“¡Dólares cuestan dolores!”

“Pero hay montañas de dólares.” – Part I

(Dollars cause pain: But there are mountains of dollars.)

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi

My dad always felt that America was the land of opportunity. He unequivocally believed it in his bones before and after becoming a Naturalized American Citizen. He heralded the opportunities that America promised and delivered. In turn my parents had done their fair share to keep the Dream alive for family and others. But he also echoed reservations that America could do better – should be better. His beliefs were not political, but spoke of a different dimension of the Dream – its “Alma” (soul).

America – Land of Opportunity! Undeniable! Just ask any Millennial Startup CEO millionaire. From across an ocean we heard the sirens of how the work ethic would bear fruit. Once in America, my parents would join the other immigrant Super Heroes – with only one super power needed – “Work Ethic!”

The possibilities of boundless opportunities were the reasons for uprooting our family and crossing an ocean. “Chamigos” (friends) from America wrote to entice, support and would wait for us. They always provided reasons to immigrate citing the financial opportunities they were enjoying as they moved up the ladder of the Dream. At times we would learn that a car had been purchased, a child was now in school and of being paid double for working on Sundays and holidays. The message seemed all too simple – all you had to do is work, work, work. There were plenty of jobs that many Americans did not want to do, know how to do or have the time to do… and they paid in “guitas” (cash).

The risks of immigrating were immense, but all the letters spoke of opportunities. At times we would hear disturbing accounts that we could not fully understand unless witnessed and lived. Disturbing glances spoke of divisions by color, status and class. One letter hinted that the opportunities had its challenges, “¡Dólares cuestan dolores!” (Dollars cause pain/suffering.) But not to worry because “Hay montañas de dólares!” (There are mountains of dollars.) What was always emphasized was that the work ethic would cut through walls.

Upon immigrating to America, the words and the sentiments behind the letters began to come alive. The work ethic provided the dollars, and in turn immeasurable opportunities. But the American Dream turned to nightmares for some immigrants. There was no welcome wagon upon arriving. Immigrants faced social, cultural and political “rites of passage” that had to be endured and survived.

My family learned to find their place among the many without complaint nor argument. Remain silent, servile and inconspicuous – as others had learned to do. It was the unspoken quid-pro-quo – ‘labor for dollars’ and turning dollars into tangibles. All the while the focus was on educating the child; the one for whom they sacrificed, endured and survived.

The American Dream for my parents grew cold. They realized that educating their son would require taking two pathways. One by way of public schooling that would provide the academic content necessary to eventually pursue, not just any opportunity, but opportunities of worth and choice. They were willing to deal with the nightmares to have their son achieve the real Dream, not the second class token. The Real Dream . . . like the one that was inherited by the children of fail-safe families that hired my mother to clean, wash, iron, sew, sweep, mow lawns, wash windows, sanitize toilets, cook and raise their children, even on weekends.

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma, Regina Casé in The Second Mother, and Catalina Saavedra in The Maid.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix, Oscilloscope Pictures, and Film Tank/Oscilloscope Pictures.

When it came to schooling, parental involvement for them went far beyond making cupcakes for Meet Your Teacher Nights. It meant teaching the lessons they had learned from their first culture and teach those lessons in the first language. I was fortunate to have loving parents who took the time to share ancestral stories. Those stories always seem to point to human norms of thinking and doing. They were stories that I now recognize were constant efforts to humanize the world around me and prepare me for the social forces I would face to compromise “Latinidad” (Attributes of Spanish-speaking cultures). Calls to acclimate, assimilated, suppress language, sever culture ties and stifle spirit were ever present.


Millions of immigrants had sewn their intricate embroidered cloth on the American quilt. Validating and honoring “Latinidad” was not a matter of discarding all that was good about America, but rather a way to enhance its ethos. “Latinidad” was also a way for my ancestors through my parents to imprint my identity. My parents had no problems with me being bi-lingual, bi-cultural and bi-social. They were proud of such cultural capacity.

On occasion my father would recite gauchescan couplets regarding the value of the work ethic, camaraderie, nature, punctuality, “tu palabra” (your word), generosity and humility. Both parents emphasized that “lo que cuenta en la vida” (what matters in life) are the choices made. It was a simple-complex way of parenting. Regrets and consequences could be avoided by making good choices – choices that my parents knew would be waiting.