November 19, 2004

Commentary

On the American Dream

By Heriberto Escamilla

My parents left the familiar surroundings of Los Ebanos, Nuevo Leon back in 1958, drawn by the promises of El Otro Lado, the other side, the land where people made lots of money, bought new cars and houses, and where people had enough food to eat. I don’t believe that my parents were ambitious people in search of riches. They were simply hungry and they had two children. Like poor people often do, they had learned to tolerate an empty stomach as a fact of life, ni modo. But for their children, hunger was not acceptable and therefore, out of necessity, out of love, my parents with a combined four years of formal education between them, reached for the American dream.

What they did not know is that El Otro Lado, the other side, transforms people. The dream has a price, but again like many poor people, my parents knew about sacrifice. To many the change from one life to another is drastic. To me, it was subtle, betrayed only by the fact that we visited Los Ebanos often and I now have an opportunity to reflect. We made the 8-hour car trip from the clean and orderly streets of Houston to Los Ebanos every three or four months. What I remember most about those trips was my father’s anxiety about crossing. I never understood it, but certainly felt it. Maybe he was afraid of losing something, or perhaps he feared seeing what he was leaving behind.

With every trip, the busy streets of Monterrey seemed to sprout more trash, and a growing army of skinny dogs rooting out their next meal. On each return, the smell of burning diesel and a cacophony of honking cars violently overwhelmed my senses.

The Carretera Nacional became a time tunnel. The cars we saw along the way seemed to age. They gradually gave way to burros and horses, and eventually barefooted children with bloated stomachs, two and three at a time, falling behind the more determined walk of their mothers. The transformation reaches deep, even into time itself. Each year, the picturesque plaza hidden away in the heart of Allende suffered the repeated violation of invaders from the north. Long haired, bearded young men, armored in their sleek and shiny Camaros, adorned with Texas plates returned, proudly parading in front of the old cathedral, hoping to create a little excitement.

Upon each return, the people stared more. Strangers obligated by years of custom and repetition still blessed our path, “adios”. From time to time, we came across a friend or relative and the encounter went beyond the obligatory greeting. I can still feel the warmth of familiarity. But the encounters grew shorter, there were fewer words to say, less experiences to share. Strangers lowered their heads more quickly, and continued along unchanged. El Otro Lado also made the days on my grandfather’s farm longer and more boring, the cry of chicharras louder and the nuisance of the small flies attracted by the moisture of saliva and mucous, unbearable. At night the voices of the transformation ominously crackled through my grandfather’s battery powered radio, irreverently defying the sanctity of night.

I vaguely knew my parent’s dreams before we moved to el Otro Lado. I know now that the land that fed them and the spirit that animated their souls existed from the dawn of mankind. I realize now that that my eyes deceived me. Los Ebanos was and still the creation of a continuous chain of lives from time immemorial. From the Olmecas, who first discovered that our triumphs and failures could be forever carved into symbols into the rocks of Veracruz, The spirit grew with the Maya, and the people of the clouds, the Zapotecas. Along the way, the mysterious Toltecas coaxed the gods down from the heavens and housed them at Teotihuacan. And the Azteca warriors religiously fueled the creator’s flight across the heavens, the blood of thousands seeped deep into the rich cornfields that fed us. And when that spirit was threatened, Los Ebanos saw through Juan Diego’s eyes. She witnessed the apparition of Coatlaxopeuh, the brown-faced virgin; the presence in everything Mexican. In Mex-ico, Cortez conquered the flesh, but the Christianity of the friars was defeated to be reborn again with indigenous roots.

I often lament the transformation that has made my trip home that much longer. Yes, we must change and our perceptions conform to the dreams we embrace. As children we have no choice but to accept what we see. Some of us are fortunate. But fortune or not, there does come a time when all of us have choices, or perhaps more accurately said a responsibility to not only reach out and hold, but to actively mold the dreams by which we live.

Our parents reached out, sacrificed for a better life, but babies born in the United States today are twice as likely to die as those of Sweden, Iceland, Japan, Spain or the Czech Republic. According to the World Health Organization the United States has slipped to 36th among the 196 nations that keep these records. Our parents wanted to feed us. According to the CDC, 73% of Latinos living in the United States is considered obese and therefore much more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease and other complications. Non-Hispanic Whites are not far behind at about 62%. Our parents wanted education, but according to the Education Trust-West, 44% of our Latino youths are dropping out of high school before they graduate. The dream promised a house. According to the California Association of Realtors, only 11 percent of households in San Diego are able to buy the median-priced home. And studies tell us that the cars that transport us; they are choking the earth that has fed us.

In America today, too many of us are choosing to blindly hold on to and live a dream that has lost its purpose; it is no longer grounded in the American earth that we now trample, nor is it connected to the spirit that inspired our parents and the ancestors before them. Ni modo?

Escamilla is a psychologist and senior program evaluator for an organization that evaluates social service programs.

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