I Had to Make My Own American Dream

“What are you going to do? Open an English store?”

I bristled at my dentist’s response to finding out I was an English major. I sat in the examination chair, my neck sore and my mouth stinging. My eyes passed over the beige walls, decorated only with a small painting of a sailboat and two diplomas with my dentist’s name on them.

American Dream
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I understood his sentiment: An English degree isn’t necessarily a hot commodity.

He wasn’t the first one to question my choice of major and career path. My parents and a good portion of my extended family came to the United States from Guatemala in search of a better life. Theirs is the typical immigrant story: They wanted a better future for their kids, and America was financially stable and full of opportunity.

In their eyes, the path to achieving the American Dream meant pursuing a career that would automatically lead to financial stability, like law or medicine. A creative career wasn’t a plausible option. The goal was simple: Get on the fast track to economic success so you can have better opportunities than the family members before you.

"In their eyes, the path to achieving the American Dream meant pursuing a career that would automatically lead to financial stability, like law or medicine."  

I wondered if my dentist was raised similarly.

Guilt gnawed at me as I made the long trip home from the dentist. That was years ago, but the feeling that I was possibly letting my family down has stuck with me.

I grew up with the pressure of exceeding the accomplishments of my immediate and extended family, hearing, “When you strike it rich, you’ll buy us a mansion!” and “When you start making lots of money, you’ll just maintain us!”

I’m the first child to finish college right after high school without interruption, and I’m the first person in my entire family to get a master’s degree. (It’s an equally useless degree in art history, depending on who you ask.) My relatives respected me for getting so far, but they didn’t completely understand why I chose my fields.

When my father passed away unexpectedly without leaving a will, my mom was tasked with sorting out everything and paying for the house on her own while raising me. I was only 12, and I knew I’d have to help out.

If the pressure to follow a career that would make me financially stable felt heavy when I was young, it grew even more intense when I started college and then grad school. I began to understand the challenges my mother faces, like the possibility that she might not retire at 65 because she doesn’t think she’ll be able to pay off the house before then.

My older siblings have their own children and responsibilities to fulfill. It often feels like I’m the only one who can support her — and the one who should support her, since I have fewer obligations. But how can I help my mom if I can hardly help myself?

If it were up to me, maybe I would take on the romanticized identity of the starving artist. I would look out only for myself, spending my days writing until my wrists hurt and skipping meals when I couldn’t afford to eat.

Like many writers, my goals revolve around specific publications or assignments. I would love to publish a cover story one day, see my work in The New York Times, and write a book. Most importantly, I want to tell stories that resonate with readers — specifically those in marginalized communities. To me, this is success. While I want financial stability, reaching these goals is ultimately more important to me.

"I’m trying to do something my parents couldn’t: doing what I really love instead of working just to make ends meet."  

I currently have one steady part-time gig doing social media and spend the rest of my time freelance writing. It’s not the flashy career my family envisioned. I really struggle some months, having little extra money left after paying for rent, utilities, groceries, and my student loans. But it feels worthwhile because I’m getting closer to reaching my goals. And my mother is my biggest cheerleader, constantly telling me not to underestimate my worth and to stay patient.

A lot of days, I feel guilty for still not being at a point where I can support my family. I care about my mother deeply and know she’s tired. She is 61 years old, and I already feel like I’m running out of time. I sometimes wonder if I should have listened to what my dentist was implying — that I needed to find something more practical. I think about quitting freelancing and getting a full-time job, even if it’s something not related to writing.

But then I remember my mom’s support over the years and tell myself to keep going. I’m trying to create my own version of the American Dream.

My version isn’t based only on financial success, but something less concrete and equally important. I’m trying to do something my parents couldn’t: doing what I really love instead of working just to make ends meet. And I think I can support my family and do what I love if I’m patient enough. It’s up to me to define my own American Dream and to keep working toward it as hard as I can.

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