Living the American Dream is a Nightmare

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Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

All died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

passing their bill collectors

on to the next of kin

All died

waiting for the garden of eden

to open up again

under a new management

All died

dreaming about america

waking them up in the middle of the night

screaming: Mira Mira

your name is on the winning lottery ticket

for one hundred thousand dollars

These “Puerto Rican Obituaries,” written over forty years ago by renowned Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri, are about people who migrated from Puerto Rico in search of a dream of milk and honey but encountered a nightmare of filth and disgust. Pietri describes the poverty, discrimination, despair, racism, internalized hate, and nostalgia experienced by these first generation Puerto Ricans who migrated to the U.S. en masse during the 1950’s and ‘60s. With his words, Pietri gives you a personal taste of the kind of situations these people faced: they were unwelcomed, overworked, underpaid, and dead upon arrival.

living-american-dream-MEDIUMPietri was intentional about shedding light on the ‘average José’, the low-class grey collar worker that represents the Boricuas who worked as janitors and seamstresses. They worked to survive but it wasn’t enough. They died on the plane ride. Their identity, culture, language, values, food, relationships, and self-love all died… or was murdered? The United States is seen as a gold mine to poor “Third World” countries. Why? The U.S. prides itself on being the land of opportunity where you can start from the bottom and rise to the top, where you can make money doing nothing or anything, where all men are created equal.  SIKE!

Not for the brown people who couldn’t speak English. These dreams are marketed to the vulnerable with a false hope. It’s like a political cartoon on the history of Black and White relations I ran into a few months ago. In the cartoon, two young boys, one White and the other Black and in the picture, the White boy climbs on the back and is  lifted up onto a tree by a chained Black boy. Once on the tree the White boy apologizes for his racist actions and  then looks down at the Black boy and says, “I can’t help you up that would be reverse racism and if I can get up here why can’t you?”.

The U.S.  intentionally destroyed the economic opportunity and growth of Puerto Rico . The U.S. used the island as a testing ground for military bombs, its women as lab rats for dangerous and untested birth control. Desperate, Puerto Ricans came with high hopes but faced despicable circumstances and, like a scene from a scary movie, their aspirations were slashed and despair and helplessness became a rightful companion.

Today, four decades later, what’s changed? Puerto Ricans continue to be celebrated as the poorest and most unemployed Latina/os in the U.S. I can’t remember how many times in my life I have heard a family member worry about money and going broke. I know I do! And the way we deal with poverty is by internalizing and believing the notion that ‘it is what it is’, because if we didn’t believe that then our minds encounter dissonance. Cognitive dissonance describes the uncomfortable feeling one has when they have two or more conflicting beliefs. By removing the dissonance the beliefs are confirmed or justified. So for Puerto Ricans in Pietri’s work, the view of poverty is confirmed and trickles down to the individual in the form of self-blame, jealousy, anxiety, depression etc. Pietri’s poem describes the real economic problems faced by Puerto Ricans, but it also describes a divide and conquer phenomenon.

Miguel

died hating Milagros because Milagros

had a color television set

and he could not afford one yet

Milagros

died hating Olga because Olga

made five dollars more on the same job

Olga

died hating Manuel because Manuel

had hit the numbers more times

than she had hit the numbers

Manuel

died hating all of them

My mother recently told me how much she is trying to save so that she doesn’t have to be a burden to me in the future. Those words, although humble and considerate, were painful to hear. My family’s worries have always been financial. My mother’s concerns not only on her own finances, but the potential debt she may leave her children. She is attempting to break the dissonance or belief that I need to carry on my ancestor’s debt, much like Pietri’s ending prescribes.

Like shadows of the dark night we, as Puerto Ricans, are summoned to RISE. Rise from the dead, of the debt, of the troubles, and of the fear. There is an idea that we are powerless, voiceless, and that our circumstances are circumstantial. We are made to believe that we are dead and can never live to see a different view of ourselves. This is far from the truth. Pietri ends with a message of revival and that in order to be liberated we need not stand on one another, but stand with each other.

Rise Table Rise Table

death is not dumb and disable

Now that your problems are over

and the world is off your shoulders

help those who you left behind

find financial peace of mind

Rise Table Rise Table

death is not dumb and disable

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Dorian Ortega

Dorian is a co-founder of La Respuesta and a Puerto Rican female who was born in Chicago. Her paternal and maternal grandparents immigrated to Chicago in the 1960's from Cayey, Comerío, and Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. She's worked as a research assistant on projects related to minority health, specifically Puerto Rican children with asthma. She's been a part of a faith community since birth and is an active member of Primera Iglesia Congregacional de Chicago. The church has historically supported the release of the Puerto Rican political prisoners and was home to Rev. Jose "Viejo" Torres and his wife Alejandrina Torres, a former political prisoner. Dorian graduated from a Master's program in Clinical Counseling with a specialization in Latino/a mental health. Her interests are in feminist and multicultural psychology, Puerto Rican mental health, and racism within the Diaspora. 

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