The Children of Latinx Immigrants Need a New American Dream
"My Time Among The Whites" highlights the ways we're reevaluating our immigrant parents' idea of America
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My mother believed in the American Dream when she had me, and she worked tirelessly in order to provide me with a great life with no worries about not having the basic necessities: food, a roof over our heads, and love. For her, and other immigrants of her generation, that’s what the American Dream meant: financial stability, no stress, the ability to provide for her family. But for the first-generation children of these true believers, it’s becoming clear that the dream is more complicated.
In My Time Among The Whites, Jennine Capó Crucet delves, via essays, into the experiences she’s had as a first-generation American child of Cuban immigrants who depended on the American Dream to survive and have a better life. In the essay “¡Nothing is Impossible in America!,” Crucet discusses the definition of the American Dream her parents knew and that she was raised with, along with the realities she discovered after believing it herself for so long. “The American Dream, commonly told: You can accomplish anything if you work hard enough for it,” Crucet proclaims. “All you have to do is work hard. My parents really believed this, and I believed it long enough to get me to college, where I learned to see this idea for the dangerous lie it is, one that doesn’t take into account many things like, for instance, history.”
Millions of immigrants have striven for a similar American Dream. To drop everything you know and leave a place you once called home is a significant and unimaginably difficult decision to make, especially when it ends up being the only option to survive wars, protests, corrupt police raids, and other horrendous events caused by outside political, economic, or environmental reasons. This was a reality for so many Latinx immigrants who made that sacrifice and more, working long hours under strenuous conditions in order to be able to keep living in this new home. To go through that, they had to believe in the promise of America—and in some ways, Crucet points out, that dream was realized. “We have privileges [our mothers and grandmothers] never thought possible,” she writes in “¡Nothing is Impossible in America!” “We are standing inside that privilege right here, talking about this. We have conjured the key not from nothing, but from their sacrifices and from the futures we glimpsed that sat just beyond the limits of their dreams for us.” Children of the diaspora, including myself, have had privileges of all kinds in result of what those who came before us have endured.
But here’s what first-generation children have learned from the life our parents sacrificed to give us: No matter how sweet it might look or how close one might feel to achieving it, the American Dream doesn’t apply to everyone equally. My mother embraced the dream of financial success and stability when she had me. She believed in it so that she could provide me with a good life, a life where I wouldn’t have to struggle as much as she did. As a single parent, through working tireless hours and going to college when she didn’t previously plan on it, she was determined to provide me with as much security and love as possible. Growing up, I felt it was only right to aspire to the American Dream.
But as I realized the inequalities my community and other marginalized communities face, I resented the American Dream that I grew up idealizing. The harsh truth is that it truly can never apply to me or those like me. Injustice towards marginalized communities in the U.S. spans across many groups, but Latinx immigrants and even those of the diaspora have been increasingly faced with racism, xenophobia, and violence. There also continues to be pay inequality between Latinx workers, both citizens and undocumented, and white workers. Even when immigrants (and their children) work an immense amount of tireless hours, they’re still further from the dream of financial security.
Crucet forged her own path to get where she is now—a novelist and associate professor—without having to diminish her heritage. In her book, she discusses her parents’ confusion when they attend her readings and see the central role her Latinx identity plays in her work—and how popular her work is despite this, even among strangers, even among white strangers.. “While they understand that by many measures, I’m successful in ways they’ve learned to recognize,” Crucet writes, “they don’t totally understand how I did this while asserting–rather than muting–my ethnic heritage in my work. They don’t understand why I would do this work when they’d given me what they thought was a key to escape it, a way of avoiding the work entirely.” Just as Crucet learned about the major falsity of the American Dream, many Latinxs of the diaspora likely have learned the same, especially given the political and social climate within the U.S. since the 2016 presidential election.
The white-centered aspects of the American Dream continuously reinforce barriers that keep Latinxs, including myself, from having that big house, that picket fence, the job that promises financial stability. Because we’re not the country’s ideal, we have to force our way into the dream through constant struggle to survive. Crucet writes about how her parents’ version of the American Dream, the one they passed on to her, incorporated that inequality: “I am someone whose parents taught her that to survive and thrive in this country, I would have to work twice as hard as a white person,” Crucet stated. “They never took issue with the unfairness of this; they said that’s just how it is until the work itself leads to success that allows you to transcend the unfairness somehow.” I, too, have learned to sense the moments where I know that I have to push a hundred times more compared to others, but is this the way for us to continue living, to work and work just to still be seen as lesser in a country where its so-called universal dream never considered us in its origins?
Considering this inequality, it’s no surprise that many Latinxs of the diaspora have more resentment towards the traditional idea of the American Dream than their parents or grandparents. After all, that American Dream wasn’t created with them in mind. The Latinx community has become a significant and crucial part of the U.S. population, but we are still not part of how America envisions itself. In the essay “Imagine Me Here, or How I Became a Professor,” Crucet discusses the resistance she practices in her position. “I teach as if I have nothing to lose, which helps me tell my students the truth–about why the faces in the room are mostly a certain color, or how we are all part of an oppressive structure perpetuating all sorts of bigotry just by sitting in that room,” she says. ”I don’t believe these institutions will figure out a way to solve their own problems. They were designed to do the opposite. When I speak at other predominantly white campuses, I’ve reminded the students of color and the women about this fact: This place never imagined you here, and your exclusion was a fundamental premise in its initial design.” The way higher education in the U.S. doesn’t truly make the initiative to consider the Latinx community and people of color as a whole in these spaces is a part of the wider inequality that spreads throughout the entire country: we weren’t and aren’t expected, imagined, acknowledged, and considered. Our ancestors, up to the recent generations that came before us, fought at different levels to make it possible for the Latinx community to continue to exist, especially in a racist, xenophobic country that continues to try to erase our existence.
This shift from previous generations’ white-influenced idea of success to the goals and values of Latinx generations suggest that it’s time for a full overhaul of the American Dream—one that leaves room for more the Latinx community and marginalized communities in general. Perhaps becoming disillusioned with the American Dream is actually the first step to creating a more inclusive one. Crucet’s book offers us a blueprint for how this might look; she first embraced the general idea of success passed down by her parents, but then dissected it, interrogated its white-centered ideology, and finally took portions of it and made her own way to success. Is a wider interrogation and overhaul of the American Dream going to be the driving force to a better future for the Latinx community? One can only hope that the generations to succeed us face less injustice and inequality so that the U.S., especially as a new home to millions, can finally offer promise to us all.