Beyond Los Angeles, on the outskirts of the valley, California could be Mexico. And less than 200 years ago, it was. While passing through Los Angeles, into and through the San Bernardino Valley, I liked to imagine what all this built up sprawl looked like before we made it what it is today. Before we claimed it as our own, took credit for its discovery, before we decimated indigenous peoples. Our nation’s nostalgic old west made popular by cowboys—colonizing superheroes.
Like many other (white?) males, I’ve got a penchant for the pioneer days—the horse and hats and chaps and walking with scuffed bowlegged boots, Hollywood added the jingling spurs and badassery—and maybe this is because I grew up in a California a cow town and was exposed to rancher toughness and pearly snaps before I could speak a sentence. As a toddler I wore a play holster and a silvery cap gun. The belt’s steel buckle was so sharp it often cut my soft hands.
I am thinking about who I was as a child. Who I am now. I am breathing. I am breathing air.
I can’t live this romantic history without remembering the American genocide. One that continues, albeit in other forms. One that hides behind a slower death. White-skinned people still bring disease, but now it’s not smallpox and influenza. Sickness is written in law and passed down generationally in the form of a quiet and systemic oppression. Sometimes we see it—like, holding camps for children separated from parents, hate-mongering talk, and border walls. But it’s also between the lines while being mistaken for the norm. Or the right thing. Or God’s will. Or the inevitable future. Or for how things are done.
We are all children of various ideas that didn’t form in our heads.
We concern ourselves artificial intelligence and self-driving cars, yet we remain unsure/unable to find common ground with all fellow humans.
All while we all breathe air. The same air.
At face-value our nation is a hard-charging and progress-driven force. A world leader. But beneath our surface is a mean streak. A toxic and self-righteous entitlement that’s grown steel-hardened with the passage of time. Don’t get mad, get even. No pain, no gain. Second place is the first loser. We are a culture of bootstrap pullers. We can’t stop thinking about ourselves.
I am proud of my ability to endure. Of my work ethic. I am even proud of what inspired my ancestors to leave one place for somewhere better. That had to take guts. Big guts. To uproot from familiarity and plop down in the middle of a new culture! That’s no joke. Every immigrant venturing to America, in some way or another, was driven by this ideal. And this remains true today—they are of the same stock. Made of the same hardscrabble toughness society lauds and has made legendary. And yet America eschews their chance for a fresh start. For an opportunity to improve. For the possibility that they might increase their happiness quotient. Because they think differently. Look differently.
All while we breathe air.
Melting pot or fondue reserved for the elite? The nation’s original ideal is compromised. I love my country, but I’m not down with its abusive power.
I am walking across America to forget the lines in the sand. I walk to connect on a deeper level. Our connective foundation lies beneath belief systems. Beneath fear. Beneath our gods. We want happiness. We want to be healthy. I want to start there. Keep it simple.
There’s a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. On it is inscribed a poem titled “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. Here is the second stanza:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” Cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Are we still breathing?