Chapter 2: The Way Less Traveled By

“One of the Least Free Countries in the World”

–I found this in my drafts from a few months ago.  I think I wrote it when I still felt like I didn’t belong back in my own culture.  Now that I feel like I’ve made the full adjustment back, albeit with feet that itch to wander, I look at this with new eyes and feel like it needs to be posted.–

If I had to describe my view of the United States of America from inside the borders, I would say the country is like an elevated plateau, a land of plenty with a good view of the rest of the world spread out in an intriguing map.  Of course, there are the dark areas (and you must never go there, Simba), but the rest is bright and exotic and full of adventure.

We’re built on an underdog story as a nation, which set the stage for the American dream.  So we take care of ourselves and our loved ones, we take care of our land, and then we take care of those lands around us who can’t take care of themselves, in that order.  Seems simple, right?  The core of the USA?

But from outside the borders, my country looks different.  From a Latin American country, it’s a powerful behemoth that has abused that power, and is abusing that power.  It’s a weighty presence to the north that has its tendrils in everything.

My host mom knows every word to her favorite American songs from the seventies, but she has no idea what they mean.  In Panama, the official currency is U.S. dollars, so the people use pieces of paper with our heroes’ faces on them to pay for their rice and plantains.  Half the major supermarkets in Costa Rica have been taken over by Walmart.  Not to mention all the exploiting of land, resources, and people that goes on that somehow doesn’t quite get to popular attention.

Some things aren’t inherently bad, such as music and movies crossing borders and cultures; if anything, I think we’re the ones missing out since we’re hardly ever on the receiving end of the exchange.  Other influences aren’t so benign, however.

There’s a passage I read in a literature class in Costa Rica that struck a chord.  For context, this is pulled from an essay that was written in the Roaring Twenties whose author points out the cultural potential of the Spanish-speaking American countries and calls for their unification to form a “utopia” of justice and equality.  The author lived in different American countries, including the U.S. and so experienced distinct points of view.  I’m including the original quote because it’s so well-written, but there’s also a translation below.

La primera utopía que se realizó sobre la Tierra –así lo creyeron los hombres de buena voluntad– fue la creación de los Estados Unidos de América: reconozcámoslo lealmente. Pero a la vez meditemos en el caso ejemplar: después de haber nacido de la libertad, de haber sido escudo para las víctimas de todas las tiranías y espejo para todos los apóstoles del ideal democrático, y cuando acababa de pelear su última cruzada, la abolición de la esclavitud, para librarse de aquel lamentable pecado, el gigantesco país se volvió opulento y perdió la cabeza; la materia devoró al espíritu; y la democracia que se había constituido para bien de todos se fue convirtiendo en la factoría para lucro de unos pocos. Hoy, el que fue arquetipo de libertad, es uno de los países menos libres del mundo.

–Pedro Henríquez Ureña, “La utopía de América” (1925)

Translation (my own):

The first utopia on Earth that came into being –as good and free-thinking men believe– was the creation of the United States of America: let’s recognize this fairly.  But at the same time, let us meditate on this exemplary case: after having been born of liberty, after having been a shield for the victims of all tyrannies, and a mirror for all apostles of the democratic ideal, and after finishing the fight of its final crusade, the abolition of slavery, to free itself from that lamentable sin, the mammoth country turned opulent and lost its head; the material devoured the spirit; and the democracy that had established itself for the well-being of all converted itself into a factory for the profit of a select few.  Today, that which was the archetype of liberty, is one of the least free countries in the world.

–This is as far as my draft went.  I think I wanted to make some point about self-satisfied jerk America, but I don’t want to anymore.  Each country has their own biased nationalist history, and I think the world would be a better place if we could all take that into perspective.  I know people have committed heinous crimes in the name of my country, just as people have committed equally heinous crimes in the name of my ideals and in the name of my God.

I think the idea of the U.S. being one of the least free countries in the world hit me so hard because the chains are spiritual, not legislative.  I do, after all, have the freedom of speech to condemn my country up one side of the globe and down the other, but that doesn’t require breaking any shackles.  Instead, my intention is to stop blissfully holding on to my ignorance, and to stop waiting for someone else to clean up the mess of the crimes of others, complacent in the security that I’m on the safe side of the gun, and happy in my secure world that stands heavily on the backs, blood, and spirit of others. 

I hope to do good in the name of my country, my ideals, my God, and I hope that good amounts to more than writing about it.  I will spend my life working against the drugged complacency of materialism, and at undoing the harm of that materialism.  Maybe in the process I can work toward freeing my own people.–


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