The Great American Dream: To Breathe Free
By Arnulfo Moreno
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
My dad learned this famous Emma Lazarus quote last year as he prepared to take his citizenship test. He emigrated from El Salvador in 1974 to escape a life of poverty and an eventual civil war.
My dad is the second youngest of 11 children. When he was a child, his father was killed in a local dispute. Shortly after, my dad’s older brother, Rafael, left for the United States in search of work in order to support the family. Tensions were rising in El Salvador between a growing Marxist presence and a militaristic government backed by the United States. Jobs were scarce, so my father followed his brother to the United States so that he, too, could help the family by earning and income.
My dad was 17 when he crossed the border. A bad economy forced my dad to leave his home country; a violent civil war made him to stay in the new one.
Rafael helped my dad get his first job here in Washington, D.C. He worked odd job after odd job, sending as much money back as possible to support his mother and siblings. Rafael also helped him adapt to the American way of life, introducing him to hotdogs and hamburgers and showing him how to drive a car.
After years of hard work, the company my father worked for sponsored him so he could receive permanent residency. He was finally able to breathe free. My dad was also finally able to go back home and see his mother. He was 34.
I vividly remember my first trip to El Salvador in 1992, a year after the civil war ended. My dad is from a small mountain farm village that reminded me of spaghetti westerns. Everyone carried a gun. Trees were littered with pieces of uniforms and field equipment from unlucky soldiers who had stepped on well-hidden landmines.
I have visited El Salvador only a few times since then, but my father continues to go every six months without fail. Like his brother, Rafael, my dad had always hoped of retiring in El Salvador—a dream most immigrants have. On my last trip back in 2000, I met Rafael, who had become a pastor, and I saw the empty lot where he planned to build a community center. With the civil war behind them, Rafael felt his community had also earned the right to breathe free.
Last year, Rafael was killed, shot seven times at point-blank range in front of the community center. It reminded us of the violence that still ravages my dad’s country. It reminded me that not everyone has the luxury of breathing free. My dad wasn’t able to tell him that he had finally become a citizen of his adopted country. My dad’s dream of retiring in his home country seems less likely as violence continues to devastate his motherland.
My dad calls his mother every day. She continues to live in the mountains, carrying a six-shooter for security, refusing to come to the United States. El Salvador is her home.
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Tens of thousands of children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are attempting to flee violence and extreme poverty today. We as people of faith must act to address the root causes of this humanitarian crisis.
Call (800-826-3688) or email your U.S. representative and your U.S. senators! Simply say: I urge you to respond to the surge of unaccompanied children crossing the border. Please pass legislation that addresses the conditions of poverty, hunger, and violence in Central America that are forcing them to leave.
Arnulfo Moreno is the media relations specialist at Bread for the World.
Photo: Arnulfo Moreno (pictured far right) with his father (pictured far left) at his sister's wedding. (Courtesy of Arnulfo Moreno)
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