An Immigrant’s Take on Today’s American Dream
Crossing the border was anticlimactic. It was pretty boring actually, as 890-mile bus rides usually are. We didn’t swim across the Rio Grande or walk miles through a desert. We didn’t climb over a fence, either. Nor was there a coyote waiting to smuggle us into the country in exchange for a large sum of pesos.
There was nothing dramatic or illegal about it. My parents and I arrived in the U.S. when I was 3 on an air-conditioned Greyhound bus with all of the proper documents in hand. When we reached our destination in downtown Dallas, we took a taxi from the bus terminal to my aunt’s house. In one of my earliest memories, I recall feeling overwhelmed with astonishment seeing the Dallas skyline for the first time. I was enthralled by Dallas’s Reunion Tower. “Mira la bola [Look at the ball],” I told my parents. Looking out the window, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the radiant neon lights and the towering skyscrapers above—even the golden arches at McDonald’s looked bigger and brighter than the ones in Mexico. America looked and felt like a dream.
My mom tells a story of our first night in America: Before going to bed, I asked her if we could sleep with our eyes open. She asked me why I wanted to do that, and I told her I was afraid that if we closed our eyes and fell asleep, we would wake up back home in Mexico and realize that it was all a dream. She assured me it wasn’t, and that America was our home now. It’s now been our home for more than 20 years.
Over that time, I’ve met plenty of other people who moved from Mexico, both legally and illegally. And plenty of people who’ve moved here from other parts of the world, too. With very few exceptions, what nearly every one of them has in common is the dream that if they work hard enough, they can improve their place in life and the lives of their children. I see this in Esperanza Gonzales, who emigrated from Mexico and built her restaurant inside a convenience store to pay for her daughter’s college tuition. Her carne asada tacos on homemade corn tortillas are incredible. I see it in my barber Alberto, who cuts hair to support his son’s tuition as well. Whenever I want to talk soccer with Alberto, he’s always quick to change the subject back to American football; he loves the Dallas Cowboys. These stories, about a willingness to work for a better life even when conditions aren’t always favorable, are uniquely American tales that everyone, regardless of politics, should celebrate.
Yes, immigration has long been a hot-button issue, and the discussion has intensified a lot over the past two years, but this isn’t about politics. I’m not trying to argue for or against immigration reform or a political ideology. I just know what I’ve seen up close for most of my life: a group of people who arrived in the U.S. with hope and worked tirelessly for any scrap of success they’ve achieved; a group of people who, far more often than not, epitomize the best of what America can be.
When he was 6, Sergey, his brother and his parents left the U.S.S.R. in search for a better life in the U.S. This was 1979, and the Soviet Union was America’s greatest enemy. Sergey’s father became a professor at the University of Maryland. His mother worked for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a research scientist.
Sergey later attended Stanford University, where he would make friends with a guy named Larry. The two went on to create something most of us use every day. Together, Sergey Brin and Larry Page started Google.
In January Brin addressed a crowd of Google employees in Silicon Valley who were protesting a set of new immigration bans. In his speech, Brin recalled what it was like moving to the U.S.
“The U.S. had the courage to take me and my family in as refugees,” Brin said. “This country was brave and welcoming, and I wouldn’t be where I am today or have any kind of the life that I have today, if this was not a brave country that really stood out and spoke for liberty.”
Brin’s story is powerful. And it’s just one example. eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, whose parents are from Iran, emigrated from France when he was 6. Rupert Murdoch is originally from Australia and became a U.S. citizen in 1985. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla Motors, emigrated from Canada by way of South Africa in the ’90s. And Thai Lee, the co-owner, CEO and president of the tech giant SHI International, moved here from South Korea as a teenager.
In his book No Borders: A Journalist’s Search for Home, Jorge Ramos writes, “More powerful than tolerance and acceptance of foreigners is the unique fact that in this country, one can reinvent one’s life. Self-determination—the right of each individual to choose his or her destiny—is what makes this country so special.”
Not everyone can identify with the stories of immigrants, but this much is true: The U.S. offers so many unique opportunities to have a better life regardless of ability, wealth, ethnicity or religion. We live in a country where, regardless of who you are and what your background is, if you have grit and work hard enough, anything is possible.
I have my experiences. Other people with different backgrounds, upbringings and formative moments will have different motivations. What inspires me as an immigrant might not necessarily touch someone who has grown up wealthy and white or poor and black, or short or tall, fat or skinny, from New York City or Iowa City, Iowa.
Personal development is, first and foremost, personal. Whether your dream is to make it big in a new country, to pay for your children’s tuition or to start a business, it’s up to you to tap into the inspiration you need to make it happen. If my story can ignite your passion to search for the motivation within you, then the American Dream is more alive than ever.
Because of the opportunities presented in America, most immigrants feel a sense of debt to this country. For a country that has given us so much, we feel the need to give back. And we do so by paying our taxes, contributing to society, embracing American culture and sharing a bit of ours, too.
Others have done far more, giving back to America by serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. More than 65,000 immigrants currently serve, and thousands are veterans. Many died fighting for this country even though they weren’t citizens. That sense of duty also stems from something deeper than patriotism.
As a student, I always felt the need to study hard and earn good grades because I kept in mind the sacrifice my parents made to come to America. They left behind their families and friends, their home and everything they ever knew. Even once we were here, things weren’t so easy. We couldn’t immediately afford a car, so a lot of the time my dad biked 8 miles to work. Before my brother was born, my parents and I shared one bedroom inside my aunt and uncle’s condominium until we could afford a place of our own. Through our first years in America, my dad often worked two jobs, including an overnight shift, because he was determined to help his family get ahead.
