An author I greatly admire posted on social media earlier today. Her post was a picture of some flowers behind a wooden fence. Beyond it, far away and in a mild breeze, an American flag. The caption read, ” Do you still dream of America?”
The picture suggested a dream of an America out of reach, like the boy who doesn’t know you exist, or the job you may just not be qualified for. Or maybe that interpretation just matched my mood after the week’s events.
Still, I feel uniquely positioned to answer this question. Not the answer, since there are as many ways to dream of America as there are Americans and aspiring Americans, but an answer probably more considered than most. You see, I grew up in America knowing that one day I’d probably have to leave it. Like the parent of a child with a terminal illness, I did not love more than most, but I certainly loved more urgently.
I grew up dreaming of America, an undocumented interloper, law-breaker at two months old. That I hadn’t been in on the plot did not absolve me of complicity. My parents overstayed their visitors’ visas, but I was the one who couldn’t go to kindergarten. Somos ilegales, I would hear them say in conversations, an explanation for so many failings and closed doors. No house. No driver’s licenses. Afraid to join the local pool because they asked for proof of residence and they didn’t understand who was friend and who was Migra.
“Undocumented” was a kinder word that would come much later when I was an adult. In my childhood, it was illegal, a stain, an identity. My parents were the first to call me that, so I knew it was true. I watched the Brady Bunch and dreamed of a blond mom and a smiling maid. I heard my mother crying on the phone and telling her mother that she missed her, then laughing an answer to a question. No, the streets are not paved with gold. But there are so many jobs. And la Nena speaks English now.
It was Sesame Street English, but it opened a glittering palace wall, wonderful as the one in The Wizard of Oz, the one manned by the guy with the funny mustache. Sonny and Cher musical numbers. Ice skaters. A woman in short shorts and men in a thick-looking car, laughing at the lawman who could never quite catch them. America was boldness, gumption, shiny hair. America was teeth that got impossibly white with the right toothpaste and which never grew in crooked. America was a drink that made the whole world sing. God, how I dreamed of America.
The year I turned six, America turned 200. I got a bicentennial bike for our mutual celebration, shiny streamers coming out of the handles, a fabulous red, white and blue seat. Two weeks later, my grandfather died in Argentina, and we left to go to the funeral. I thought I’d be back in two weeks, but I wouldn’t ride that bike for two years.
I know now about the coup that made getting back out of Argentina on a legal visa nearly impossible, compounded by the stain of our previous visa overstay. I know the legalities and the struggle. But then I didn’t. All I knew was to dream of America, the place that had seemed distant and behind glass even when I was living in it, and which now felt like a fortress protected by magical incantations that would never let me in. Why not? I wondered. What had I done? I wanted nothing more than for it to love me as I loved it. But still, it shunned me.
Our road was long and eventually took us on foot over the Mexican border. I was two years older, and different, too. I had learned to not speak English so the kids in Argentina wouldn’t laugh at me. I had learned to make myself small on the bare mattress on the floor of the shack of Tijuana where they made us wait until they crossed us. I had learned to say “yesterday,” almost like a prayer, the only word of English I remembered, when we went past a checkpoint in the coyote’s car, so I might pass as American.
Still, America sparkled and beckoned. It unfurled its promise and wonder. It gave me Wonder Woman the year I got back. It gave me Charlie’s Angels. It gave me A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a few years after then, then Judy Blume. It taught me that there could be three words – four, more – for the same thing, because of the history of successive invasions of England, because of Anglo Saxon, Latin, French. It gave me susurrus and whisper, murmur and mutter. It gave me shout and bellow and scream and yell. Spanish was the voice of my mother, but English was the voice of my life, of the books that blazed my soul alive. How could I help but dream of America?
Alone, apart, I longed to understand this place. At fourteen, I started watching political shows on Sunday mornings, Meet the Press, The McLaughlin Group. I didn’t recognize a single name they said. I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t stop watching until I knew the name of every law and every senator they referenced in their whip-fast banter.
And I learned this: it is too easy to take America for granted. For those who have the sun of this place baked in for generations, sometimes the wonder of it has been bleached from their view. Of course things will get sorted out. Of course the system will stand. Of course it’s supposed to be this way. So many people I met didn’t understand the precious, gossamer impossibility of it, of a system invented of whole cloth, so improbable an experiment that even its creators worried about its survival. You have been given such a huge gift, I wanted to shout, envious and longing. Love it. See it.
And, then, one day, I was given that gift. A Republican president signed a law that said I was no longer illegal. That I could stay. Yes to a house, yes to a college education, yes to a social security number. I was eighteen years old. It was heady and a little disorienting. I had prepared my whole life for the knock at the door, the deportation center. I had loved like someone who knows that she is going to lose. I didn’t know how to win.
It has been many years since I first held that temporary resident card in my hands, many years since I took the oath of citizenship with my infant daughter on my hip. My love has matured, as love does. I have learned things I didn’t know when America was my beacon, my land of opportunity, my Brady Bunch idyll. I have learned about an ugly racial history of which I was entirely unaware until I was an adult. I have learned about Watergate, which I lived through a couple of years before I got that bicentennial bike, but which I blocked out to play with my Baby Crissy doll.
And I’ve witnessed a lot too. The Challenger explosion live on a day home sick from school. “Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall.” The swearing-in of a young president, then the impeachment of that same president, less young then, more hoarse and defiant. An election where the result hung in the balance for an impossibly long month, the first election I was eligible to vote in. A war I hated from the start. The rise of the 24-hour-news cycle, the rancor of partisanship, the election of another young president, the unexpected sway of religion and prejudice in our political discourse.
And now this. This which makes it hardest of all to dream of America. This funhouse mirror of our lives. An administration that seems to take glee in the division, in the race to the bottom, in the coarsening of our discourse. This turning back of so much progress. This callous indifference to suffering and the future of the planet. This “day is night” and “truth is lies” inversion of our shared common language. This brazen disregard for things I loved about America, things like honor and principles, and laws that men in power couldn’t just break because they were powerful like they could in other places.
Oh, America, it aches a little to dream of you now, I won’t lie.
But, sweet land of Georgia clay and Alaskan evergreens, grand cliffs of Big Sur and glittering towers of Manhattan, sand of Gulf shores and vast lakes, America, yes, I do dream of you. I dream of the courage of you. Of those who came to build a cabin on rough land, and of those they displaced, whose suffering etched itself into our shared history. I dream of the perseverance of those who built the railroad, the intellect of those who wrote the laws, the fairness of those who upheld them. Were they perfect? No. But in partaking of this unique and unprecedented experiment, they built something better than perfect, something living and strong, a union continuously renewing itself.
America is the girl alone on the deck of third class, looking up at the statue in the harbor. America is the sharecropper’s grandson who dares register to vote. America is the woman who protests for suffrage, the interred Japanese American who rises, the immigrant who puts on the uniform to get her ticket to stay. It is the protesters on a bridge. It is the tears of those who mourn the assassinated, then square their shoulders and get on resuming his work. It is those who shout the truth in the face of tear gas and aimed weapons. It is those who go to the minimum wage job all day and study under a dim bulb at night to not wake up the kids. It is the song that is choked out through suffering. It is the spirit that says, “I do not give up. I do not stay quiet in the face of injustice. I speak truth even to the day I am the last one speaking it.” Because the heirs to such a brash experiment do not back down so easily.
It is an always-the-illegal girl in a dark room at her computer, pouring out gratitude and hope and anguish and a strangled cry for renewed optimism. It is the rallying call. It is the fight for truth, standing shoulder to shoulder. It is the most improbable, most wonderful dream, worth dreaming to the last.
America, I dream of you.