Writer’s note: San Luis Obispo has been described as the “Happiest Town in America” by National Geographic and Oprah Winfrey. While I have lived in San Luis Obispo for most of my life and love this town, I take issue with this nomination, and this letter is a response to it, outlining the problems I see. I wish to share it with our community with the hope of sparking some kind of dialogue.
It is said that San Luis Obispo, Calif., is the happiest place in the USA. I have lived here for a good part of my life and love this town, yet I find this statement problematic and candidly disagree with it.
First of all, it seems absurd to even deem some place the “happiest” town, because that implies that there is no sadness there—that everyone is happy, or at least that the town is happy as a whole. That’s the general sentiment. Yet if there were virtually no emotions present other than happiness, well, it wouldn’t be human. Because part of being human is experiencing all those raw emotions that are not necessarily pleasant, many of which bring anything but happiness. And I don’t really think it’s auspicious for a town to be associated with something as essentially nonhuman as the constant presence of happiness, which indirectly alludes to the denial of other emotions. So it’s only the premise of the allegation that’s problematic—not to mention the actual implication of this nomination.
Yes, San Luis Obispo is a happy town. … That is, if you’re white and upper middle class. If you’re physically and emotionally healthy. And hey, what a coincidence: People belonging to those categories comprise the bulk of this town’s population. But what if you’re one of the 2.5 percent of African Americans living here, shunned and forgotten, alienated? Or what if you’re one of the many Latinos in San Luis Obispo County (yes, there are more than you think: 21.7 percent of the county’s population is Latino or Hispanic, according to the 2013 census), most likely living on the fringe in lower income communities, pushed to the outskirts by those who, whether consciously or subconsciously, see themselves as slightly superior to them and who are thus perpetuating racist attitudes? These are generalizations, of course, and do not apply to everyone in these categories. There are many exceptions. I must make that clear. We shouldn’t even have to place people in categories—why can’t we all just be people, not differentiated by our race or income bracket? But for the purpose of this commentary, I must generalize.
We are all prejudiced without realizing it, for it is a tendency of human nature to shy away from what is different. But for the majority of San Luis Obispo citizens, life is contained in this happy, white, affluent, mainstream, sheltered bubble. Pair that with San Luis Obispo’s small college town feel, proximity to the beach and mountains, idyllic weather, strong infrastructure, wine and foodie culture, and no wonder it’s the happiest town in the U.S. Those who proudly proclaim this “truth” are the ones who live in a bubble, and when you’re living in a fantasy world, of course you’re going to be happy—or at least superficially happy—if that world is to your making (which it is).
This nomination also neglects those who, regardless of race or ethnicity, are suffering from illness, those who are mentally ill and troubled emotionally, those who are physically impaired, those who live below the poverty line in the hidden trailer parks and ramshackle neighborhoods, those who have lost loved ones, or those who are homeless. Has the general populace been made aware of the fact that there are nearly 3,000 homeless in the county, and that almost 50 percent are children? How happy do you think they are? Moreover, how do they feel about the town that can’t provide them shelter being named the Happiest Town in the USA?
This is not a bashing of San Luis Obispo. For it is a wonderful place where I’ve had the privilege of growing up; it is a small town with a big heart and much to offer. But this is a bashing of ignorance—and a call for change. The first change that is needed is a change of mind. This is easier said than done, but it comes with accepting the reality that is in front of us, not denying or ignoring it. Not simply accepting what is convenient to us and what matches up with the image of paradise we so value and that San Luis Obispo is made to project. It is about accepting the entire picture, the messy and the ugly included. Because these imperfections are what make something realistic and human. It is about accepting and then addressing our own prejudices.
Rather than keeping San Luis Obispo in a perpetual state of fabricated perfection, why don’t we actually attempt to make it (close to) the Happiest Town by fixing some of its major problems? We must address head-on the issues of income disparity, we must address the lack of affordable housing, the lack of diversity, and the predominance of old-school prejudices. This will all take time, but if one by one, we come to see San Luis Obispo for the beautiful, active, compelling, but not completely perfect, not entirely happy, and not totally ideal town, we may be able to make some progress toward a goal of inclusivity for all residents. We must open our hearts and minds to all facets of the experience of living here, and to all the differences among us.
Aidan Muñoz-Christian is a longtime resident of San Luis Obispo. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.