american dream

The American Dream is a Nightmare for Some People

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I am the outspoken feminist that Pat Robertson warned you about.

James Truslow Adams coined the term ‘American Dream’ in his 1933 book The Epic of America. Adams said the American Dream is the “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” 

I’m going to tell you a story about an eighteen year old Puerto Rican woman named Justina.

Justina’s grandparents, Luis and Rita, moved from Puerto Rico to the states when Justina’s mother, Iris, was 8. Luis was an auto mechanic. Rita did not work outside the home but occasionally would take seamstress jobs, particularly around the holidays. Money was tight, their apartment was small, and the neighborhood wasn’t always safe. Arguments over the finances sometimes led to violence between Luis and Rita.

Luis and Rita had settled in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in a relatively large city of about a hundred thousand people. Iris, Justina’s mother, struggled with the move. She didn’t feel comfortable at school since she didn’t speak English well and she didn’t have many friends. She grew to resent her parents for bringing her to the US despite the fact that they told her they came here in search of better opportunities. As Iris grew up, she learned English and she made a few friends. Ultimately she became pregnant with Justina’s brother, Juan, when she was fifteen. When Juan was born, Iris dropped out of school. She worked minimum wage jobs here and there and eventually moved in with Juan’s father, who was 22 at the time. Justina was born when Juan was three.

Juan and Justina’s father, Carlos, introduced Iris to heroin and thus began many years of addiction that threw the family into turmoil. When Carlos left the family, when Justina was four, Iris moved into government housing with the children. She had another child, Jessica, when Justina was six.  Jessica’s father never knew of the pregnancy and was no longer in the area. A few years later, all three children were removed by Child Protective Services and placed in foster care for two years due to Iris’ addiction. The children were returned to Iris when she was able to demonstrate that she was no longer addicted to heroin. She had, however, began drinking heavily.

But this isn’t a story about Luis, Rita, Iris, Juan, or Jessica. This is about Justina. This is about her potential for the American Dream. As James Truslow Adams said, the American Dream is possible “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”. Our American ideology is such that Justina, like you, like me, like any other citizen of this country, has an equal chance at reaching their true potential. The theory is that the opportunities are there; it’s just about working hard and finding your way to success.

Between the ages of eight and ten, life was relatively stable for Justina. She did well at school. She had friends in the neighborhood. Everyone who met her thought her to be a charismatic, funny, and bright child. The family celebrated holidays at Rita’s apartment (Luis had since died of a heart attack). Rita made mountains of pasteles and arroz con gandules, and the family went out with their neighbors for parrandas (the Puerto Rican tradition similar to Christmas caroling). Justina has happy memories of this time, despite having to care for Jessica when her mother was intoxicated.

When Justina was ten, her mother relapsed on heroin after starting a relationship with a man who was dealing drugs. This man sexually assaulted Justina on several occasions while her mother was high. The family also moved to another apartment at this time which required the children to switch schools. There were a number of reports by the previous school to Child Protective Services that the children were showing up at school hungry and disheveled. When the family moved, the staff at the new school wasn’t familiar with the family and didn’t see the signs that something was off. Child Protective Services did not remove the children this time.

By the time Justina began high school, she had become quite withdrawn, had few friends, and although her grades were excellent, she didn’t contribute in class. In order to understand where her story goes from here, you need to understand a few things. Property taxes help fund our schools. In a poor community such as where Justina was living, property values are low and there are less financially successful businesses which results in an underfunded school district. But the problem really began back in the days of redlining when banks were allowed to refuse to provide mortgages in areas where black and brown folks lived, thereby driving up the value of homes in white neighborhoods and further gentrifying communities. Justina’s school, with it’s overcrowded classes, subpar textbooks, outdated computers, and difficulty retaining staff, was unable to offer her a high school education that would adequately prepare her for college. In fact, no one spoke to Justina about college applications. There were no career fairs or college visits. There was, however, metal detectors at the doors and a dress code designed to prevent students from wearing gang colors.

