The day after my father died in August in Washington, D.C., I was taking out the trash in my parents’ apartment building when I was intercepted by a chatty 60-year-old janitor from El Salvador – we’ll call him Cesar – who in Little did he know, my father would have recorded double-digit hours of conversation with him.
Learning that my father had succumbed to prostate cancer after his doctors had imposed counterproductive but very lucrative chemotherapy treatments on him, César offered me his condolences and told me about his latest troubles with the health system American. This happened after he had a heart attack in the street and passersby called the cops, thinking he was drunk.
He eventually ended up in the hospital, where he was presented with a bill for $80,000 in exchange for the luxury of not dying. While hospitalized, he received a phone call from his employer, who informed him that he had been fired for having a heart attack rather than showing up for work.
Having resided in the United States for 20 years as an undocumented worker, César would just as soon return to El Salvador, he said, but his adult son still clung to the notion of “el sueño americano,” or the American dream. He shrugged his shoulders with a resigned smile and launched into an energetic tale of another misadventure in the so-called land of freedom.
It turns out that twenty years is exactly how long I have spent so far avoiding the United States, my native country, like the plague – for various reasons, such as not wanting to incur debt eternal in the event of an accident. Medical emergency. Avoidance had become more difficult when my parents returned to their native country from Barcelona in 2021 due to an error in judgment induced by the coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, given my American passport, I had always been able to choose other countries in which to spend my time – notably El Salvador, an increasingly popular destination for privileged gringo “expats”, but a less safe place for the privileged gringo “expatriates”. the average Salvadoran, thanks in large part to many decades of US-backed right-wing state terrorism.
And yet, for many Salvadorans and countless others affected by U.S.-fueled poverty, the entire “American Dream” has somehow retained its mystery despite the fact that the reality on the ground in the United States itself is so often horrific.
For starters, a national landscape of poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration, mass shootings, and criminally expensive health care, education, and housing options should hardly be the focus of a dream.
And for undocumented immigrants, the picture can be even more grotesque, with pervasive discrimination, xenophobic vitriol, and efforts by the U.S. government to take children away from asylum-seeking parents and make life hell for those who play. an outsized role in supporting the United States. economy.
In May, eight people were killed in the Texas town of Brownsville, on the US-Mexico border, when an SUV crashed into a group of mostly Venezuelan pedestrians near a shelter for homeless people and refugees.
Shortly before this incident, a group of Venezuelan and Colombian friends – whom I had met in February in Panama as they left the sprawling refugee cemetery known as Darien Gap on their way to the United States – crossed the border into El Paso, another Texas border town. . They were detained by U.S. immigration agents who, they told me, communicated primarily through expletives.
The Venezuelans in the group were eventually flown to Arizona and returned to Mexico; the Colombians were released into temporary “freedom” in the United States, which quickly proved disappointing.
After a few days of “freedom,” one of the Colombians messaged me from the sidewalk in El Paso where he was sleeping to ask if he could return to Colombia, where, he said, people don’t weren’t at least so petrified that they wouldn’t even talk to anyone. those in need. The United States was an impossible country, my friend reasoned, “especially if you’re poor.”
So much for the “American Dream”.
Why, then, does the dream persist in the global imagination?
Certainly, fantasies can be necessary distractions from daily suffering – and even less so in Colombia, where US-backed right-wing state terrorism in the name of global capitalism has killed thousands and thousands of peasants and other Colombians. In such situations, the dream of physical and economic security can be a lifeline, even if it turns out to be associated with the country responsible for crushing everyone’s dreams.
There are other reasons why American dream mythology is so resilient. There is the global reach of American “culture”, that is to say fast food, cinema and soulless consumerism in general, which nonetheless, rightly, appeals to the world’s poorest.
The American dream is also well suited to the age of social media, which is nothing more than an advertisement for false happiness anyway. Despite their categorically dismal situation in the United States, my Colombian friends quickly began creating upbeat productions on TikTok – set to reggaeton music – to share an imaginary version of their new life with their friends back home. In one video, a friend of mine was strolling down the sidewalk happily swinging his shopping bags.
In 2008, then-U.S. President George W. Bush said: “Free market capitalism is much more than just an economic theory. It is the engine of social mobility, the highway to the American dream. To the linguistically challenged ex-president’s credit, all of this was at least grammatically correct.
But the truth is that U.S.-led free-market capitalism — and its imposition, often at gunpoint, on other countries — is driving much of the migration.
Forget the “American Dream Highway.” The only place this highway leads to is a nightmare.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.