“Do you have homes like this this in America?” Menguez asked. Our guide was showing us his town, including the base of the cinder block home he was building for his family. Inside, it would be smaller than my room at the hotel, but it would fulfill a life dream for Menguez. Unlike most people in his village, he would soon be a homeowner.
Of course, I said yes, we have many homes like this in America, although I didn’t mention that the American homes usually have electricity and running water that his home might lack at first. He wasn’t looking for examples of the chasm between my life and his, though. He lived in that gap every day as a guide for traveling Westerners. Rather, he wanted someone to share his pride as he moved up in his world.
I’ve been thinking about Menguez lately as I work on a family genealogy project, retracing my grandparents’ first foothold in this country and the momentum they created for their children and, ultimately, me. They were tougher than I am, survivors, willing and able to live on nothing until they could put a few bucks together to rent an apartment within a mile of the immigrants’ market on Maxwell Street in Chicago. According to the ship manifest, each of them presented the legendary $5 at immigration when they got off the boat and they found a way to get from Ellis Island to the West Side of Chicago.
Our family history in the United States is nothing special, really. Morris and Anna had children who grew up and got married and had their own children who grew up and continued the line. We’ve all accomplished a few things, failed at others, and we’ve woven our stories into the national fabric. Being “nothing special” is very special in this country, though. In the day-to-day, it’s easy to forget how far ahead we begin this race.
Easy to forget, but then you spot a photo of Menguez and his future home, and it all comes back. Our lives are graded on a curve, but the curves are not the same in every country, in every time. Each of us tries to ride up our own curve unless, like my grandparents, they get desperate enough to make the leap to a new world and a new curve. Yes, they were looking for better opportunities beyond the golden door, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t giving up something in the bargain.
How desperate do you have to be to release your grip on everything you know, almost every person you know, for a new start? How rough does life need to be before the dice are worth rolling? For my grandparents, it seems, the tradeoff made sense. For Menguez, maybe not. He was on an upward arc at home, building for his future. His ambition might lead him to come here—maybe he has already made that leap—but his hard work was paying well for him without crossing an ocean.
That wasn’t the case for my grandparents, although their exit from Tsarist Russia might have been driven more by politics than economics. Whatever the reason, they were desperate enough to jettison the only lives they knew and set the foundation for all of us who followed.
Sometimes, it turns out, desperation is a good thing.
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Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.