When Justina was sixteen, her older brother Juan, fell in with one of the area’s gangs. He began dealing drugs. Juan brought money home every few weeks to Iris, feeling as though he was finally able to contribute something to his family. Justina disapproved but said nothing because her older brother was her very favorite person in her life and she couldn’t imagine challenging him. Around this time, Iris asked her new boyfriend to move in with her. While Iris was in the bathroom, the new boyfriend made a comment to Justina about how she is ‘jailbait’. She told her mother about it later but Iris laughed it off. She said he was ‘just joking’ and ‘don’t be so sensitive’. Her mother still does not accept that the sexual abuse that happened when Justina was ten actually occurred.

A teacher from the school asked Justina if everything was okay at home because she noticed that Justina looked tired and depressed and her homework had been late. Justina shrugged and skirted the question. The teacher had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right and called Iris. Iris was angry at the suggestion that she consider having Justina see a therapist. She told the teacher that they don’t presently have health insurance and even if they did, ‘Justina don’t need no therapist’. Justina wondered if they no longer had medicaid because of all those unopened letters from the insurance company that had been piling up on the kitchen table.

A few months later, Justina’s mother went to the store leaving her at home alone with the boyfriend. Iris’ boyfriend cornered Justina in a hallway and attempted to kiss her. She left the apartment and went to a friend’s house. Justina was plagued with guilt because her sister, Jessica, now ten, was still at home. She begged her mother to listen to her. Iris again told her to stop overreacting. She was using heroin heavily at this time.

Justina’s friend, who was three years older than her, allowed her to stay at her home but this was an old childhood friend from before the family had moved. She was not in the same school district. Justina started working as a cashier at a convenience store and used the money to take the bus to school but she began missing days. The thought of transferring schools was simply too much. Iris stopped answering the phone when the school called to ask where Justina was. Child Protective Services was called in again. Iris told them that she didn’t know where Justina was and that she ran away. This time, Iris’s heroin use was evident and they removed Jessica from the home and placed her in foster care.

Justina dropped out of school just before her seventeenth birthday.  She got a new job at a fast food restaurant after the convenience store was held up three times within six months and she no longer felt comfortable working there. Justina obtained her GED when she turned eighteen. Around this time, her friend told her that she could no longer live with her because her boyfriend was moving in and there wasn’t space.

This brings us up to the present. Justina is an eighteen year old homeless high school drop out with a GED. Since she dropped out of school, she is not eligible for any college scholarships, nor is she an ideal candidate for any colleges other than a community college. She has no transportation. Even with working full time, she can’t afford to live on her own. She has no children and is not using substances. She has an untreated history of sexual trauma and no family resources to rely on. Even if she were to work hard at her job and be promoted to assistant manager, the average salary is less than $30,000 per year before taxes and the average rent for her area is $1170 a month. Her story is not unique. It is all too common.

What we learn from this family is that poor neighborhoods were set up for failure through redlining and the current practice of funding schools based on the property values and taxes. The system has failed Justina. The Child Protective Services system failed her, as well. Through no fault of her own, Justina does not have a foreseeable path to success. It is not clear how the American Dream, which by modern day standards includes home ownership, job success, and a family, is even a possibility for her.

Republicans often allude to ‘bootstrapping’ which is encouraging others to simply lift themselves up through the social and economic ladder through effort, working hard, and being responsible. The truth is that in our poor communities, there are a lot of folks who don’t have the minimum resources to survive. It might be simple to look at Justina’s story and blame her mother or blame her grandparents but that’s not the reality. The reality is that lack of resources and the struggle to survive creates tension that can lead to violence, substance abuse, and on and on. If you’re born into poverty, the odds are simply stacked against you. That doesn’t mean no one finds a way or that everyone’s story is the same but for some people, this quote by Malcolm X about the American Dream is far more accurate than anything that James Truslow Adams said about it:

 “And when I speak, I don’t speak as a Democrat. Or a Republican. Nor an American. I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy – all we’ve seen is hypocrisy. When we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism. We see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don’t see any American dream. We’ve experienced only the American nightmare.” 
― Malcolm X