Is the idea of something always better than the reality of something?
What is the nature of what economists call delayed gratification? Can it be summed up, as Andy Warhol did, by noting that “the idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting?”
Are there limits to the “American Dream,” that thrilling slogan that has been used to sell the idea, if not the reality, of America to generations of illiterate peasants the world over?
Are there limits to the American Dream?
“He sure found out the hard way that dreams don’t always come true,” Gladys Knight and the Pips sang in “Midnight Train to Georgia.” That ballad tells the story of a man’s failure to achieve the American dream in California. He is then forced to return to the place from which he migrated. Defeated by the elusive nature of the American dream, this man, the melancholy lamentation tells us, “bought a one way ticket back to the life he once knew.”
There are apparently limits to the American dream. Reality always imposes limits on ideals. It is a testament to America’s masterful skills at and manipulation of merchandising itself, however, that allows this nation to sell the ideal of the American Dream to naïfs at home and abroad, generation after generation.
It is nothing less than a conceit of the United States to believe that everyone who comes to America finds a better life in America and stays in America.
To be sure, Ellis Island records the millions who arrived in New York to find a better life. We count the people who come to America, but we don’t count those who leave America. Millions have left and do leave, but there is no museum to those who chose to walk away from the promise of the American Dream. Those who leave, in essence, don’t count.
What if I told you that, on average, one out of three immigrants to the United States throughout history has left the United States? What if I told you that, on average, fully one third of immigrants who have come, lived, and worked in the United States, concluded that it isn’t what they expected. It isn’t where they are prepared to remain for the rest of their lives on this earth? When Bette Davis, in the 1949 film Beyond the Forest, states, “What a dump!,” she is speaking of Middle America, not Switzerland, not Mexico, not Japan, not any other place other than the American heartland itself.
In fact, what if, rather than finding a better place, they find a take-it-or-leave-it country—and decide to leave it.
Gladys Knight and the Pips sing about this in their classic song that has remained popular across the generations. It isn’t just people from Georgia who, failing in California, buy one-way tickets back to reclaim the lives they once knew.
The absence of immigrants who disappear from our consciousness once they return to their countries of origin is so common it does not merit explanation. In a mundane article about buying mozzarella cheese in New York’s Greenwich Village, for instance, consider how Calvin Trillin begins his culinary tale. “You could say that Joe’s Dairy and I go way back. I was a regular when there was still a Joe on the premises. I can’t picture Joe now; he went back to Italy in 1977,” he writes. “But I can picture the mozzarella he made fresh every day in that tiny store—across Sullivan Street from St. Anthony of Padua, which has looked after the spiritual needs of the Italian South Village since the late nineteenth century.”
Joe returned to Italy in 1977. Presumably Joe tired of New York.
Isn’t Calvin Trillin curious? What’s wrong with Joe, after all? Why did he leave the land of opportunity? What happened to his pursuit of the American Dream? When millions around the world dream about the United States and risk their lives to come to our shores, why would he go back?
Going back to the life an immigrant once knew is such an ordinary occurrence, however, it goes without further comment.
A que no los sabías, pero es cierto.
There are three broad categories that account for the disillusionment of the American Dream. There are immigrants who have no intention of remaining in the United States but come to work, save money, and return to their homelands with enough capital to pursue their dreams and live their lives there. There are internal migrants, people who move from one part of the country to the other to pursue opportunities; some succeed and remain as “transplanted” residents. “I’m originally from X but I’ve been living in Y just about my entire adult life,” is often how someone who abandoned X explains his or her long-term residency in Y. Then there are those who Providence forces to relocate—and it is only during this involuntary migration that they realize just how dismal their lives have been all along. They don’t return to the place they once knew.
Having the dream to want to come to the United States is different from hoping to stay in the United States forever once that dream is realized. Consider nineteenth century New York when almost two-thirds of Italian immigrants returned to Italy. Italians left the United States in such great numbers that there was a name for these reverse immigrants: “Birds of Passage.” These were, mostly, Italian men who never had the intention of making the United States their permanent home. They were immigrants who, forced by economic circumstances, chose to venture to the United States—a foreign culture comprised of English-speakers who held dim views of Italians and Catholics—to work as laborers. They ventured to the United States often leaving their wives and children behind, further incentive for them to return to Italy after a few years in this country.[i]
The same is true of almost all other immigrant groups to the United States, even the most problematic one at present: Mexicans. Indeed, while Americans continue to believe that the “millions” of Mexicans who enter the United States do so in violation of U.S. laws, that’s not the case. In 2010, for instance, 13,423,000 Mexican citizens entered the U.S. on business, as tourists, and to attend school. They did so in full compliance of all American laws. These visitors were classified as “International Travelers to the U.S.” by the Commerce Department.[ii] Of the Mexican who enter the United States in violation of immigration laws, these are far fewer than the public is led to believe the vast majority do return to Mexico; they come to the U.S. to work, not to pursue some elusive American Dream.