Without motivation, we’re left to our vices, which can break us. Take for example, Eduardo Rodarte-Ortiz. This Valentine’s Day he was out celebrating his 27th birthday, drinking with friends in North Dallas. At the end of the night, he got behind the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz sedan. Police would later determine his blood alcohol content was above the legal limit.
It’s not clear how long he’d been driving on the wrong side of the road, but around 2:30 a.m., he struck a young couple driving a Saturn, pinning the driver in the car. A Dallas Fire-Rescue team removed the 23-year-old man, who was immediately hospitalized with a broken leg and internal bleeding. The passenger, a 19-year-old woman, four months pregnant, was also taken to hospital.
I know Rodarte-Ortiz. We used to work together and sometimes even grabbed dinner after work. I was disappointed because he apparently endangered an innocent young family and may well have squandered so many of the opportunities he had for himself and his children. But I was also disappointed because, like me, Rodarte-Ortiz is an immigrant from Mexico. And as I heard what he’d done, I knew this was exactly the kind of story that is used to fuel some of the worst impulses in modern America.
I almost always wince when I read stories like Rodarte-Ortiz’s. When I hear about a big crime in progress somewhere, I quietly wish the suspect isn’t an immigrant. It’s not that I think immigrant crime doesn’t exist. I just know those cases are rarer than many people realize. A 2017 study by The Sentencing Project found that immigrants—both documented and undocumented—commit crimes less often than native-born Americans. I know the vast majority of immigrants come to this country hungry for the American Dream. They come ready to work hard, to better their families and contribute to their new communities. There are far more people like the busboy at one of my favorite Tex-Mex restaurants. He’s in his 50s, but he works two jobs and seldom takes a day off because he just bought his first home. Or Fidencio Sánchez, a paletero from Chicago. Sánchez is 89, and although he should be enjoying retirement, he pushes a cart around to make a living selling ice pops.
Related: How to Develop an Insatiable Hunger
We live in a country where, regardless of who you are and what your background is, if you have grit and work hard enough, anything is possible.
Since the first immigrants arrived on these shores to forge better lives for themselves, they have always been met with adversity. Some of these challenges are obvious: a language barrier, starting over in a new place and a basic lack of understanding of even the simplest of things. The colors of their faces and their countries of origin have changed through the years, but immigrants have been facing prejudice for centuries. In the mid-1800s it was not uncommon to see help-wanted signs that read, “Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply.” Today things are different, but the same.
A few months ago I was at dinner with a close friend and two of his co-workers. As we caught up on life over pork tacos and beers, my friend noticed that one of the area directors of his company, a popular fast-food chain, was sitting across the restaurant. My friend called the director over to our table. The man introduced himself to everyone and shook their hands, but when he turned to me, his extended hand recoiled into a fist bump. As the director spoke, I noticed he made eye contact with everyone at the table except for me. I didn’t think much of it at first, but as he left the table, he shook everyone’s hand again except for mine—I got another fist bump.
I don’t know that he was a racist. Maybe not. But I know that I found myself questioning what it was about me that shifted his response. As a Mexican-American—probably like being an African-American, Asian-American, Italian-American or any other hyphenated group—I’m always wondering how my race alters my daily life. Is that a societal issue or a personal one? I also wonder what it would be like if the tables were turned. If I grew up like that guy, would I be fist-bumping Mexicans and shaking hands only with white people? Maybe I would mean nothing by it. Maybe I wouldn’t even realize the slight I had caused.
A 2016 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 53 percent of white evangelical Americans say immigrants are a threat to American culture. It’s a disheartening statistic because even though I was born in Mexico, I’ll always feel more American than Mexican. If Mr. Fistbump ever got to know me, he’d learn that my family members who live in Mexico often remind me how “Americanized” I have become over the years. It’s true. I sometimes get goosebumps singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a baseball game, but I know only a few lines of the Mexican national anthem. I can name all 50 U.S. states but had to use Google to find out that Mexico has 31 states. I’ll order a Miller Lite over a Corona any day. I never press two for Spanish. And if you were to speak to me over the phone and I told you my name was Mark, you’d believe me because my accent is just like the chupacabra, the lengendary creature of Central American folklore—nonexistent.
I, too, want people who drive drunk and endanger families to go to jail, regardless of where they’re from. Rodarte-Ortiz was charged with intoxication assault. Still, I worry that some people will hear his story and think it’s somehow emblematic of every Latino-American. I worry politicians will use tales like this at rallies to draw unfair depictions of more than 61 million immigrants living the U.S.—both documented and undocumented. These worries are just a fact of life for people like me.
There’s also this other inevitable fact of life: Adversity has the potential to spur success. Whatever the challenges, immigrants find ways to succeed. This grit comes from the sacrifices made to be here in the first place. When you give up so much for something, you don’t take it for granted and you don’t want to give it up. So many immigrants came here with hope, and they’re not ready to give up on that dream.
I think about Brin and his parents. Had they not decided to seek refuge in the U.S., would we have Google? And I think about my dad. If he decided he didn’t like biking home from work at 4 a.m., would I still be here? No matter where you’re from, a dream is a dream. And when hardship gets in the way of those dreams, we can give up or keep dreaming.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.