During a family dinner at my sister’s house, my brother-in-law mentioned that he was looking to buy a new car. This was more than 20 years ago, and we were talking Chevys, Fords and Dodges. My niece Amy, who was about 12 or 13 years old at the time, chimed in to say that what she wanted more than anything was a Lamborghini. I suspected that a Lamborghini had rarely – perhaps never – been seen on the streets of her small home town, so I asked her what she knew about Lamborghinis. She said she knew they cost a lot, but she had seen a picture of one once in a magazine and it was “beeeauuutiful.” The look of rapture on her face resembled that of Snow White’s just before she breaks into “Some Day My Prince Will Come.”
Two decades have gone by, and I’d guess Amy has still never seen her dream car except in pictures. Today, she is all grown up, married and settled into a well-paying job. Still, I don’t think she could afford a Lamborghini, which has a base price of $200,000. Even if she could, her employer, Toyota, probably wouldn’t allow it. But when she joined the conversation, she was a stereotypically young dreamer, and I was a fiscally-conservative old uncle. It was as it should be – dreams for young people; practicalities for old people. (The rule does not always hold true. I know a middle-aged woman who paid around $70,000 for a fancy pick-up that she drives to the grocery store. When I made a comment about it, she claimed it was “an investment.”)
My niece’s dream, like the dreams of nearly all young Americans, centered around wealth or, at least, the symbols of wealth. “Status symbols” have always been a force in our relatively rich American society, but what qualifies as status changes over time and geography. Automobiles may still express status in China or India, but presently most Americans pay little attention to the make or model of a person’s car. Today’s young people are more likely to be impressed by McMansions, second homes, memberships in exclusive clubs or gyms, expensive sneakers, etc.
Early humans must have had dreams and aspirations, but we have no idea what they were. A common one must have been for stability because as soon as they learned how to raise crops and domesticate animals, they quit the nomadic life. During the Middle Ages, “upward mobility” was nearly impossible. Even the churches taught that one should accept his lot in life. Still, they must have dreamed. Our American forefathers dreamed of a country where the citizens could go as far as their abilities could take them.
Last week’s news brought us pictures of large crowds of Central American refugees headed north into Mexico and, if their dreams are realized, eventually to the U.S. border. The report reminded me of a book called “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins. It became a best seller when Oprah Winfrey added it to her book club list. Its publication also stirred up an ongoing controversy in the literary world. Some critics don’t think Americans – specifically white Americans – should write books about dark-skinned Mexicans. (Fortunately, nobody told John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway about this rule.) I read “American Dirt” and thought it seemed accurate and authentic in its descriptions of the hardships incurred by a mother and her son when they are forced to leave their home in Acapulco and join the immigrants headed north toward their dream – the United States. It’s a tough book and a rough trip.
I hope they make it.