Charla de Merienda: The American Dream or American Carnage?
Even well-established legal immigration options are being challenged
I have spent over 30 years of my career dealing with immigration regulations and the rules that govern the ability for international students and scholars to come to and remain at US universities on what are considered non-immigrant status positions. This means the person is coming for a temporary situation to study or research for a certain period of time and then to either return to their home country or apply to change, or adjust their status for a longer or more permanent stay in the US.
For most of my career this has been an easily understood process without too much complication. As a result, the US lead in attracting international students grew exponentially to over 1 million students. Far outdistancing the second place UK by several hundred thousand students. It was not just the simple immigration process, but most importantly it was the great reputation that the US education system held around the world. Students and scholars felt WELCOMED to the US and enjoyed a high quality degree that benefitted them, their country and the US.
This abundance of international scholars and students to the nation’s institutions of higher education once was counted as the leading export for the US. The nation benefitted greatly in several ways, two of which are obvious – the wealth of tuition dollars coming from overseas to the many colleges and universities of our land, and also the wealth of cultural influence coming to a nation that is geographically isolated from all but two nations we share borders with.
Over the last several years the dominance that the US had obtained has diminished greatly. Partly because more countries are now “in the game” of attracting the international student pool. However, the last two years have shown steady significant decline in the numbers of international students studying in the US, while countries such as Canada have grown by more than 20% in just this short time. A prime reason for such stark changes is the perception around the world that the US has now become UNWELCOMING to all non-immigrant visitors as well as to those seeking to immigrate to the US. One glaring example was the Muslim Travel Ban issued as an executive order by President Trump in his first days in office. Less obvious are the subtle changes in policy or interpretation of current immigration regulations that threaten to deport and ban students for minor infractions to immigration regulations (recently interpreted differently) that they may not even be aware of. On their face, the new Unlawful Presence policy affecting international students and scholars seems somewhat reasonable, but a deeper dive reveals an intent of the current administration to bar not only those here without documents, but also those who have come to the US through very legal processes. UNWELCOMED to invest their time and talents in the US and to build stronger diplomatic relationships with their home countries for years to come.
The expansion of the discussion on immigration to also question the policies and practices long established as a prime identity for the US – welcoming to all coming in various immigration classes to make investment into our shared society – now paints the US in the community of nations as the most UNWELCOMING for any visitor who is not one of “US.”
Immigration and American Identity
Identity is complex for one person, even more so for a specific group or generation, even more for a collective people of a whole nation. The values, foods, dances, music, ideologies, religions, rituals, clothing of the various immigrant groups that have come to the United States for generations have intertwined with political affiliation, gender, age, body size, job, family role, brand name, face book quiz, etc. They can’t be separated. So our national identity, to ourselves as citizens, or in the eyes of the global community, is a such a conundrum because our complex personal identities most often are rooted in the mind and not the heart. What does that mean? And how do we define ourselves if who we are constantly changes?
In 2001, inspired by a line I read in Salman Rushdie’s Jaguar’s Smile, I decided to move to South America. Soon after my arrival in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the country was in a socio-economic disaster. Those who could left, including many of the friends I made. I stayed, and witnessed how art helped stabilize a culture after a crisis, emotionally and economically. Abandoned factories became cultural centers and circuses, parks became meeting points to barter through crafts and trades, and hold community meetings.
In 2007, I was hired to play the role of Calypso in one of South America’s most renowned independent theatre troupes, el Teatro de los Andes. At the first rehearsal, before any text was written, before any scene manifested, the director, Cesar Brie stated emphatically, that without humility, this play is not possible. Situated in the hills outside a small town of Yotala, Bolivia, three Argentines, three Italians, three Bolivians, a German, a Brazilian, and a Filipino-North American (me), strived for over a year from sunrise to sometimes midnight to recreate Homer’s Odyssey within the context of Latin American migration to the exterior. We wrote the texts, built the sets, sewed the costumes, proposed hundreds of images for dozens of scenes. All without grants or sponsorships. The show was formidable, emotionally and technically, as the audience follows Odysseus (Ulises) on his harrowing journey from Central America to Southern Mexico, to the Border, and beyond. We toured for three years on three continents, over half our shows received standing ovations. However, deeper than the story being told, the audience was left with a creative testament to the power of humility (and the courage to look ridiculous at times). They were left with a symbolic experience that people, with completely different cultural and national identities, can work together to create a powerful story. I was blessed. For me, these experiences in South America solidified a new purpose and responsibility of being a U.S. citizen. Anywhere I am.
