I’m broke, but happy.
As a second-gen American, my immigrant family is constantly perplexed by the peace I’ve made with being broke. And they show only a shallow gratitude for my happiness.
I’m a writer, you see, and my broke-ness and happiness are a direct result of my choosing to live the life of a writer. Admittedly, I thought I’d be making more money by now. Not much, but enough to not feel so pinched every month. Still, I haven’t been money-minded in a long while, not since I switched my major from accounting to history after leaving an esteemed private university.
Then began the worrying on my family’s part. It’s understandable. The market had taken a plunge. People were out of work. My family was worried that, after all their hard work and sacrifices, I would end up scrapping to pay the bills for the rest of my life like they have.
But in the end, I had a dream to be a writer, and I had to be brave enough to chase that dream, even if the path led me through Broke City.
My immigrant forebears don’t place much value in dreams. Sure, my grandma left Honduras around 30 and made it all the way to Chi-town, all by herself, to build a new life for herself and her three daughters. But it wasn’t really her dream to come to America. It was more of a goal. When she arrived, she worked on the assembly line in a toy factory and then worked the printing machine for a popular adult magazine. She’d been a primary school teacher back in Tegucigalpa. After a few years in the States, she opened her own clothing store near Ashland and Chicago. Not because she wanted to. But because she could, and because that’s where the money was.
Her daughter, my mom, has worked in a shipping warehouse for as long as I can remember. It’s hard work, the kind that requires steel-toed boots.
So the two of them were understandably excited when I got into that private university and even earned a spot on the honors accounting program there. They saw dollar signs, but not for themselves. That’s the thing about immigrants — they come to America to make as much money as they possibly can, not for themselves, but for their children. They want to leave their children in the best position to earn even more money. The history of most Latino families is a race to the top of the mountain.
And then, here I come along, Mr. I Want To Be A Writer And Don’t Care About Making Money, and ruin their grand plan to see their posterity make it to the summit of society. It nearly breaks their hearts. But, like I said, I have a dream that needs chasing.
I wonder if my grandma and mom had dreams like mine when they were little. My grandma tells the story of how, when she was a girl and her family was too poor to buy her shoes after hers had fallen apart, she swore to her father she would one day have a closet lined with shoes of all sorts. Years later, after she moved to the capital, her father came to visit, and the two of them cried when her father noticed her closet filled with pumps and sandals.
Now, maybe I’m being snobby, but I don’t consider that a dream.
To my mind, a dream is something inside of you demanding fulfillment. A dream is not reached outside of yourself, but inside. My dreams won’t be achieved when my home reaches a certain square footage or I get to ride a dolphin. Those are more like a wish or want, whereas dreams are closer to a need.
A dream is so essential to your individuality that you’ll be happy simply chasing it, because a dream is exactly what it describes — what we are when we can’t control it, something deep inside ourselves. You cannot choose what you dream when you’re awake no more than you can choose what you dream when you’re asleep.
I think our immigrant parents and grandparents either never had dreams or have forgotten what they were. They’ve been so focused on escaping their environments back home or bettering their situations here that they’ve lost the ability to dream, to the point where I’m not sure they even understand the essence of dreams.
And so when I say I want to be a writer, someone inevitably asks how I plan on making money from that, as if dreams should also be profitable. And when I tell them that making money is secondary to me, their faces look as though I’ve just recited a Satanic prayer or uttered some flu-induced nonsense. If my dream isn’t to make a lot of money and have nice things, then there is something wrong with me. Either I’m stupid, lazy or insane, which leaves them feeling a mixture a fear, worry and disgust.
I’ve come to find that being a Latino American involves recovering the ability to dream and gathering the courage to chase your dreams. That is the difference between me and the people that came before me — the difference between thriving and merely surviving. I have the space to be human.
My grandmother judges the success or failure of her hard work and sacrificing on the amount of money I make. In her eyes, if I and her other grandkids don’t become well-off, then her whole life will have been for nothing.
But what she doesn’t realize is that she’s already succeeded. Through everything her and my mother have done with their own lives, I’m able to do something they were never able to.
[Photo: Brittany Alamo]