The Pew Hispanic Center, for instance, estimates that, in some geographic regions of the U.S., fully 87 percent of illegal Mexican immigrants return to Mexico. A more comprehensive understanding of patterns of Mexican migration to the U.S., including an analysis of the numbers of Mexican migrants who leave the U.S. and return to Mexico, is provided by the Mexican Migration Project. Since 1982 the Mexican Migration Project, an interdisciplinary initiative co-directed by Douglas S. Massey, professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University (US) and Jorge Durand, professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Guadalajara (Mexico), has studied patterns of migration of Mexican citizens throughout the U.S.[iii]
In his testimony before Congress, Douglas Massey stated that, “Mexican immigration is not and has never been out of control. It rises and falls with labor demand and if legitimate avenues for entry are available, migrants enter legally. The massive militarization of the border and resumption of mass deportations occurred despite the fact that rates of undocumented migration were falling and the perverse consequence was that these actions lowered the rate of return migration among those already here. To solve our serious immigration problems, we need to undertake a program of legalization for those already residing in the country, and especially for the more than three million people who entered the country as minors and are guilty of no sin except obeying their parents. We also need to provide for the legal entry of Mexicans by increasing the number of permanent resident visas and guest worker permits to levels consistent with the needs of an integrated North American economy. Unfortunately the current immigration crisis is very much one of our own making, reflecting bad policy choices in the past; but fortunately this means that with better policy choices we have the power resolve the dilemma moving forward.”[iv]
It is true that the Hispanic Diaspora in the United States continues to expand, particularly in the territories that were once New Spain, but that does not mean it is all due to immigration, legal or otherwise. The internal dynamics of demographics of the United States itself accounts for the sustained growth of the Hispanic—and “Latino”—population. The First Amendment fuels the spread of Spanish as more and more Americans choose to express themselves in languages other than English. And as the Mexican Migration Project documents, over the decades millions of Mexicans have migrated illegally to the U.S. And millions have chosen to return to Mexico in due course.
Yes, the United States is becoming more of “Hispanic” every day, but this is a result of internal demographics, not a foreign “invasion” by Mexicans.
Internal migrations within the United States have always proved problematic on a philosophical level. If the American Dream is possible anywhere in the United States, why are there such waves of Americans abandoning one place for another? Shouldn’t they be able to pursue—and achieve—the American Dream anywhere?
In the nineteenth century, once the transcontinental railroad had been built, Western expansion provided opportunities for millions of people who lived in the crowded urban centers along the Eastern Seaboard. “Washington is not a place to live in,” Horace Greeley advised his fellow Americans in 1865 in the pages of the New York Tribune. “The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”[v]
From Philadelphia to Washington, New York to Boston millions of young men—unemployed, uneducated and unencumbered—heeded Greeley’s advice, abandoned their hometowns, and moved west of the Mississippi. This mass migration became a social safety valve, allowing multitudes to escape the poverty and misery of their lives in urban squalor. Almost a third of all young and able-bodied men and women abandoned the Eastern Seaboard and, in pursuit of the American Dream—which was an impossible dream—crossed the Mississippi. They pawned all their hopes to escape the lives they once knew, where, three quarters of a century after the American Revolution, the American Dreams had become elusive in the original thirteen colonies.
