American Dream Should Be Available for All Who Seek It
The immigrant experience is the foundation of America. In the preamble to the Constitution, we are told that we are forever moving toward a more perfect union. And the 40 million immigrants living in America today are a central part of making our union more perfect. The American Dream that is at the heart of the founding of this country is at the moment at risk. This country is based on the promise that if we work hard, we are going to do better and our children will do better still. That promise of upward mobility is no longer true for millions of immigrants in our country. America is currently tenth in upward mobility, behind the Scandinavian countries, behind Spain, behind France.
When I was growing up in Athens, walking home from school everyday I would pass a statue of President Truman, who had brought the Marshall Plan to Europe. He was revered. America was seen as a beacon. Everybody I knew had friends or people in their own families who had left Greece to go to America for "a better life." These were the words identified with America, "a better life." I was able to seek out that American Dream myself, partly because of my mother and her indomitable belief in education.
When I was growing up in Greece, many Greek girls still offered dowries to get married! My mother used to say to me, "Your education is your dowry." And she did everything to make sure I was educated. We were living in a one-room apartment -- my father was a serial philanderer whom she'd finally left (when she complained he used to say to her not to interfere with his private life). But she never let any of that get in the way. She sold everything she had -- I remember her selling her last pair of little gold earrings -- to get me through school. And when I saw a magazine picture of Cambridge and for some reason felt that I wanted to go there, everybody laughed at me -- except my mother.
She said, "If you want to go there, let's make it happen." And having somebody in your life who does that for you is often a big part of the immigrant experience. The sense that we can make it happen, no matter how hard it is. Without my mother, it would never have happened. She gave me that sense of unconditional loving, which meant that as I was going for my dreams, I knew that if I failed she wouldn't love me any less, and we would just keep trying. And she also made me believe that failure is not the opposite of success. Failure, she used to say, is a stepping stone to success. And that's part of the fearlessness of the immigrant experience.
But in order to actually move the country away from fear -- which leads to scapegoating, which leads to fear of the "other," fear of the immigrant, fear of those coming here to seek out the American Dream and enrich our country in the process -- we need to touch people's hearts and extend our circles of empathy. As Pablo Neruda wrote, "To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and weaknesses -- that is something still greater, and more beautiful, because it widens out the boundaries of our being and unites all living things."
And that's what we need in order to counter the ugliness, and the hatred, and the fear-mongering that have been fueling the recent anti-immigrant rhetoric. My American Dream for the future is the hope that my old American Dream -- the one that I was lucky enough to live myself -- will continue to expand and be available to all who seek it.