The “American dream” lives on

This guest blog is written by Megan Enns, peace and youth program coordinator for MCC Alberta. She recently led a young adult tour to the northern and southern borders of Mexico for the purpose of exploring themes of migration and peacebuilding.

I grew up thinking the “American dream” was something of the past. It was an ideal from that age of “Leave it to Beaver” that, to most people now, seems unrealistic and even unappealing. While traveling with MCC on “Uprooted,” a migration themed young adult learning tour to Mexico, I was shocked to hear how very real that American dream is.

Miguel and his son Jerry are in search of the American dream. Our group met them in Mexico City at a shelter where they are staying, waiting, and planning to move north and to cross into America where they will hopefully attain that dream.

The entire Uprooted tour group, along with Jerry (back row, middle, with sling)

The entire Uprooted tour group, along with Jerry (back row, middle, with sling)

Already Miguel and Jerry are scared. They were traveling from their home in Honduras for four months with their son and brother, but he chose to stop and stay back after they witnessed a woman and her young daughter raped and killed on the train. They left him behind with a family in one town they passed through.

A quick explanation is needed about the train. In Mexico and Central America they call it “the beast.” People die every day on the train, or they fall or are pulled under, often losing limbs. The drug cartels and gangs, in some places with the support of la migra, the local police, run the train tops. Miguel and Jerry were charged $300 three times by a gang — standard practice “fare” to pass through their territory — and threatened at gunpoint, with a gun handed over by a migra agent.

These are the lengths people are going to for the American dream, the hope of a better life, and a belief that they are worth it. They are met by harsh realities: the Mexican police, exploitation, border patrol, the desert, detention, deportation, and the realization that immigration systems don’t share that belief in their worth.

MCC has recently outlined our need to support “people on the move” and we see this as a growing theme. People are on the move everywhere, fleeing violence and poverty in Syria, Sudan, Nepal, traveling to Canada as temporary foreign workers from Central America, the Philippines and elsewhere. And people are on the move in Mexico.

Mexico is the world’s migration capital — crossroads for some moving north from Central America or poorer areas in Mexico, a destination for many from around the world seeking opportunity, and a place of return for those deported from the U.S. or Canada when their American Dream is broken.

Members of the group hear stories at a shelter for migrants in Mexico City.

Members of the group hear stories at a shelter for migrants in Mexico City.

Our Uprooted tour group had the chance to meet many agencies and centers working with migrants and to talk with many migrants themselves. We also met lawyers and public defenders, visited a detention center, and received a fairly well rounded exposure to the issues on the border, and what people were fleeing south of it.

One message we heard that sticks with me is that it’s easy to blame a person, a “side,” a group: the drug cartels, the migrants, the border patrol, the coyotes, Mexican communities along the train line who threaten migrants, the American legal system and “operation streamline,” the private companies that are making a profit off detention and prison centers where migrants are held — even ourselves for not caring, or knowing, or saying something about this. However, it’s a system that is completely broken. People are playing their small part, with what they know.

What would happen if more people knew the story of Miguel and Jerry and played their part from that perspective?

A friend who recently returned from a learning tour to Israel/Palestine, described herself as broken. I felt a bit of that, though her empathy is much more admirable than mine. I come home wanting to remember the hope — because there are glimmers of it — amidst so many stories of brokenness. The problems we see and hear are so far away. The reality I am learning from this tour, though, is they’re not that far away.

Our country’s laws around immigration are moving in a bad direction too. We are bystanders in this equation, one which allows a system in which Miguel and Jerry aren’t worth enough to have their simple dream of safety and security. So what can we do? This is a question our group keeps asking each other. A simple start of course is to share the stories of these people on the move and share our own struggles with this brokenness.

My own struggle — much as I hate it — is that I have bought into the story that I am worth the dream and “they” are not. I sat there, over lunch with Miguel and others from our group and the refugee shelter, talking about the American dream being outdated or unrealistic. What a warped world it is when I can buy into thinking the American dream is unrealistic for people like Miguel and Jerry, while I live it. I want to convince them not to leave home in search of an elusive dream, where they will undoubtedly face unknown dangers in their journey. But life at home, for many migrants, has just as much violent threat and unknown danger.

I think of the American dream as outdated, because I have the privilege to do so. So I will struggle, with my fellow travelers, to understand and learn from Miguel and Jerry and the many other migrants we met, and question the stories I buy into.

For more stories and resources about the Uprooted tour on migration and peacebuilding, visit mccuprooted.com.

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