The day after my father died in Washington, DC, in August, I was taking out the trash in my parents’ apartment building when I was intercepted by a garrulous 60-year-old janitor from El Salvador—we’ll call him César—who in the very short time he knew it, my father had reportedly clocked hours of conversations with him.
When César learned that my father had succumbed to prostate cancer after his doctors forced counterproductive but highly lucrative chemotherapy treatments on him, he offered his condolences and told me about his own latest brush with the American health care system. This happened after he suffered a heart attack on the street and bystanders called the police on him, assuming he was drunk.
Ultimately, he ended up in the hospital, where he was given a bill for $80,000 in exchange for the luxury of not dying. While in the hospital, he received a call from his employer, who informed him that he had been fired for having a heart attack instead of showing up for work.
After living in the U.S. as an undocumented worker for 20 years, César would just as soon return to El Salvador, he said, but his adult son still clung to the idea of “el sueño americano,” or the American dream. He shrugged his shoulders with a resigned smile and began to talk energetically about a new setback in the so-called land of the free.
Twenty years was exactly the amount of time I had spent thus far avoiding the US, my country of birth, like the plague – for various reasons, such as the desire not to incur perpetual debt in the event of a medical emergency. Avoidance had become more difficult when my parents returned to their home country from Barcelona in 2021 due to an error in judgment caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, given my American passport, I could always have chosen other countries to spend my time in – including El Salvador, an increasingly popular destination for the privileged gringo “expat” crowd, but not such a safe place for the average Salvadoran is largely due to decades of US-backed right-wing state terror.
And yet for many Salvadorans and countless other people on the receiving end of US-fueled misery, the whole “American dream” has somehow retained its mystique, despite the fact that the reality in the US itself is so often horrific is.
For starters, a domestic landscape of poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration, mass shootings, and criminally expensive health care, education, and housing should hardly be the stuff of dreams.
And for undocumented immigrants, the panorama can be even more grotesque, thanks to pervasive discrimination, xenophobic vitriol, and the U.S. government’s efforts to take children from asylum-seeking parents and otherwise make life hell for people who playing an outsized role in sustaining the US. economy.
In May, eight people were killed in the Texas city of Brownsville, on the U.S.-Mexico border, when an SUV plowed into a group of mostly Venezuelan pedestrians near a shelter for the homeless and refugees.
Shortly before this incident, a group of Venezuelan and Colombian friends of mine – whom I had met in Panama in February as they left the vast refugee cemetery known as the Darien Gap on their way to the US – crossed through El Paso, another Texas border town. . They were detained by American immigration personnel who, they told me, communicated mainly through curse words.
The Venezuelans in the group were eventually flown to Arizona and dumped back in Mexico; the Colombians were released into provisional ‘freedom’ in the US, which quickly turned out to be disappointing.
A few days after “freedom,” one of the Colombians messaged me from the sidewalk of El Paso where he was sleeping to inquire about his return to Colombia, where, he said, at least the people were not so petrified that they didn’t even want to talk to them. those in need. The US was an impossible country, my friend judged, “especially if you are poor”.
So much for the ‘American dream’.
Why then does the dream persist in the global imagination?
To be sure, fantasies can be a necessary distraction from daily suffering—and no less so in Colombia, where US-backed right-wing state terror has killed thousands upon thousands of farmers and other Colombians on behalf of global capitalism. In such situations, the dream of physical and economic security can be a lifeline, even if it is associated with the country responsible for destroying everyone’s dreams.
There are other reasons why the American Dream mythology is so resilient. There is the global reach of American ‘culture’, i.e. fast food, movies and general soulless consumerism, which is nevertheless understandably attractive to the have-nots of the world.
The American dream also fits well in the age of social media, which is all about promoting false happiness. Despite their absolutely bleak circumstances in the US, my Colombian friends promptly started making cheerful TikTok productions – set to reggaeton music – to announce an imagined version of their new life to friends back home. In one video, one of my friends strolled down the sidewalk blissfully waving shopping bags.
In 2008, then US President George W. Bush noted: “Free market capitalism is much more than an economic theory. It is the engine of social mobility, the highway to the American Dream.” To the linguistically embattled ex-president’s credit, this was all at least grammatically correct.
But the truth is that US-led free-market capitalism – and its imposition, often at gunpoint, on other countries – is driving a lot of migration in the first place.
Forget the “highway to the American Dream”. The only place this highway goes is a nightmare.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.