A few years ago, the power went out in South Miami. My son went to the Bilingual Coop Preschool and I was there volunteering with a few other moms. We opened the doors and let the kids run around the playground. One of the moms, Maria Alejandra, a Venezuelan who had just moved to Miami, called Florida Power and Light, typed in our zip code on her phone keypad, and listened to their outgoing message. She announced to the group that power would be restored in 22 minutes. Then Maria Alejandra did a little jig and sang America the Beautiful.
I was born in Miami, Florida in 1968. I’ve lived in the U.S. my entire life apart from a college semester in Madrid and six months in Oxford, England. Now I’m married to a Venezuelan immigrant. Vicky’s been in the U.S. almost 25 years, but even in good times, she remembers Venezuela’s bureaucratic hassles. She has told me how nothing works smoothly; how you have to “make” a line to pay your electricity bill; how if the electricity goes out, no one tells you when it will come back, if ever. She tells me this when I complain about the U.S. She says I’m an ingrate.
When Vicky got her American citizenship, eight years into our marriage, she wanted a party with red, white, and blue paper plates. She wanted everyone to dress like it was the 4thof July. She wanted American flags planted all over the yard.
U.S. Citizenship meant so much to her — freedom of expression including sexual freedom and all kinds of business opportunity. Vicky says, “You can be a freak here and still make a million dollars.” Her citizenship meant something to me too. When we got married, gay marriage wasn’t legal, so for me it meant my wife wouldn’t get deported.
But the party never happened because I dislike the American flag so much, I couldn’t motivate to organize one. I’m the social director in my family, so that job fell on me. And I just couldn’t do it. Even a few years ago, I saw the flag as hostile.
I don’t understand why Americans fly flags off their front porches. They’re not in a parade. Or at the Olympics. I understand asserting your difference when you feel alone in a vast sea, but when you are that sea, why assert? We’re all on the same team here.
I’ve walked door-to-door supporting political candidates since I was a kid, so I know that when I see a flag on a porch, a Republican lives there. Now, when I see a man wearing a flag pin on the lapel of his blazer, I feel defensive. I’m sad that I feel this way. These people are just asserting their pride, but the symbol has come to represent issues and policies I’m not proud of.
Call me a socialist snowflake. Vicky calls me a naïve brat, especially in light of what’s happening in Venezuela. Over the past twenty years the Venezuelan government has choked the country almost to death. When we went back a few years ago to bury Vicky’s mother, the streets were so dangerous, we didn’t walk anywhere or drive with our windows open. Inflation is so high, the average citizen can’t afford chicken, milk, or eggs when they can find those items in the empty supermarkets. Recently, a man was filmed and posted on Instagram capturing pigeons with a net, supposedly to roast them.
Last week, the entire country of Venezuela lost electricity for 72 hours. Calls dropped. Food rotted. Preemies died.
Maybe Vicky’s right: I’m a brat. And maybe naïve. But it’s also naïve to wave the flag without question. That’s the beauty and the beast of this country. I can be critical, so I am. There’s so much we could do better.
Since college, I’ve worked for social change, including full-time for more than a decade lobbying congress for tighter environmental laws and building a grassroots movement for reproductive rights. These issues have gotten worse in the 25 years I’ve worked to improve them. And there are other things I wish the U.S. could do better such as provide healthcare, end gun violence, reduce our reliance on cars, and relax our manic work ethic. The character Once-ler in The Lorax says, “Business is business and business must grow, regardless of crummies and tummies, you know.” Why must businesses grow again?
Vicky says, “If you don’t grow, you die.” She says producing vast quantities of stuff to sell then selling that stuff generates revenue to pay for all the things we want for our nation, such as healthcare, clean energy, and public transportation. I get that. But aren’t we one of the richest nations in the world? So where’s our healthcare, clean energy, and public transportation?
Vicky’s not blind to the problems of the United States, certainly not now, since our last presidential election. She’s heartbroken and scared we’re going down the same path as Venezuela. But she still thinks this is the best country in the world. Is it? I’m not sure.
I’ve had an idealized vision of Spain since I spent that semester there in 1988. I loved the way everybody gathered in the evenings in the Plaza Mayor. I loved buying sangria for the price of a Coke; living without a car; and siesta. I was in college then and was bowled over by how every European I met followed American politics and culture, while I knew so little about Spain, even though I was studying there.
This is just one experience, but a few years ago our family spent two weeks in San Sebastian, in the Basque Country. Our Sebastian, who was two at the time, ran a high fever so we took him to a doctor. I don’t remember a wait. I just remember a lovely doctor treating our boy. And the bill: forty Euros. The medicine: two.
And while this may sound bratty, or like I’m running away, we’re taking the family to Madrid for a year. I’m not fleeing the U.S. due to political or religious persecution; I’m just taking a break. I want to experience something different. I want to see something else. I want my kids to see something else.
I’m sure I’ll discover a lot of things about Spain I don’t like. And I’m sure I’ll discover things about the United States I do like and just take for granted. Maybe if I look at the United States from a distance, I’ll see it more clearly.
I want to come back with new eyes. I want to love my country the way Vicky does.
This is №40 of my #weeklyessaychallenge. I gave myself this challenge when I turned 50. 50 essays in a year. Ten to go. :)