(Translation of Spanish: Frontiers ~ Play on words: “Dollars cause pain” ~ “America is a country without a soul.” –
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. It was because of the possibilities of tangible opportunities that my family decided to immigrate. It was the 1950s, when the “good old days of greatness” were being constructed. These are the days often mentioned in 2023 during political rallies calling for the selective melancholy to Make America Great Again. But at the same time revising, denying and neglecting America’s historical underbelly.
From across an ocean my father heard the sirens of how the work ethic would bear fruit. The sirens enticed that once in America, our family would join other immigrant “Super Heroes”, with their prized “super power” – the dauntless “Work Ethic!”
The possibilities of boundless opportunities was a major reason for uprooting our family and crossing an ocean. But just as important, we could leave behind years of political corruption and cycles of dysfunctional, chaotic and unstable autocratic government. American Democracy was waiting with its rights, the rule of law, inclusivity and equity.
“Chamigos” (Argentinean friends), who had immigrated and settled in America, would write to allure, support and promise to be waiting for us. The reasons cited were the limitless financial advantages they were enjoying, as they moved up the ladder of the Dream.
At times we would learn that they had purchased a car, their children were in school, they were being paid double for working on Sundays and holidays. The message seemed all too simple – all you had to do was work, work, work. We were told that there were plenty of jobs that many Americans did not want to do, know how to do, or had the time to do… and they paid in “guitas” (Argentinean slang for cash).
The American Dream for immigrants does not begin in America but inside a foreign frontera (border) – where dreams can end before they begin. Immigration is a process requiring emotional courage that is difficult to explain and understand. The weight of such a decision is tumultuous and traumatic. It has to be lived to be fully comprehended.
Most Americans never had to deal with such life altering decisions. Why and how would a family uproot their lives and immigrate? What is the emotional toll – the trauma involved in rupturing one’s culture, language, habits, traditions for another and leaving all possessions behind? Often it means traveling directly into perilous unknowns. Can the essence of one’s native “identity” ever be abandoned? The emotional, physical and psychological challenges, risks and fears of immigrating are immense, and continue to be.
The enticement via letters spoke of endless opportunities. But at the same time, we would hear disturbing accounts that we could not fully understand. Disturbing stories were shared that 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 “ganas” would cut through walls. Just keep your head down and labor.
Immigration for many immigrants is but the first chapter, followed by chapters of emigration and migrations. For us that meant from Argentina to the Harbor District of New York, to North End of Boston, to Detroit’s East Side. All three regions had their similarities, unique accents and identities. We often felt like square pegs trying to fit round holes.
The reasons for our chapters of migrations was due to my father and mother finding work. The 1950s all too quickly became the 2000s, with my family acclimating and assimilating to the American Dream.
My family had earned entry to the American Dream by relentlessly laboring. Their perseverance and resiliency resulted in turning temporary jobs into consistent employment. It also meant moving from tenements to a house, purchasing a car, public education, limited but available health care and being able to feel safe and secure. These were basic elements of the Dream being realized. Specifically, my dad found a secure job as a factory worker and my mother as a domestic. Both knew their roles, did them with pride and kept their heads down.
All along, both were meaningful role models to follow, not only as a citizen but human being. Both were master teachers. My mother taught generosity and humility. Her non judgmental compassion and nurturing naturally drew others to her. They knew that she was a giver and became a doña (an elder) as a young woman. The children she nannied loved her as if she had given them birth.
My father, although not formally educated, was wise and often provided me with critical questions to ponder. He was my social-cultural-political conscience. He would echo reservations that America could do better – should be better. He spoke of the different dimension of the Dream – its “Alma” (soul). What was that all about?
He would point to awareness that life for all human beings should be worth living with dignity and this was a responsibility shared by all of us, not just some. He was a benevolent skeptic that cautioned against greed and selfishness. The lesson was always about not taking our opportunities for granted – for ourselves and for others. His glass was always overflowing with hope, but its realization required advocacy.
I was a teenager when I had one of those father-son exchanges. I knew when such discourse mattered because the tone was different, there were pauses and emphasis. This time he spoke with sadness, “M’hijo, America es riquísima, pero es un país sin alma.” (My son, America is very rich, but it’s a country without a soul.) I was not only shocked, but somewhat angered.
Upon hearing “America es un país sin alma.”, I questioned and argued, reminding my father that all the possessions we had acquired, were because of the American Dream. Was he not hypocritically biting the hand that fed us? I was a student, getting an education, something they never experienced. Wasn’t that enough “soulness”?
He explained that he made the statement regrettably, having experienced and witnessing examples of “odio” (hate) that lived outside our tenements, in New York, Boston and Detroit. No, we did not live in a southern town, where supposedly racial hate was a common crop, but in the American East and Midwest.
He would explain that he did not make such a statement lightly, out of rancor, bitterness or 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 the focus should not only be on “dólares” (dollars) but also try to cure its “dolores.” (pains)
Living across the Atlantic, we had no idea of racism’s grip on American citizens. Unknowingly and unfortunately, that was part of the invisible acclimation. We learned about the race / class / status / gender dilemmas living in America as its historical pandemic. The lack of mutual respect disturbed my parents to see and hear Americans mistreat other Americans for no other reason than being different.
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 why were citizens raised and schooled to become racists? Why was the American Dream seemingly a nightmare for some, but not others?
He explained that his sentiments toward the human frailty and condition was not learned in America. He would point to our ancestors, grandparents and family. He emphasized how they prioritized the raising of the children beyond buying material things. The social curriculum that he described was fundamentally basic and focused on human core values: Reverence for the elderly, protecting the young, respect for others, generosity, community, connectedness with nature, caring for animals, justice, fairness and a work ethic taught to be holy. These core values were not temporary but a state of being and the seeds were now being planted on American soil.
In time I could only surmise that what his interpretation of “alma” (soul) was “civilidad“ (civility), instilled by way of “Latinidad.” (essence of Latina/o/x culture and its various shared attributes).
When it came to schooling, parental involvement for them meant teaching the lessons they had learned from their first culture and teaching those lessons in the first language. While living as Americans, they always held on to their heritage and cultural coherence.
I was fortunate to have loving parents who took the time to share ancestral stories. Those stories always seem to point to human norms. They were stories that I now recognize were constant efforts to humanize the world around me and prepare me for the social forces of acclimation and assimilation that could suppress native language, sever cultural ties and stifle “Latinidad.”
Over time, my parent’s wisdom crystalized, leaving me a legacy of their version of “Latinidad” – that highly dynamic, complex and relevant cultural ethos that is continuously being defined and redefined as the “Latin* Experience” with all of its interwoven relevant threads, impacting identity and uniquely different for each of us.
Those norms would become my parachute and life-jacket, my life-long trusted “chamigos” (endeared Argentine comrades) that would never deny the “dolores” of life, but also remain consciously conscience of the “alma” in each of us, regardless of our fronteras (borders).