THE IMMIGRANT DREAMS EVERY DREAM BUT THEIR OWN
or the Sadness of Non Serviam
It is that time of year – friends are in town for campus tours, I have letters of recommendation to write, the last bright leaves are falling, and I am thinking perhaps predictably about dreams.
I was born to a poor Dominican family and when we immigrated to New Jersey we became a poor immigrant family. My old man never kept a job long, was always the first fired. I never had the latest shoes or the latest anything. If I got one pair of jeans and one t-shirt for the new school year that was a lot, and my brother and I didn’t even get real haircuts – our father just shaved our heads and called it a day. Later, when my father left the family, we got poorer still -- which at the time my foolish self didn’t think was possible. But it’s like Hugo observes in Les Miserables, there are always pits beneath the pits.
No surprise that I started working as soon as I could. I pretended I was my older brother, so I could start delivering newspapers at age 11. I took on all three routes in our neighborhood: Star Ledger, News Tribune, Home News, two in the morning, one in the afternoon. Later I washed dishes at a nearby Chinese restaurant; pumped gas at the local bomba, fried chicken for some messed-up white racists, and finally got a job at the mall, delivering pool tables. In college I continued with the pool table gig and even spent a summer subbing at Raritan River Steel. Despite a full load of classes, I always had a 30 hour-a-week-plus job. In my family it was understood that everyone who could work worked – no breaks, no excuses, no slacking off.
Typical immigrant shit.
Funny thing is, I never felt bad for myself. (Well, not often.) The person I truly felt bad for was my mother who could not speak English or drive, who worked five times harder than all us kids combined, who sacrificed everything - family, language, culture, home, food, climes, belonging - everything so her children could have a chance at what she never had: an education, a that didn’t involve working like an animal, a future.
Typical American Dream shit.
Implicit in that American Dream shit was the expectation that we college kids would help out the family as soon as we graduated. And the sooner we graduated the better. There were never any long, drawn-out family meetings to hammer out these expectations, no contracts drawn to be signed in blood. But even without the meetings or the contacts, my siblings and I understood the mission, the Plan. The Three Laws of the College Immigrant Robotics were imprinted on us like circuity:
Graduate from college (with a remunerative major).
Score good job (with said remunerative major).
Help family out (remuneratively).
And if we all followed the Three Laws punctiliously, all my mother’s suffering, all her isolation, all that she had to sacrifice, would be repaid with interest.
I’m paraphrasing for the sake of time and space but there’s no question I was the Plan and the Plan was me until junior year in college when it dawned on me that I wanted to be an artist and not a lawyer or a history teacher.
More specifically I wanted to be a writer, and what García Marquez has called “a suicidal profession” was to be my fate, my calling.
I will not bore you with the internal storms I endured, or how I slowly turned fugitive from the Laws, from the Plan, or the years of guilt I felt while I was trying to make a life out of writing. The pressure and the temptation I experienced to write something remuneratively when all I really wanted to do was write something meaningful. How often I nearly returned to the Plan.
One day I’ll write about this inner war more fully but for now what I wish to emphasize is this: for the first three years of college I was living other people’s dreams.
Not a shocker. A lot of us are living other people’s dreams.
Sometimes we’re living society’s dream – Make money! Get status! Accumulate!
Sometimes we’re living our family’s dream – Put aside what you want and help us, dammit!
If you’re an immigrant like me there’s a very good chance that other people’s dreams are all you’ve ever known.
The immigrant after all, tends to dream everyone’s dreams but their own1.
How do you know the difference between other’s dreams and your own?
Start with the insight that dreams are not received or inherited; they’re discovered.
Sometimes after long wanderings, sometimes after many errors and frustrating detours, but discovered they must be. The same way a person discovers themselves – by questioning, by searching, by being open to error and folly, to the shock of the unexpected, to transformation.
Start with the insight that none of us, absolutely none of us, are given our precious lives in order to live anyone else’s dreams.
If you’re an immigrant like me such an emancipatory thought can amount to treason, to apostasy.
Such treasonous feelings and the immigrant guilt they provokes are often enough to trap you in someone else’s dreams for decades. Sometimes a person never even gets a chance to find their own dream—to break free—until it is too fucking late.
The love and obligation some of us immigrants feel for our families - few forces on the Earth are stronger and when you find yourslf wrestling against these you find yourself in Canaan wrestling an angel and not for one night but for many.
I now understand that I got real lucky– maybe it was the friends I had or the books I read or the teacher / librarians I studied under or maybe I had too much James Joyce in me – I will not serve2-- but by junior year of college I began to realize that something vast and terrible was working its way through me. The realization that I could not live anyone’s dreams but my own.
Even at that age I knew I owed myself that much. Perhaps no more -- but at least that much.
To become a writer I had to learn so much, read so much, grow so much, but above all I had to put aside my family’s dreams, society’s dreams and find my own.
Which I did, in the end. Another story, for another time. Didn’t mean I didn’t help my family. That happened but much later, not immediately after college. And I never got over the guilt I felt for betraying the Plan, the Laws. It still pangs me, what might have been, what I might have done, especially when my writing goes poorly. I guess I never stopped being that kind of immigrant.
Autumn brings it all back to me, all those memories all those traitor feeling. But I comfort myself by remembering that I gave myself the only gift I could give, back when I had nothing to my name, the very gift my mother dreamed for us all a chance: a future.
The “immigrant” is not alone. There are many “identities” with similar susceptibilities.
From Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: ““I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning.”