Half a century later after this first wave of internal migration, another wave of Americans, fleeing the oppression that stifled their dreams took place. In these massive movements of internal refugees, blacks fled the repression of the South. Abandoning the Old Confederacy, they journeyed to Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC among other cities throughout New England and Midwest. “The migrants were cast as poor illiterates who imported out-of-wedlock births, joblessness and welfare dependency wherever they went,” Isabel Wilkerson writes in The Warmth of Other Suns. “Masses of ignorant, uncouth, and impoverished migrants flooded the city,” Wilkerson reports that sociologist E. Franklin Frazier complained of these multitudes arriving in Chicago.[vi]
The mass movements of Americans, economic refugees and migratory nomads, are familiar to us. The collapse of Detroit and Buffalo as prosperous cities in recent decades are not the only places that are shadows of their former selves, their residents long gone after the economic foundation of once-thriving metropolises have crumbled. Americans today move in search of the American Dream, following jobs wherever they think they can find them. In the United States, however, dreams don’t always come true. “No one ever said that you could work hard—harder even than you ever thought possible—and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt,” Barbara Ehrenreich reports of the United States today, where people who are fully employed are still trapped in poverty.[vii]
The “working poor” and stories of men and women who are employed full-time but live in shelters and need food stamps to feed themselves are not unfamiliar. The Global Recession of 2008 underscored this reality; millions of hard-working Americans have been plunged into long-term unemployment, have had their homes seized in foreclosure, and are working full-time jobs only to find themselves trapped in poverty and debt. Not unlike the man Gladys Knight sings about, many Americans continue to pawn all their hopes on an elusive dream. These dreams and hopes have patterns, of course. During the Western expansion, the goal was to cross the Mississippi river and settle the new territories stretching all the way to Pacific Ocean. In the first half of last century, black migration from the Old Confederacy reflected the railroad lines. The Illinois Central took migrants from Alabama and Mississippi to Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. The Seaboard Air Line took blacks from Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas to Washington, DC., Philadelphia, and New York. Migrants in Texas boarded the Union Pacific to California. Since the 1970s, migrants from the Rust Belt have moved to the Sun Belt states and California.
Detroit, for instance, saw its population of 1,800,000 in the 1950s fall by more two thirds to a mere 700,000 in the 2010s. In a desperate bid to turn its fortune around, Michigan governor Rick Snyder proposed to do what the United States has always done: Merchandise itself as a beacon for the American Dream. “Isn’t that how we made our country great, through immigrants?” he rhetorically asked when he announced, in 2014, a plan to bring 50,000 immigrants to Detroit a year.[viii]
Why does Michigan need to avail itself to thousands of foreigners? Aren’t there enough American citizens across this great land of ours who would welcome the opportunity to pursue the American Dream? Or is it possible that Americans can see through the hucksterism of American merchandising and see the American Dream for the foolish dream that it is? Does Michigan need to find thousands upon thousands of people who do not know that Bette Davis concluded American Midwest was a dump? Is that why Michigan needs to lure foreigners, those wide-eyed fools and innocents who are naïve to the reality of the United States and prepared to pawn all their hopes on an elusive dream?
Internal migrants always hope to find a better place; some do and some don’t.
Immigration by Providence
What of people who don’t have the courage or initiative to move elsewhere? It takes faith to embark on a journey, leaving the familiar behind and moving into the unknown. Not everyone is willing to undertake risks of this nature.
There are times, however, when Providence intervenes and forces change. On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made its second landfall. The storm caused 53 levee breaches in the floodwalls protecting New Orleans; eighty percent of the city was subsequently submerged. Before Katrina, the population stood at 485,000. Seven years later the population had only recovered to 360,000.[ix] The official census figures register a 29.1% decline in population between 2000 and 2010.[x]
What happened to 125,000 people?
Where did they go? They were there before Katrina, but they have subsequently disappeared from the life of New Orleans.
Did they find a better place?
It’s clear that for one third—there’s that one third statistic again—life in the Big Easy was anything but easy. It was, one can only infer, miserable. No other explanation is reasonable; life for millions of Americans is a miserable one, especially in places where the legacy of slavery wafts in the air like a poisoned swamp fog that rises from the bayous. If philanthropists like Brad Pitt wonder why the Ninth Ward remains abandoned, it is because, rather than waxing nostalgic over the pre-Katrina New Orleans, its former residents now realize that they were trapped in lives of deprivation?
One-way tickets back to the life they once knew? No thanks!
Americans outside New Orleans and the affected Gulf States, far removed from the legacy of slavery, were possessed by ambivalence in the wake of Katrina. This was evident in the confusion over what to call the people from the Gulf States that had been displaced. Where they refugees? Evacuees? Exiles? Nomads? Victims? What were the displaced multitudes seeking refuge far from their destroyed homes and their ravaged communities?
That so many of Katrina’s victims where poor and uneducated increased the socioeconomic discomfort many Americans felt. Commentators noted with embarrassment that the displaced multitudes fleeing the communities affected by Katrina were neither educated nor middle class; these individuals were embarrassingly poor. This unease is one consequence of the emergence of the “Wealth Gap” that had seen the diminishment of the middle class in the United States. Few are prepared to discuss the humiliating truth that the land of the free and the home of the brave is inhabited by multitudes of the destitute. In place like New Orleans disparities in wealth and income distribution, half a century after the nation declared a “War on Poverty,” were (and remain) profound. Of course the rest of the world knew that Americans would fail in abolishing poverty; few tourists to New Orleans returned without noting the stark poverty in which many people lived, how the people of New Orleans were trapped by a “slave mentality” of their own making.
