The average household income in Pleasanton was $145,000 in 2014, and the median single-family home was $732,000. Many believe everyone who lives in Pleasanton is as rich as those U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicate or is on their way to becoming so.
Erica, though, is aware she and her family do not fit into this picture painted by statistics, as she buys another bag of discounted rice and tallies out how much money will be left after rent has drained two-thirds of her monthly income.
Erica, a 41-year-old undocumented resident who asked her last name not be used, is among a small community of Pleasanton residents who live below the poverty line but save and sacrifice for one purpose: to send their kids to the Pleasanton Unified School District.
It's within this suburban Bay Area town that Erica has formed a life, one much different from her childhood -- one where her children can play in parks without fear and have a guarantee of an education that will get them ready for college and careers.
It's a much different life from the residents around her in this town of entrepreneurs and tech workers. A single mother of four, she cleans multimillion-dollar homes and clears others' entrees at downtown restaurants.
"I went to Amador (Valley High) one day for a conference, and I heard from one Latino lady. She lives like us. She said, 'It's not impossible to be someone,'" Erica said. "She said, 'It's the best district ever. I'm thinking, 'I need to be here, no matter what.'"
A total of 1,034 Pleasanton Unified students are considered socio-economically disadvantaged, about 7% of the district, according to district spokesman Patrick Gannon.
Many are Hispanic and hail from Mexico, and some are undocumented. Some have a high school education or greater, but others never got past middle school. Nearly all of their children are citizens -- and many were born and raised in Pleasanton.
A sought-after community for Silicon Valley and San Francisco commuters, Pleasanton's home prices and rental market have exploded in recent decades, pricing out many of the city's lower-income residents.
In 2000, the median value of a home was $435,000, according to U.S. Census data. By 2014, it was $732,000.
Likewise, the average monthly apartment rent in Pleasanton climbed from $1,200 in 2000 to $1,700 by 2014 and rising every year, Census data showed. In 2015, market rate for a one-bedroom unit was between $1,750 and $2,050, according to the city of Pleasanton.
Some families like Erica's have resisted gentrification's pull to other areas, instead deciding to dedicate more income to rent and less and less to everything else -- vacations, after-school activities, clothes and food -- to secure the requisite Pleasanton address that guarantees their children entrance to high-achieving public schools.
Yes, Erica knows, she could move to a cheaper part of the Bay Area. She isn't exactly stuck in her rented apartment with donated furniture and discount-store food. Yes, she could go to Richmond or Modesto and save her money, buy a better car and get a nicer apartment.
Or she could stay put and bet her investment will mean her children will have a better chance at thriving careers.
To make ends meet in a $2,600-a-month apartment, Erica and her family rent out two of the three bedrooms to other residents. At the moment, seven people live in their apartment, and they're hardly the only ones who opt for such an arrangement.
Gabina Sanchez, a 33-year-old single mother of a preteen who attends a PUSD school and a 4-year-old who will start kindergarten soon, rents out one bedroom in their two-bedroom apartment. She sleeps in the living room on a mattress so her boys have the other bedroom to themselves.
"My kids are everything for me. They're my life," she said. "They're what keep me going. I just want to give them a better life."
Pleasanton Unified's 95.7% graduation rate, frequent Ivy League college acceptances and amalgam of students honored for national science, technology and music achievements often elicit comparisons to public and private schools on the Peninsula.
Nearby Livermore Valley Joint Unified, San Ramon Valley Unified and Dublin Unified are similarly high-achieving, but the cost of living is about equal to Pleasanton. A significant decrease in cost of living would mean moving to Tracy (89.9% graduation rate in 2014), Hayward (80.1% graduation rate), Oakland (60.5% graduation rate) or a similar town.
The crime rate in Pleasanton, and the Tri-Valley in general, is also significantly lower than surrounding communities. Last year marked the first homicide in Pleasanton since 2012.
Miguel Ornelas, who runs monthly community support meetings at Hearst Elementary School for English-language learners, said he's thought about moving his family elsewhere, but then he thinks about other children in his family who ended up getting involved in gangs.
Ornelas, 47, said he advises families to try and find a Section 8 or rent-controlled apartment so their children don't have to live among strangers. But many of the families he helps have no other option.
He pays $2,300 a month for their two-bedroom apartment, choosing not to rent rooms so his kids can have their own space. But it takes up almost all of his disability payments and his wife's part-time income, as well as draining years of savings.
"I've applied (for affordable apartments), but I've been on the list for a couple of years," he said.
A lifelong deficit of opportunities in Mexico led Erica, Ornelas and Sanchez to pursue a life in the U.S. At first, they ran to escape abuse, crippling poverty and gangs that permeated their towns.
Now, they said, there are days when they feel like they're running in place, barely able to keep from falling behind.
Ornelas, who is now a citizen, said he rarely has to look farther than the kitchens of Main Street restaurants or the cleaning staff and landscape workers of hillside mansions to find people who are struggling.
