Life is wonderful because it is complex. It is multilayered, multicolored, multidimensional. This story is about life. It is about the relationships of people, how they cross each other up, destroy each other’s dreams, turn each other on and love each other deeply. In each sentence, you can see the contradictions and the truths. The words peer inside the lives of the people in this story, and inside your own life.
Culture is life packaged up. Culture contains, constrains, and burdens life with expectations and rules and understandings that everybody knows so well that we don’t have to talk about it. We see a lady dressed in a dark purple dress, long brown hair piled on her head in Walmart. That is culture. We see a man in a dark suit and white shirt with a colorful tie and polished black shoes. That is culture too. Is one culture “better”? Why?
Why does Correa beat América? Why does Karen refuse to give América a raise that would cost less for a month than one bra? Why are the priests in Guatemala corrupt? Culture is the way people expect things to be. It is the railroad track in your life that does not let you deviate even one inch unless someone else throws a switch. And then you must go on whatever track you are sent to. Sometimes, the train jumps the track. The results are seldom good. Or maybe, it’s just this metaphor that isn’t good.
The story in América’s Dream can be examined on so many levels. Is it a thrilling story of a woman breaking free? Yes! Is it an exploration of a culture that we don’t see in our own lives? Yes again! Author Esmeralda Santiago paints a vivid picture of her culture and home in a first novel of breathtaking brilliance.
But at the very deepest level, it is a story about you. It tells you how you feel and how you react to things; what you love and what you hate. Do you hate Correa’s violence? How about the descriptions and language about sex? Do you love the way América tries to hold on to her daughter? How about the way América abused and ran away from her own mother when she was fourteen? Why do you feel this way?
When you turn the first page, you might not know as much about yourself as you do when you close the book at the end. If you are a man, you might ask yourself, “Who do I abuse when I call it love?” If you are a woman, “Am I in love, or just trapped?” If you are rich, you might ask whether your bank account or your property makes you richer … or poorer. If you are poor, you might ask whether the riches you want will actually make you rich.
Much later than she should, América begins to ask herself these questions, “It didn’t occur to me to challenge any of his opinions, his rules. … We close our brains when he speaks. We’ve been docile as faithful dogs. Of course he’d take advantage of that. Who wouldn’t?” Do you close your brain? When? Why?
América thinks about the boy who ran away with her daughter, “Taino was like other boys, after the same thing all men are.” At Taino’s age, I was. Young boys … and young girls … cannot be trusted. Or, put another way, they can be trusted … to be exactly as young boys and young girls always have been. Exactly as they always will be. But not all men are like Correa and not all women are like América. At some point, you gain the ability … not always the wisdom … so that you have to be trusted … or in prison. We are all like snowflakes. Every one of us is different. And we all melt and disappear in the end.
There are no answers in this story. There are only questions. But they are questions that we should ask every day.
When I am angry, I should ask myself why. América has unconcealed anger for the tourists, for her mother, for her daughter. Is it their fault? What do they do to deserve this anger? Why isn’t América angry at them at the end of the story? Did they change, or did América change? Should you change too?
When I am lonely, I should ask myself why. América is lonely for her daughter. Does her daughter make her content and fulfilled? Does she have another choice? At the end of the story, América is with her daughter again. Does that make her content and fulfilled, or did América change? Perhaps you can achieve more contentment if you stop seeking something outside yourself.
Do the tourists deserve the anger of América and the people who clean their toilets? Do we deserve the anger of people who drive from Hurricane every day to work at jobs that nobody in Springdale will take? What about the people nailing drywall in St. George? I didn’t make them leave their homes to do this work. Did you?
Every second of every minute of every day is a choice. I have a choice about whether to continue to press these keys and write these words. I choose to taste the strawberry.