Now back in the United States of America, I continue to use the arts to interrogate who I am as an individual. From the collaborative theatrical arts to the art of meditation, creation and expression become a process of dissolving this tangled identity. “Karen” becomes the vessel of an exploration beyond the ego, the race, humankind, to all matter. Each judgement and distraction, mindless, angry reaction or stress-related agitation within me is a roadblock to this discovery, so admittedly, I have a looooong way to go. Multiply this by millions of judgmental, mindless, angry, agitated individuals within this American - that is North American - madness, and the work is endless. But the more work I do on myself, the more I feel, enthusiastically and honestly, a responsibility to society, to my family, to the earth. I work with my husband, Bolivian musician Amado Espinoza, and in our theatrical collaborations and musical outreach, the trans-cultural experience remains a fundamental theme. Through our shows, programming at elementary schools, libraries, and festivals, often in small communities, we dignify the poetic expressions of our ancestors from all around the earth, teaching while we entertain. Many of these audience members probably vote very differently than Amado and I. Sometimes the voice in my head thinks, “What are we doing here? They are going to hate us!” Inwardly I tremble with anxiety, I get annoyed with Amado’s calm, focused demeanor. But often, they come up to us after the show to shake hands and talk and ask questions. Humbled, I realize how much that I am victim to my own pessimistic thoughts and prejudices, and that identity is an experiential process and reflection, not a simple noun or adjective.
When Amado first arrived in 2014, he could only say “I am hungry” and “I am still hungry” in English. In 2015 he opened TEDxKC at the Kauffman performing arts center in Kansas City. In front of a sea of mostly affluent white mid-westerners, he stood alone on the stage with a pan-flute (Sikus), a Charango (a Bolivian 10-string guitar), and wearing an embroidered jacket worn by Bolivian warriors, he offered his music to the people of the city. Then he smiled, and a bridge was built.
An Immigrant’s Story
Last Spring, I took a class on immigration in literature and film, co-taught by Marta Caminero-Santangelo and Tamara Falicov. It was an amazing class that delved deeply into so many issues I had never encountered before, though I am myself an immigrant. I came to the U.S. when I was 9 from Puerto Rico, and although parents are Dominican, my Mom had me and my sisters in Puerto Rico. So when we arrived to the US, my whole family had US citizenship, and of course it was hard, moving to a new place and learning a new language, but looking back at it now, I realize the whole process was pretty simple and straightforward for us. In Marta and Tamara’s class, I was exposed to a whole new perspective on the immigrant experience, one much more cruel and heartbreaking than I could have ever imagined. The books we read and films we saw opened up a whole world of struggle that immigrants encounter when they seek their fate in this country. However, the most eye-opening of all the things we did in that class was a service learning project, where we worked with Centro Hispano of Lawrence to create our own film, documenting the stories of immigrants in our community.
I, along with a group of three other students, was assigned to work with Ana,* who had agreed to tell her story for our documentary. We were all so nervous the first time we met for the pre-interview, Ana most of all. She was timid and reticent at first, but she was friendly and she opened up by degrees. It was a curious feeling, sitting across from her as she revealed new layers of her life and experience; some things I couldn’t believe had happened to the person next to me. How could a human go through this?
After the interview, we listened to the recording of the pre-interview as a group (we wanted to send every group member a copy to listen to in her own time, but Ana asked us to not share the recording online and we didn’t want to risk it sharing it amongst ourselves), and little by little a story emerged. We made notes of what she said and wrote an outline of the most significant events in chronological order, but of course, we also had to let Ana tell her own story in her own way. At the formal interview, we gave her the outline that we had written and told her, “This is basically how we see your story playing out, but you can choose to do it however you want.”
She was so nervous at first. All the lighting and recording equipment made her nervous; I think our outline made her nervous too. The first take was very short. She forgot most of what was on the outline and gave very few details. It was so courageous of her to be doing this at all that all we could say was, “That was really great; do you feel comfortable giving us more details on the next take?”
