Is it an American Dream? Depends if You Speak English or Spanish

Pilar Marrero holds her books. | Photo: Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
Pilar Marrero holds her books. | Photo: Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

Pilar Marrero has a new book out. But like any good Latino in the U.S., it has two identities and two names.

In Spanish the book is called, "El Despertar del Sueño Americano, La Tension, el Conflicto, y la Esperanza del los Inmigrantes en Estados Unidos." Basically, "Awaking the American Dream, the tension, conflict, and hope of immigrants in the United States." The driving word in the title is hope. Immigrants -- a description of the Spanish language version begins -- still perceive the golden door that attracted immigrants in previous eras in spite of recent policies that signal one of the most recalcitrant waves of nativism in recent years.

The English title of Marrero's book is, "Killing the American Dream, How Anti-Immigration Extremists are Destroying the Nation." Wow. Time to move to Canada. Right?

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"The English version's a different book for a different publisher," she told me several weeks back at a private book reading at a friend's home near Pacific Palisades. Marrero, who grew up in Venezuela, is a reporter and editor at La Opinion, arguably the most important Spanish language daily newspaper in the United States.

The book is a rollercoaster trip through 25 years of immigration policies and popular sentiment in this country. It parallels her 25 years in this country and in American journalism.

In the introduction Pilar talks about how in 1987 the word amnesty wasn't the dirty word it is now. With a pen stroke President Ronald Reagan turned amnesty into the law of the land. One of Pilar's first assignments as a new reporter in L.A. was to cover the implementation of the new law. She remembers some wacky get-the-message-out events headed by the regional and the L.A. chiefs of the federal immigration service. They recruited a popular Spanish language D.J. whose nickname was "El Tigre." They called themselves the "amnesty trio." (Who else had a vision of Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short just now?)

The point was to reach the illegal immigrants in this country who qualified for the law. The law changed lives and gave the IRS tons more tax returns to process.

Fast forward to now -- chapter 9 of the book, to be precise -- and to the transformation of Arizona as the Grand Canyon state to the place most active in changing this country's spirit as the land of immigrants.

I talked to her the week after the presidential elections. She'd wrapped up about a year of following Republican candidate Mitt Romney from the primaries to election day. She was tired. From Michelle Bachman in Iowa, she said, to Romney's self-deportation pleas, and the wedge he drove deeper between Latinos and the Republican party, it was a reporting whirlwind. And exhilarating to follow as a reporter for a Spanish-language newspaper, she added.

The Latino vote was key in this presidential election. However, the mainstream's understanding of who Latinos are and what they think is still murky. And there are few people translating the Latino experience for mainstream media. She's discovered in writing the book, she said, that English language media does little to look for these cultural translators. "I want to be one of those voices. As a fact-centered journalist, not as a pundit," she said.

At the time she'd gotten little traction locally and nationally in the interview circuit.

Back to the book's two titles. When her book reading at the Palisades-adjacent home was over I was confronted with the quandary, which book to buy? I'm English dominant now, in spite of growing up speaking Spanish first. Would it be first and foremost a cultural statement to buy the Spanish language book? Well, the English version is a translation so I opted for the story as she told it in her native language.

Poet and KPCC Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

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