Symbols: The GPS of Social Navigation


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Francisco and Julio asked me if I would buy them shoes when I visited the states last month. The requests are always the same….shoes and cell phones. Walking the sandy paths throughout the island, my curiosity got the best of me when I encountered dozens of wandering soles mixed with bastura (trash) resembling an unappetizing salad of discarded status symbols. I began to think about how we come to value different things. Is there a hierarchy of bling bling? Are shoes and cell phones the essential elements motivating young Latinos to improve their lives and create a higher social position in their communities?

When I taught high school in the states, I was often chagrined when the students paid more attention to things…iPods, iPhones, brand name clothing and footwear, instead of their academic studies. It was hard to fault them.  I, too am fascinated by expensive and sophisticated bling bling. I find it amazing and puzzling that two divergent cultures of young people place high value on similar things. What happens when different cultures with different values desire the same things?

While I don’t have specific answers to why, I do believe that it is important to create connections among the things that we value in divergent societies. If the youth in the states and Latin cultures both value shoes and cell phones, collectively we may be able to come up with some answers about human beings and things. The answers may inspire us to work toward unity, instead of division and teach us that collectively, we should encourage positive international relationships among all countries, all races, and all political ideologies.

Status, as defined by possessions, is nearly as essential as food, water, and shelter. Once our basic needs are met, we spend our money acquiring symbols of status..bling bling to enhance a better position, the GPS of social navigation. My teenage neighbor, Julio, lives in a shack with a dirt floor, 3 light bulbs, and no running water, except for a hose attached to a city water line. Yet, fancy name brand tennis shoes represent success to him, and along with success, comes respect. In turn, respect means that others will look up to him, and thus his fancy tennis shoes increase his self-esteem providing the impetus to work harder and the drive to improve his lot in life.

The wandering soles along the sandy paths inspired me to search for ways to increase unity in our troubled world. Maybe shoes and cell phones will be the connecting force that will unite the young people throughout the world. We are all wandering souls, searching for ways to improve our lives,  increase our self-esteem, and better our positions through the hierarchy of bling bling. Can shoes and cell phones be the connection to save our world? Who knows, but it is worth investigating the connections.

As a post script: Ron and I had a philosophical debate about my article. He feels that using status symbols to connect the youth of the world is shallow and deceptive. I disagree. I say, take what you can get to emphasize our similarities. We all have possessions we use as status symbols. The problem is in denying that we elevate our positions in society through the use of possessions.

Ron wants me to answer the questions I asked. For example, why do two divergent cultures value shoes and cell phones? Is it a status symbol only for the poor in both cultures? Instead, I chose to take a different direction in my post. I stated that I don’t have specific answers…it would involve more research. Instead, I decided to emphasize the connections and the relationships among the youth in two cultures and the hierarchy of the things they value the most….namely shoes and cell phones.

“Why don’t you emphasize the importance of a good education to increase their self-esteem and improve their positions in life?” Ron asked. “Get real, Ron!” I replied.” I’ve been a teacher for 30 years. If you had the choice of receiving an A+ on a test or a new iPhone, which would you chose?”  “Point taken,” he replied.