As we kept doing takes, she opened up more and more, and her story came together. I was so impressed by her courage in telling her story, by her wisdom in telling it so well. Her conclusion was so compelling, and that was all her; maybe Gayatri Spivak is right and the subaltern can’t speak but Ana did a pretty damn good job of it.
Now that I have distance from the project, I find myself thinking a lot about Ana. I wonder what her future holds. She insisted so much on anonymity; for her own safety, she has to stay hidden. What’s going to happen to her if no one knows about her, if no one cares? What’s going to happen to her children, struggling in the shadows? She’s a single mother; what on earth would her children do if she got deported? They’ll be terrified of that their whole lives. And on the other side of the coin, will she ever get to return to Mexico and see her own mother again? Her father? It’s so cruel what immigration can do to families, tearing them apart like this for years, perhaps forever.
We initially made the documentary for Centro Hispano to show at a fundraising gala, but I hope it stays around, and more people see it than just those at the gala. I hope many people will hear Ana’s story, because they have to know what it’s like. Immigrants as a group are so conspicuous—especially now as the border wall debate rages—but individually, they are so invisible. We need to listen for their voices, their stories.
I believe it is these stories that will save us. Maybe enough of them can rise up to crowd out the hate and fear-mongering choking this country. Then will we realize: this isn’t a nameless, faceless menacing mob, but human beings who walk and talk and love and dream, just like anyone.
*name changed for her protection
On the American Dream
Growing up, “The American Dream” was a strange term to consider as a first-generation Mexican boy who started to question his existence in the United States. Just saying the American Dream makes its stand out that its solely for Americans, those either naturalization or birth in the United States. However, my parents did not see it like this, when my father considered traveling to the United States to raise enough money for his own growing family that was at the time me, my mom, and my recently born sister. Does his dream align with the core fundamentals of the American Dream?
Let’s break this down, for me the American Dream refers to the exceptional opportunities for social mobility one finds here in America. Then why such social mobility seems almost exclusive to certain privilege identities and otherwise limited for underrepresented communities, and in this case immigrants. Growing up, my interpretation of the “American Dream” came with the vision of providing aid for my own family, only to realize that such achievement would come with obstacles that made this American Dream into a Pipe Dream.
I would always remember when I was just applying for colleges at the end of my senior year and I was accepted to my preferred school of choice. I have already been accepted and been asked to come to their institution and take a tour. I was thrilled and could not imagine how I would react when I finally stepped onto campus. However, that dream was cut down when they inquired about my legal status. In their application, they asked what my specific status was, a U.S citizen, permanent resident, or international student. At that moment, DACA came in, but there was no consideration of changing their application to include DACA/undocumented students, therefore I could not check any of the available categories. When I explained my situation to them, they revoked my application all together and considered my act of applying as academic misconduct on my part for not providing the right information. At that point, it appeared that going to college would be a waste of my time, fearing that I would continue to encounter the same situation again.
Having experienced all of this, I began to wonder: is the American Dream worth striving for in a place where they don’t want you?
When I got the opportunity to go come to KU, I was still questioning my value to the larger whole as an immigrant here in the United States. I came to question my own identity, how this society wants me to be seen – as a criminal, a student, or just another Mexican-Immigrant? Would I even consider myself to be an American in the first place?
No, I do not need to be considered as anyone else’s interpretation of who I must be except for myself. Furthermore, it should not be any person’s thought to label another person contrary to how that person views themselves, because such an approach often leads to stereotypes that deconstruct the person. The identity that I set myself is a reflection of my own persistence to change how this nation values other individuals that are like myself with the same ethnicity, or the same status. Along with giving those who are in a similar situation an opportunity to move forward and thrive. Because those who get to define it are the ones who give others the space to define themselves.
I have heard stories, seen tears on people’s faces, and am filled with the proud and audacious words of “I am here, and I am here to stay”. These are not words or actions of people trying to take away the American Dream. It is not an attack on National Security, but it is a revision on the nation’s mindset about immigration, to break barriers on prejudices that others have on minority groups. The identity of this nation is not simply one of a governing mindset but of several cultures mixed from different backgrounds to create their own dream in America.