When did the proverbial American dream — the myth of equal opportunity in the US — die for you? For Julia Justo, it happened the moment she realized she was working 50 hours a week but was still unable to save for her future. For artist Anjelic E. Owens, it was in grad school in New York, when she was working so much to afford her materials that she couldn’t find the time to create art. For Christian Mártir, a Puerto Rican musician: “The day I was born, in an American colony.”
These and other testimonies are recorded in a new online project by artist Lizania Cruz titled Obituaries of the American Dream: 1931-2020. Commissioned for El Museo del Barrio’s ESTAMOS BIEN: LA TRIENAL 20/21, curated by Rodrigo Moura, Susanna Temkin, and Elia Alba, the website is modeled after the obituary pages of a newspaper, with vertical columns of text against a black background. Instead of mourning individuals, however, each notice announces the passing of a typical American fantasy for “non-im/migrants and im/migrants” around the world.
“I was already thinking about our vision of work and individualism and I was also reading Judith Butler on nonviolence and this idea of interdependency. That was at the beginning of the pandemic,” Cruz said. “Then George Floyd happened.”
The mirage of upward mobility may be long dead, but Cruz’s project anchors its demise in the names and lived experiences of real people. More than 40 submissions on the site so far relate intimate stories of injustices large and small that tangibly illustrate how factors like race, gender, class, and language — among many others — limit access to opportunity in a country whose leader still denies systemic inequities.
In her own obituary for the project, Cruz says her American dream “died of Covid-19 complications.”
“It was through the pandemic that I realized the failure of our current value on work and individualism,” she writes. “I knew the system wasn’t created for a person like me but, somehow, I believed the idea that through my hard work and my exceptionalism I could make it through. As we were all forced to pause, I could see clearly that I was wrong.”
At the onset of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, the former epicenter of the epidemic, Cruz began reflecting on the people considered essential — and how many of them lacked proper equipment, healthcare, and other protections.
“For me, this idea of work, and kind of considering the value of work versus human life, really shifted second week of shutdowns,” she said. “As with every process, and because we were living through this moment of collective grief, I thought, we need to grieve and mourn this idea in order to reconsider what a new way of interdependency would be like.”
The title of the work references the year 1931, when writer and historian James Truslow Adams coined the term “American dream” in his book The Epic of America. “Throughout my practice, I’m interested in how we can anchor these ideals in historical moments, and that’s why I chose 1931,” said Cruz. “But a lot of my friends who are Black Americans told me, ‘This thing never existed for me,’ which I understand.”
The project’s call for submissions will remain open for the next two months, and anyone can contribute. You can share your story here. Cruz’s vision for the work includes a physical exhibition of the printed obituaries, to take place at El Museo next year.
Obituaries of the American Dream: 1931-2020 continues online through the end of the year.
As a young snot, I always thought ‘the American Dream’ was an advertising slogan or, maybe, a framework for advertising slogans, which seemed to come down to getting a house in the suburbs and filling it with stuff seen in magazines, especially a TV where they would see more stuff and dumb people and be told to move up to Schlitz. This was of course for White people, and not any old White people, either — but the average schmuck could come back from the War, go on the GI Bill, go to college (maybe), and have a sort of middle-class life. At least it would be better than Mom and Pop in the tenements or out on the farm. I had the apparently incorrect impression that the improperly pigmented and the Latin-Americans* knew it was a crock. I guess not.
I am surprised to learn that the term was invented in 1931, though. All through the first half of the 20th century people’s old ways of life had to be destroyed so that consumer capitalism could replace everything. ‘The American Dream’ was one facet of the ideology organizing that process.
*’Latinequises’ for y’all wokies.
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