Build the Wall
Trump and his loyal followers are keen on building a wall to seal off the U.S. from invaders, detractors, and moochers. They use racist rhetoric to support the reality that the U.S. is losing its status as a country with a White majority. I'm hoping they do build the wall, a wall like the Great Wall of China that establishes not only a physical barrier against aliens but a psychological one as well. We need a wall that keeps the U.S. segregated from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. I'd like to see an end not only to the northern movement of people but the movement of ideas, habits, and manners as well.
My argument is not to protect the U.S., but rather to keep Latin America safe. People in the developing world need to fathom that the American dream is an illusion. This dream is not something to envy but more like dengue fever, a mosquito-borne virus that migrates across borders.
The U.S. is a nightmare of consumerism, opioid addiction, and loneliness. It's the poster boy for what happens when capitalism and individualism run rampant under unchecked, unconscious impulses of racism, sexism, and ageism. Prison populations are 40 percent Black when Blacks comprise only 13 percent of the U.S. population. CEOs and CFOs are almost always men, just like astronauts and truck drivers.
Not only do men get the most prestigious and highest paying jobs, but only in the past year or two has it become unfashionable to take advantage of females sexually. The #MeToo movement was jumpstarted in the entertainment industry thanks to serial offenders like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, and Kevin Spacey, yet the biggest female stars in entertainment are still paid less than their male counterparts.
Senior citizens are discriminated against in the workplace. On line at the supermarket, we blame them for delays. Don't they know how to use a debit card? Whose fault is it they don't own a smartphone and can't use Uber instead of wasting money on taxis?
In Brazil where I live, there are separate lines at the supermarket and bank for Seniors. Organized religion and extended families provide a support system against loneliness. Families are so extended there is no word in Portuguese for an extended family or nuclear family. It's all family. Nursing homes are rare because older Brazilians don't live alone. In fact, living alone at any age is unusual. College students live at home and often continue to until they marry. Job seekers look for work in the same city where their parents live; even the most independent souls escape by buying their first apartment across town.
The desire for success is not a product of capitalism. Consumerism runs deeper than the lust for new technology or the option of choosing among dozens of laundry detergents. Desire is part of an innate striving for a better existence. If we grow up in a village without electricity, we want to see our children have easier lives. If we are born in the U.S., as I was, to hardworking parents living in a small apartment in a working class neighborhood with two adults and two children sharing one bathroom, we hope one day to live in a house in the leafy suburbs where we don't share a bathroom with our kids.
Capitalism and consumerism are rooted in base human desires, not vice versa. We all want success and recognition and the rewards that come with it – expendable income for a bigger TV or money for our kids' college tuition. While some people are more obsessed with status than others, most parents routinely make enormous sacrifices for their children. Desire is what draws young people out of their small towns, seeking greater rewards in big cities, more stimulation and opportunities.
Nevertheless, there is a limit to how much opportunity, choice, and success is healthy. Research shows an overabundance of choices causes anxiety because people don't know if they're making the right choice. Barry Schwartz, an American psychologist, has written a book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. He states: “Though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, Americans don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.” According to the research, 18 percent of Americans suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder.
With all achievements, there is a tipping point. Free solo rock climbing is exhilarating and healthy until you fall. Is it wise to elect a reality TV star as President? Are the corporate mergers that provide large dividends to investors paying off in the end? Not only do employees get laid off, but the mergers themselves can fail when the size of the conglomerate keeps top managers from missing trends; the companies are so big they ignore the changing world around them. Witness the purchase of Time Warner by AOL, the largest merger of its time, which resulted eight years later in AOL being spun off as it failed to remain profitable, and Time Warner now being sold to AT&T. Is that healthy capitalism or capitalism at its worst, profiting only the investors?
I fear the dregs of consumerism, the paradox of choice, overtaking Latin America. Rather, I applaud a culture that values its history, a country that declares a federal holiday for the Day of the Dead to allow time for reflection and to bring flowers to the cemetery. There's nothing wrong with improved infrastructure, but does every cobblestone need to be replaced? The uneven street pavement forces drivers to slow down, and tricky sidewalk navigation encourages women to abandon their high heels for flat shoes. People move more slowly here, with time to appreciate the wildflowers growing along the sidewalk and grasses struggling through the cobblestone streets.