"I'm going to push all the way because this is the best town. The schools are the best here. They have the education I want for my kids," Ornelas said. "That's the only reason why I'm still here."
'A safer city'
When Sanchez was 14 years old, she left school in Mexico to work as a maid to help her family earn extra money. Getting away from abuse from family members was a silver lining, but she found little relief.
"I would have to live in poverty," she said of her former hometown. "There's days where there's no running water."
After years of abuse by a boyfriend, she hired a guide in 2002 to help her illegally sneak into the U.S. She spent eight hours climbing the mountains of Southern California before hopping the train that would take her to Los Angeles.
She later visited Pleasanton to see her brother, but she was struck by the peacefulness of the town. The downtown, with its small shops lined up on Main Street, gave the area an idyllic feel.
"I decided to stay here because it's safer; it's a safer city," she said.
Now, she's the mother of four boys, two of whom live with her in Pleasanton. She's received a visa, one granted to survivors of violent crimes who assisted the police, and her new work permit gives her access to jobs otherwise out of reach.
Sanchez works as a restaurant waitress, spending her free time searching for another job after work dried up at one position.
She sublets one bedroom to some strangers, and she's searching for renters for the bedroom her boys currently sleep in. The mattress that lays in their living room is her bedroom, but the boys let her have their closet for storage.
Her 11-year-old son William, who was born in Pleasanton, has gone through elementary and now middle school in town. He'll come home jabbering about Egyptian Pharaohs and paleontology.
"He wouldn't have an opportunity to learn in Mexico," she said.
With help from friends
On a chilly December day, Erica invited her neighbors inside as kids ran inside and out and in again.
A friend looked at the pile of Christmas presents under her tree and laughed. Erica pointed to the gifts, one labeled "underwear" and others marked based on age of recipient, and said she'd send her friend home with some of the packages.
"I'll share with you," she said.
Two Pleasanton schools and their local Catholic church, St. Augustine, had donated most of the items under their tree. Erica said she's grateful for the regular help during holidays. At Thanksgiving, PUSD gave Erica a turkey so she wouldn't have to serve chicken and rice as a substitute.
When Erica came to Pleasanton 14 years ago, she said, she wasn't sure how long she was going to be able to stay in town.
Then, a stranger introduced her to Valley View Elementary's dual-immersion program, where students are taught in English and Spanish. For English-speakers, it's a way to develop fluency quickly. For Spanish-speakers, like Erica's oldest son Kevin, who is now studying nursing at Chico State, it was a way to level the playing field.
Years went by, and Erica and her small family lived in their apartment living room so they could rent out all of the rooms.
It was an accomplishment when she had saved enough money to afford the deposit on a three-bedroom apartment. That way, she and her younger three children could have one bedroom to themselves, and they rent out the other two.
When it's time for bed, her 11-year-old scampers into the top bunk of a bunk bed, her 12-year-old daughter pulls out a mattress from under the bunk bed to sleep on and Erica curls up with her 5-year-old son on the bottom bunk.
While space inside is tight, her kids spend most of their free time at home running around in the grassy areas of their apartment complex -- at least, when they aren't studying or participating in free after-school programs.
"It's kind of comfortable, once you get used to it," her 11-year-old son Angel said.
"We have a big backyard," Erica said, pointing to a communal grassy area in the middle of the complex where dozens of kids run around every day.
She works five part-time jobs to bring in about $3,000 a month, including positions as a nanny, house-cleaner and restaurant busser, sometimes working late into the night and on weekends.
Erica's kids say they've never felt poor because in a way, they aren't. They may not have thousands of dollars in disposable income, but her children say they have never been left without something they actually needed, such as food, books for school or college tuition.
"I feel fortunate to be here, but at the same time, I feel unfortunate that I can't give them a better space," Erica said. "It's too much, but I'm happy because every day when I wake up, I look at my kids and say, 'I can do this one more day.'"
By attending schools that offer clubs for everything from robotics to entrepreneurship and spending weekends talking with friends' parents who run Silicon Valley companies, children from low-income families start to believe that they can achieve these goals, too.
Sanchez's 11-year-old son wants to be a paleontologist and name a dinosaur after himself. One of Erica's sons wants to be an entrepreneur.
Children from rough neighborhoods don't always get that privilege. Kids who grow up in an overburdened school system or a neighborhood spotted with crime might not hear the words, "You can do anything." Or worse, they might not believe it when they grow up.
When survival is the primary motivator, dreams become impractical fiction. Erica said she doesn't ever want her kids to think that way.
Standing by her kitchen fridge covered with her children's drawings, Erica reminisced about her oldest son's high school graduation, remembering how loud she screamed when he walked across the stage.
"I'm so proud. Now he's in university, and I think nothing is impossible," she said, "no matter how much I need to work."