Those living in New Orleans, on the other hand, were unaware that their lives were so impoverished relative to the rest of their countrymen and that they were looked on with disdain. “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas,” Barbara Bush, former First Lady, remarked when interviewed on the radio program “Marketplace” on National Public Radio. “Everyone [sheltered in the Astrodome] is so overwhelmed by the hospitality,” she added.[xi]
Barbara Bush, herself a WASP refugee from New England who fashioned a new life for herself of fake pearls and fake sentiments among the cowboys and pork rinds of Texas, is one to speak about finding a better life thousands of miles from one’s birthplace. Yes, Kennebunkport beckoned each summer, but her home remains in her adopted Texas, a land gracious enough to her give clan of New England nomads refuge. Despite her decades as a domestic refugee from New England, Barbara Bush, however, never let her disdain for the less privileged members of American society mellow over time. It is a characteristic of non-Hispanic whites to exercise a right—internal migration in this case—and then seek to deprive others of exercising that same right, especially if they are people of color. Commenting on the fact that many of the New Orleans evacuees, refugees, exiles, nomads, and victims were housed in Houston’s Astrodome, for instance, she noted, chuckling, “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”[xii]
She was roundly criticized for her insensitivity by the press. It is true that she presents herself as a grandmotherly figure today as death nears, but she remains what she has always been: a mean-spirited woman who, while First Lady, caused a scandal at her disparaging remarks towards Jews and gays.[xiii] Her observations about the Katrina victims in Houston, however, were succinct, if not generous, which is what one can expect from America’s most beloved harpy.
In the world of the destitute of New Orleans, the impact of Katrina was traumatic—and revelatory. “It was as if they had been hurled into another galaxy, a stubbled land of raccoon woods and Andy Griffith towns, Indian smoke shops and creased-faced cowboys in pickup trucks,” Isabel Wilkerson reported for the New York Times in 2005. “As they passed from Arkansas into Oklahoma, the evacuees made little comment to their cheerful Presbyterian drivers, too exhausted to register an opinion.”[xiv]
But what were these hapless refugees, evacuees, exiles, nomads, and victims thinking? “Where is they taking us?” Nitayu Johnson, a hotel maid, who was accompanied by her young daughter, told the reporter she remembered thinking on that bus ride. “They trying to slave us. They going to make us pick cotton. We gon’ die.”[xv]
Really? This is what the people of New Orleans thought of the world beyond their bayous? That, once removed from the paradise lost of a submerged New Orleans, they were being taken away to be enslaved?
Es de película.
Is it any wonder that almost 125,000 people, once the veil of ignorance was lifted by Hurricane Katrina, have never returned to New Orleans? Is it any wonder there has not been a rush to buy one-way tickets back to reclaim the lives they once knew in New Orleans?
The dramatic drop in the population of New Orleans is an example of what happens when people realize, for the first time, how miserable their lives in these United States have been all along. Almost a third of the people who lived in pre-Katrina New Orleans declined the opportunity to secure a one way ticket back to the lives they once knew in the Big Easy.
Do you suppose they all found a better place?
Do you suppose it matters?
All that is certain is that a third of those who come to the United States eventually leave the United States. All that is certain is that a third of those born in the United States are forced to abandon their hometowns in pursuit of the improbable American Dream. All that is certain is that the idea of the American Dream continues to be more attractive than the reality of the American Dream.
Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Everything You Wanted To Know About Gringos But Were Afraid to Ask by Louis E.V. Nevaer
[xiii] In one memorable instance of her bigotry and low cattiness, when New York Post gossip columnist William Norwich once made the following observation, “[o]ne aspect of the Republican campaign seems to be an all-bets-are-off willingness to delegate women, intellectual Jews and gay people to a category of ‘Other.’ And as two of those. . . .” “Which two are you?” the first lady interrupted. See, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/07/national/nationalspecial/07barbara.html?_r=0
[xiv] See, “Scattered in a Storm's Wake and Caught in a Clash of Cultures,” by Isabel Wilkerson, New York Times, October 9, 2005.
[xv] See, “Scattered in a Storm's Wake and Caught in a Clash of Cultures,” by Isabel Wilkerson, New York Times, October 9, 2005.