An Immigrant’s American Dream
★ ★ ★ ★
By Ben Feliciano
I was born in Puerto Rico in 1950. The son of a farming family. We don’t legally fall into the immigrant category, yet that is what we are. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the US, a colony if you wish. Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1900 (reaffirmed in 1914). For the record, my family has fought in every American war since WWI. The trip across the Caribbean Sea to the mainland makes us immigrants in our own country. The lure of the American Dream is hard to resist.
This is why I have always understood the plight of the immigrant, be it for economic reasons, social unrest or just plain fear. The whole Statue of Liberty thing is at the heart of the American Dream.
My family has embraced the American Dream since 1952. That is when my Korean War veteran brother decided to bring his mother, his 2 sisters and his baby brother from the mountains of Puerto Rico to Brooklyn, NY. Talk about culture shock. Going from deep in the mountains to the streets of NY. From Spanish speaking peasantry to an Italian neighborhood and culture. They not only embraced it, they flourished in it. From rice & beans to sauce & pasta. Yet like most immigrants, they maintained their ties to the island while committing their lives to the new land of opportunity. And in 1950 there was a lot of opportunity.
My brother worked hard and played by the rules and his dream materialized. He moved the whole bunch to the New Jersey suburbs. To this day his work ethic shames me. He worked every day of his life. There were a lot of weekends thrown in there. When the economy took a downturn and his final position as Plant Supervisor for a large commercial manufacturer was lost, he managed to find work. He was prepared to take on any job. I remember him working 2 and 3 jobs to keep his dream alive. His dream was more for others than for himself. Yes, he wanted to succeed, but if he succeeded, then the rest of us, including his own children, had a head start on their dream.
He set everyone up and watched as his sisters married and his little brother grew into the Vietnam veteran hippy he wondered and worried about. Would he join the system? Would he make it? Would he find his own American Dream?
Well, I did. I like to think he recognized a little of his own chutzpah, as I used my limited education, with some luck, hard work and long hours, to build my career in commercial mechanical engineering. From the mountains of Puerto Rico, to some of the largest engineering energy and constructions firms in the world in the space of one generation isn’t bad. I retired, drew a pension, paid off the house, the two vehicles and all credit cards. I am collecting back the money I deposited with Social Security for 50 years; I have decent medical coverage at a decent price, thanks to Medicare and my supplemental insurer. I guess my American dream has been reached. Got all I worked for. Yes, some things could be bigger or better, world vacations could be longer and more frequent, but the fact I have these items at whatever level is a win.
That being said, we did all this on middle-class wages. I can ask what happened to the American dream, but we all know greed got the better of the upper class.
I wish I didn’t have to report on the diminishing American Dream, but the disappointing numbers are well documented. There are more people living in poverty, yet unemployment numbers are on the decline. Wages are not keeping up with cost of living increases. There is more of a need for two-wage families. You have companies, state and federal governments all looting pension funds and retirement funds in general. Between Wall Street and the banks, people’s homes and investments are worth less. Having children move back in with parents due to their financial woes just compounds the problem.
Is there an answer? I guess the biggest factor is wages. Again it’s that win-win scenario. More money in the workers’ hands means more money being spent. More call for services and items means more jobs down the line, means more money in the stream, and means more, for everyone. And in the end isn’t that what the American Dream is all about? Not an offshore account, but a little bigger house, better food, education for the kids, a vacation in Europe, an easy retirement in old age.
As I write this I realize that the results of the American Dream are a crapshoot. The American Dream itself exists for all and is believed in by all. It is the undertaking and the results that are skewed by forces outside of anyone’s control.
I fear for the next generation, never mind the one after that. What was so easy for my forefathers, and is luckily still available for my generation, is increasingly difficult to attain for the younger ones. I honestly believe that education is the key. Work ethic and a dollar won’t buy a cup of coffee. Work ethic with education…you can at least count on a chance of some semblance of The Dream.
My advice for future Puerto Rican immigrants is to get that education, learn the language—and I don’t mean ghetto speak (I know that is perhaps not PC, but it is a fact that is tied to the reality of America). Be prepared for a certain amount of racism, as that is also the reality of America. You should and must earn everything you want or need.
Is the American Dream alive? Yes. Is it attainable? Yes! But be advised, it is a lot of effort. Don’t get sucked in and distracted by the trappings of excess and greed. Get out there and find your own version of the American Dream, and work to make it happen. And sometimes, well, sometimes, you may not reach the dream that other think you should have—but that’s okay, if it’s your dream. Other times, you might achieve all manner of things—but remember that it’s all achievable because of the people who dreamed it before you, and for you.
Ben Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico, and moved to America as a child. He basically considers himself a Jersey boy at heart. He returned from serving in Vietnam in 1970 and then worked in the construction and energy industry for many years. He retired in 2016 and now enjoys spending time in the garden and with family. He lives with his wife in West Virginia, U.S.A.