Of course, no one can extend the time we have on the planet, but by slowing down, we create the illusion we have more time. Why not turn on that home theater you never use and watch a movie with your family without checking your phone. When was the last time you heard one of your old CDs? Stressed? Relax on the couch for an hour and do nothing but listen to music.
I'm anxious to keep my neighbors from consumer envy, but more important, I want to save their souls. The oral tradition still thrives in Latin America, and the many cultures here enjoy the fruits of their discourse such as the extended time allotted for conversations with family and neighbors. Portuguese is a circuitous language spoken with subtle cadences, numerous accents, and an ambiguity that demands more time to be digested.
I live in a big city, but the pace of life here is similar to small town USA. I greet my neighbors even if I don't recognize them. We make eye contact with the supermarket cashier when she hands us change. We say good morning to the security guard at the bank. There's more time for personal interactions, and conversations take longer because talking is more important than checking emails.
In this world, people are more likely to believe their neighbor's story than a TV journalist's. Folks prefer the personal touch with communication, which is why they stand close enough to touch each other when they speak.
My intention here is not to support a Luddite revolution or descend into baby boomer nostalgia for times past. While a slower pace of life may seem quaint to North Americans, it is in fact healthier and more natural. The world of nature that supports humans on Earth moves at a glacial pace, eons for rivers to form and species to adapt. It's Darwinian.
It's easier to smell the flowers when you have the inclination to slow down. The more we look, the more we see, like the Hubble telescope that gathers better information by being closer to the stars. A giant leap in astronomy occurred when scientists were able to attach a camera to a telescope and let the light accumulate in the camera before closing the shutter. By slowing down the telescope's ability to gather more light, we know more about the universe.
When people are not in a hurry, there's time to listen for the faint voices of distant stars and spirits. It's no coincidence that magical realism originated in the literature of Latin America. However, the tales only became magical when Western audiences discovered them. To the people of Latin America, magic realism is merely family sagas, which involve ghosts of dead ancestors offering valuable guidance.
Seeing what inhabits our world may extend beyond reality. For North Americans, hallucinations are caused by exhaustion, sensory deprivation, or a medical condition. But when they occur, we sense them at the time as reality because they traverse the same sensory paths that “real” perceptions do.
In the same way that our senses can be fooled, our memories are never totally accurate. We invent experiences that didn't happen because we've seen home movies of the event or we've been told about it by an older sibling. Research has proven there is no full-proof way of distinguishing a genuine memory from those that have been borrowed or suggested. As Oliver Sacks noted in The River of Consciousness: “We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true . . . depends as much on our imagination as our senses.”
Ghosts and spirits are like aliens from another planet, here and not here. Whether or not you have personally seen one, there are people who have and are certain of it. They can even pass a lie detector test about their UFO abduction. The same is true for Brazilians and their deceased ancestors. People here recognize there is an invisible or nonexistent line between the real world and the great beyond, between truth and fiction. In Portuguese, the word história is used interchangeably to mean “history” or “story.”
Children illuminate the invisible line between the real and the imagined, between history and stories. They cross the line every day because they don't see it. It's what makes them greater than us – sincere, fresh, embarrassingly candid.
The invisible line is what Donald Spence addresses in his book, Narrative Truth and Historical Truth. In the end, we have nothing more than the stories we are told and tell ourselves. History is the collection of stories.
I hope the wall does get built; I don't want to see Latin Americans lose their joyful innocence. Cynicism is worth excluding with a wall. In Portuguese, the word esperar translates as both 'to hope' and 'to wait.' Here, if you have the patience to slow down and wait, there is hope. Maybe you will see what is right before you but never noticed. As long as there is time to wait, there is hope you will remember the brilliant luck and determination that has brought you this far, and you will be grateful for more than a new cellphone. In the jaded U.S., there is no time like the present. In Brazil, the past is present. In the hot, lazy afternoons, young couples and old men dot benches around a cast-iron fountain in the central square. It seems old and tired, and it's solid and worth preserving.