For two weeks, I found myself wandering the streets of Downtown Los Angeles. I didn’t tell anybody where I was, nor did I plan to meet people I know there. I simpy didn’t need to hear — “comments” (I already have as I write this). I wanted to experience the lives of the people that the state of Arizona have deemed undeserving of the American Dream, without having to go to Arizona, that is. I thought California would be that place, as a haven for 25% of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. New York City, also the city of immigrants, some may be undocumented, is really not the same, as the whole island of Manhattan has been gentrified and its “cultural” people moved to the outer boroughs such as Queens, the last vestiges of good old American work ethic, the type that involved the heavy use of hands and hearts (versus the much coveted corner office and two hour coffee break in a high rise with a view). I have been to LA a few times, but this was the first time I decided to zero in on a purposeful trip.
The Bends in the Road
Since I started traveling when I was eighteen, I have taught myself to take the paths where the road bends and twists, the non-touristic areas, or so to speak, the road less traveled, where I believe the real people are. Earlier in my traveling years, I ran into these bends because I took the wrong bus and ended up somewhere off my magical travel map, but have found in them the kind of stories my peripatetic soul desires. In Rio de Janeiro, when I was twenty, I ended up in a street that would eventually inspire my first novel. The images I found–the dark alleys, the big windows, the hang-around-do-nothing men, the street kids–are as vivid in my mind and heart as the first encounter. Also, as recent as three years ago, my most important memory of the street of Rio de Janeiro were street vendors up and about so early in the morning as the competition got stiff while the hours lingered. There was this older man selling a floor cleaning product while he demonstrated dirty vs. clean by using his product on a few household parts (floor wood, tile, etc. ). He did that with so much candor, it made me wonder if he ever tired of showing the passersby (many simply overwhelmed by the human traffic) the before and after. Culture watching is what I enjoy most in traveling, and I do that with a direct glance, not from the corner of my eyes, as most tourists would, especially when the delight over false realities start to wane, and the homeless in the corner become visible again. In my point of view, the homeless is always there. I see people before I see the glitter.
And so I skirted the Hollywood glitter all together, and left with not one picture for Facebook of me in front of the notorious sign on a mountaintop. Instead, I spent much time walking Broadway, this seedy strip reminiscent of pre-gentrified Manhattan Times Square. Interestingly, I was consumed by sheer excitement. Every day, I ate at the Central Market and the Mexican dives on Broadway, contemplating on the demographic shift that is about to hit this country in a few years. I watch people get lost in their work, many very young Mexicans who obviously should be in school. I was strangely feeling that they, unlike their counterparts on the East Coast who are the children of immigrants, don’t have any sense of entitlement to work and life. There is a deep sense of belonging in the world of work, even in menial jobs, bereft completely of attitude that come from a sense of privilege that one is better than one’s job. In New York City, nastiness and lack of courtesy seem to be a job description. I keep wondering about this bottom-of-the-pyramid jobs that nobody wants, and that every Tea Party bagger claims be taken from the regular Joes. Why do we see the same brown faces behind those counters? What do they know about the seemingly 20th century American ethic that is now lost in many of us?
The State of the American Dream
On the Metro, announcements are made in two languages, which many conservative Americans who subscribe to the America=English tradition will frown upon. During my stay, I heard (and probably spoke) more Spanish than English, most likely a testament to location than anything else (although, it is also possible that it is the norm of the city). Certainly, it is portentous of what is about to hit this country—a majority Latino population whose first language at home is not English, a community of people who possess a rather different take on the American Dream.
For someone like me—who majored in Latin American Studies, a Spanish speaker, and an educator in the Latino community—the latinization of America is simply exciting. I honestly feel more at home in this community than in my own, much of which is due to my choice of work and my own proclivity to humble lifestyles. I also went to San Francisco recently and was bombarded with old Filipino ways, where pomp is the song and dance. For many of us Filipinos who immigrate to the U.S., the American Dream is as simple as the idea of “growing big,” be they in houses, number of SUVs, or the number of parties thrown in year. Because of our instant advantage over other immigrants in English, we don’t really struggle as much in America and have done quite well mainstreaming on America’s superhighway. True, a lot of it is from hard work. True as well, there is nothing wrong with having three bedrooms per head or four plasma TVs, but we now know in this climate of foreclosures that the number of rooms in one house will not a happy person make. Four plasma TVs will not give anyone a different view of racialized America.
