What My Immigrant Parents Taught Me About the American Dream

Julia Amante is a novelist who features Latina leads and centers the immigrant and first gen experience in her stories

American Dream Julia Amante

Photo courtesy of Julia Amante

Julia Amante is a novelist who features Latina leads and centers the immigrant and first gen experience in her stories.

My parents purchased their first and only home in the late 1970s. This cute little house with three small bedrooms and a tiny kitchen that had no counter space and hardly any room for two people to work comfortably was in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. But small or not, my parents were thrilled. They had lived in New York for over ten years, renting apartments in poor neighborhoods. And now, they had their own place; a home with a backyard and a one-car garage. No more climbing stairs. No more sharing washers and dryers with others or hearing the neighbors next door fighting.

This was the start of their American Dream

The search for this elusive dream had begun ten years earlier when my dad heard John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, inviting not only America but the world to build a better future. He enthusiastically left Argentina and settled in New York, where my mother soon joined him.  They found that being successful in the U.S. was not as easy as they had anticipated. Their days were filled with work and struggle. Nothing came easy. Not that my parents were disappointed or that they resented the hard work. The beauty of America was that one could work and positively impact their future. 

Still, the land of opportunity was filled with challenges, and my father realized that for an immigrant who did not know the rules, success would be elusive. 

As a young child, I watched my parents struggle, but I didn’t truly understand why life was so hard for them. My father would often curse and say that everyone was against him, that this country was unfair, and that we weren’t as free as we were led to believe. My mother would tell me privately not to pay attention to him, that we get what we expect from life, and that he brought most of the problems on himself. These mixed messages left me confused.

I wasn’t sure what the American Dream was, but I didn’t think we were living it even if my parents did own a house. Of course, I didn’t spend much time thinking about this. I was a happy, mostly clueless, self-centered teenager. 

Still, we tend to absorb lessons from our parents through their vibes, words, and experiences. My lessons constantly evolved, but over time I came away with five important ideas about the American Dream.

The American Dream is all about making money, and it’s hard.

The American Dream seemed to be all about making money and getting ahead. This was what my father wanted. He didn’t talk about finding happiness, setting goals, or making a difference. Possibly this is a modern ideal for those of us who are second-generation Americans and not worried about survival. For newly arrived immigrants, their dream is to succeed, and that usually means making a lot of money. And who could blame them?

The American Dream, therefore, wasn’t appealing to me because it meant working yourself to death and having very little to show for your effort. It also seemed that it blinded my father to everything else. He had a beautiful family and a nice home, but without the last part, the money, the rest of it meant nothing.

Being self-employed is the best way to lose everything and lose the opportunity to get the American Dream. If you want to succeed, get a guaranteed job with benefits.

My dad worked crazy long hours, first as an insurance agent, where he was rewarded with a good salary. After a few years, he needed a new challenge and started a trucking business. Unfortunately, this time, he was constantly broke. It appeared to me that when he worked for someone else as an insurance agent, we had a good life. But when he switched to the trucking business and became self-employed, he was always broke, stressed, and angry.

I learned that the American Dream was only for those smart enough to get hired by a company that would pay a steady salary (with benefits, my mother encouraged). 

Ironically, that is the opposite of what the American Dream should stand for. This is the land of the self-made man, where opportunity is everywhere for those who work hard. Except that I didn’t see that. My dad’s experience taught me the opposite. Don’t risk too much. Go to college and get a good job at a good company. Forget about the mythical American Dream and be happy living the “good life” as a middle-class American.

Immigrants fail because they don’t know the rules. 

I watched my father make dumb mistakes, not because he was dumb—he was actually a very smart man, but because he didn’t know any better. 

In Argentina, for example, taxes are deducted from employees’ paychecks before they get paid, and they never see that money again. There is no such thing as filing taxes. In the United States, we also have part of our income withheld, but what is deducted from our paycheck may or may not have been enough, so we file taxes to have an accurate accounting of what we owe.

My father didn’t know or understand that he had to file tax forms. He decided he wasn’t making enough money to pay taxes, so he just wouldn’t file. 

As you can imagine, this did not go over well with the IRS. They seized his business bank account and took all the money he’d made to pay for his truck payments and employees. One day, my mother checked the bank account and saw a great big zero. 

My father thought this was unfair and called the IRS the mafia. Maybe they are, but the facts are that taxes must be filed whether we agree with this rule or not. You do not get ahead or succeed if you do not follow the rules.

This lesson was an important one for me to learn. You get to enjoy the American Dream if you learn to play the game right. All games have rules, and this is no exception.

The American Dream is not a dream; it’s a belief that no matter who you are, you can become who you want to be. It’s an ideal.

Years later, once I was an adult, I started to see a different version of the American Dream. After my mother divorced my father, she had to figure out how to support herself. Without any education or much work experience, she got a retail job, first at a thrift store, then at Longs Drug Store.

In America, a fifty-something-year-old woman could buy a used car, find a job, get her own apartment, support her son, and begin her life. She didn’t need a man. Once she decided to make a change, she was able to do it; she wasn’t stuck forever in an unhappy marriage. 

The American Dream, I started to realize, had nothing to do with making money and being wealthy. It had more to do with being free and having opportunities. This is why millions of immigrants choose to move to the United States every year. The dream of upward mobility gives people hope, and hope is the most valuable gift we can receive.

My parents taught me to pursue the American Dream at all costs because it’s better to believe that it’s real than to live with the possibility that it’s not.

I’ve heard people say that the American Dream is an illusion, that it’s no longer achievable, or that it’s always been a myth.

They may be correct. And yet . . . after getting a steady job as an elementary school teacher and working as a university lecturer, I still pursued my dream of becoming a published author. 

I did this because, somewhere deep inside, I want to believe that the American Dream is available to all of us. All around us are people who have accomplished extraordinary things. I’m sure success didn’t come easy to them, but they have created their version of the American Dream.

I remember visiting Argentina in 1991, the year after I got married and telling my cousin how difficult it is to live well in America. My husband and I each had three part-time jobs as we attempted to pay for college and our house, and other bills. 

My cousin shook his head and chuckled. 

“What?” I asked.

“I guess I would give anything to have your problems. Just the fact that you can get three jobs is amazing. Here, even if you want to, you can’t find work and get ahead.”

He made me realize how privileged I was, that if I wanted to buy two airline tickets and travel to Argentina, I could. All I had to do was work and make the money. 

What is the American Dream? I still don’t have a concrete answer. But unlike when I was a child, I know I’m living it. And it’s thanks to the sacrifices, mistakes, and risks my parents took when they decided to go on the adventure of a lifetime.

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