“América es un país sin alma”

The Quest to find its Soul – Part II

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi, 2019

One of the sentiments that my father would echo shook me upon hearing it, “America es un país sin alma.” (America is a country without a soul.) He made the statement with sadness upon hearing and seeing examples of “odio” (hate) that lived outside our tenement, be it in New York, Boston or Detroit. No, we did not live in those southern towns where supposedly racial hate was a common crop. We had no idea of racism’s national grip on its citizens from across an ocean. We learned that upon passing the Statue that greeted us, racism was everywhere and could surface anytime. It was a socio-cultural learning curve and paradox left to us to deal with and experience.

No Spanish or Hispanics

We were not citizens at that time but it still disturbed my parents to see and hear Americans mistreat other Americans. Why would anyone hate others so vehemently? Did they not know or understand that their children were watching? Wasn’t the Dream big enough for all to share? How and where were racist citizens raised and schooled?

Upon hearing “America es un país sin  alma.”, I would question and argue reminding my father that all we had acquired was because of the American Dream. Was he not hypocritically biting off the hand that fed us?

He would explain that he did not make such a statement lightly, out of rancor, bitterness nor dislike for the American people. On the contrary, he found most Americans amiable, especially when requiring a job needing doing that no one else would do or knew how to do.

He based his feelings on what he observed, heard and saw. He said that all I had to do was to keep my eyes and ears open. He respected America for its commitment to provide opportunities but he also felt that America could and should be better – that the focus should not only be on “dólares(dollars) but also try to cure its “dolores.” (pains)

He explained that his sentiments were not learned in America. He would point to my mother’s great-grandparents, grandparents and family. He emphasized how they prioritized the raising of the children beyond buying material things. The social curriculum that he described was basic and focused: reverence for the elderly, protection of the young, respect for others, connectedness with nature, caring of animals, justice, fairness and a work ethic preached to be holy. In time I could only surmise that what he meant by “alma” (soul) was “civilidad“ (civility), instilled by way of “Latinidad.” (essence of Latina/o culture)

Barrio Antiguo – Maestros en Resistencia

Upon setting foot on American soil, my parents innately refuted Ayn Rand -isms, without even knowing the ideology. They embraced community and camaraderie. They knew that the fittest needed to provide for those who were not fit and help them survive. They knew the relevance of “It takes a village” years before it became a popular slogan. They knew in real time and space what it meant for each valued member of the village to help the other. Survival was a collective enterprise with selflessness as its central core value. Civilidad” was not motivated by a political ideology, campaign promises, non-profit enterprises, nor attached to color, status,  class, privilege or religion. It did not live in a church or temple. “Civilidad” was inherent and driven by “duende” (spiritual force) within the “Alma” (soul).

For my parents, “Civilidad” was not an abstract concept. It was ever present as a way of treating others. It did not identify with “I got mine!” It did not pause to be asked to be demonstrated. It could not be purchased nor sold. It was not even part of the Golden Rule as there was no quid-pro-quo involved. It was expected and applied as a way of living.

They preached and lived the mantra that citizens should not be told nor asked to help one another. Empathy and compassion were not weaknesses but strengths. My parents tried to teach me about citizenship in their own way. I listened and understood that opportunities were pathways to choices without finish lines. I should not elbow my way to the front of any line. They went far beyond the information that I learned in those citizen books before the daunting interview, tests and allegiance. Those books never mentioned “alma” as I raised my right hand.

My parent’s warnings materialized during adulthood as I found myself in relentless pursuit of “dólares”; seemingly caught in a mob frantically racing towards status, class, and garage sales. It seemed as if citizenship was about opportunities to accumulate and hoard stuff and more stuff.

“Duende” – The Universal Solvent- By Justin Toltemical

My parent’s wisdom also materialized leaving me the legacy of “Latinidad.” It would become my life-jacket. It’s resonance became a life-long trusted “compadre”, a constant memoir to honor its relevance – its applicability to the human condition – the inalienable “duende” of the human soul.