Similarly, compared to other immigrant literary communities, there are many first generation immigrant Filipino writers like myself who manage to publish books in the U.S. Unfortunately, most Filipinos I know, including my relatives, are not impressed with my literary credentials, although they are all convinced that Harvard was a good move. We do love brands, and Harvard is one, albeit better if a law or medical degree. This may also be the reason why there are almost no Filipinos in my social justice work. You can’t wear or flaunt activism. The Cesar Chavez types were long gone in history. Sorry, Bulosan, what struggle? Sadly, it is this very sense of struggle that is absent in the lives of many young Filipino-Americans, as if their sense of comfort is a biological twin. It is a question that I ask myself when I hear of children of immigrants , these second generation Americans, who were given everything, except a sense of purpose in life: when and how did we lose the dream?
I found the struggle and the dream in the faces of Mexicans in LA, the target of the emerging American fascism. While the rest of us, many immigrants as well, watch with disengagement in one of four plasma TVs, the horrors of legislative bills against this demographic, they continue to do what they need to survive, work, work despite everything, work at all cost.
There is a lot of work to be done in the Latino community, to make sure they don’t become complacent drones in the future. The next generations need to understand that work is a privilege, not the benefit of an American passport. However, the educational system is failing many of these kids. They have the lowest college involvement and the highest in the high school drop-out rate. Latinos are here to stay, and most Americans don’t know what problems are going to face them in the near future if these issues are not dealt with now. While in the hotels, I had conversations with the women who cleaned the rooms. I asked them about their education, if they are learning English at all. They said, No, and were confused by my question. I wanted to find out whether these big hotels are investing in them, the entry-level workforce, in their education. They are all caught in dead-end jobs, many grow old pushing a cart full of dirty linen. One of them, Maria was an older woman, the other, Reina, was much younger, both will probably carve the same working paths in their lives, one which didn’t involved assimilation into the America culture via English. For both, the American Dream lies in their English-speaking children, if they make it at all. These are the very children who have now begun shaping new cultural paradigms in the U.S. In fact, New York City has been experiencing a Mexican baby boom. In many ways, for which I am thankful, the Mexican work ethnic impresses me so. If you ever get to travel in the wee hours on the New York subway, you will notice what type of New Yorkers are the first to get out to work, or the last to go home; more often than not, they are the Mexicans.
My last breakfast at the Grand Central Market brought me the pleasure of hearing these words from an old man who was showing some appreciation of the busboys: “Tenemos Alegria.” It was such a simple moment to punctuate this state of happiness I have been feeling during my past two weeks of cultural exploration and rumination. For the past year, I have been wondering about my work trajectory. I went to Harvard to start an organization, and have not fully created one. Since I came back to Manhattan, I have lost parts of myself, as I slowly get sucked into the world of mundane privilege once again. I have always been one to dismiss safety nets, yet I have allowed mine to grow even bigger in the past year. I have even considered “safe” jobs that bring in a lot of money. Fortunately, the one that I got which begins soon is neither safe nor income-heavy. I am back in the nexus of Adult Literacy, Immigration, and Social Justice. It will be an opportunity to also begin working on my new initiative, We Speak America. The latino community in LA gave me the much needed mileage and inspiration, a sense that one can still commit to American service and be appreciated.
How luxurious indeed to catch a glimpse of the American future. There is no denying that the latinization of America will breed fascists. We see them everywhere now, the likes of Jan Brewer and Glenn Beck who pander to the American fear of a brown take-over will only gather strengths in the years to come. But there will be power in numbers. And there is no stopping The United States of Latin America. America, authentically brown, will reemerge in its true form.
Related Readings: A Mexican Baby Boom in New York Shows the Strength of a New Immigrant Group, Latinos will be part of new U.S. “majority” sooner than predicted, Latino Children: A Majority Are U.S.-Born Offspring of Immigrants, Most U.S. Hispanic Kids Have Immigrant Parents