Those who have the least dream the most

Story highlights

  • CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows optimism among Latinos about achieving the American Dream
  • Author Reyna Grande knows firsthand what it's like to move up from poverty in America

Reyna Grande is the author of two novels and "The Distance Between Us," a memoir about her life before and after illegally emigrating from Mexico. She is the recipient of a 2007 American Book Award and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Is it surprising that those of us who start with the least dream the most?

As a 2-year-old girl living in Mexico, my dream was simple: to be reunited with my father who'd left for California in search of a better life for our family. In Iguala, our hometown in the southern state of Guerrero, we lived in a shack made of sticks and cardboard, with a dirt floor. There was no running water or electricity. We bathed in a muddy canal where chunks of horse dung and trash floated by like paper boats. I went barefoot for want of shoes. I suffered tapeworm, lice, scorpion stings.
Reyna Grande
Despite glittery Acapulco at its southern edge on the Pacific Ocean, Guerrero is the second-poorest and most violent state in Mexico. Seventy percent of its 3.4 million residents live in poverty.
    Guerrero is the Mexican state that grows the most crops for heroin consumption in the United States, so Iguala is surrounded by mountains covered with poppy fields. The city of some 110,000 is a distribution center for the cartels. Indeed, nearly 200 pounds of narcotics are shipped out of the city's bus station every week, according to an Agence France-Presse report quoting a man who identified himself as a drug cartel member.
    Iguala is also the kind of place where people can mysteriously disappear overnight. The tragedy that occurred there last year, when 43 college students were forcibly disappeared by Mexican police, remains unsolved.
    When I turned 4, my mother joined my father in Los Angeles, leaving me and my older siblings, Magloria and Carlos, in our grandmothers' care. As the months stretched into years, and my siblings and I celebrated birthdays, Mother's Days and Father's Days, Christmases and school graduations without our parents, I often wondered if the heartbreak and trauma of this separation would one day be worth it. But those long years of separation also taught me endurance -- I dreamed even harder to see my parents again.

    Heading north

    Finally, at 9 years old, it was my turn to head north. My siblings and I found ourselves running across the border with my father and a smuggler, crawling through bushes, climbing over rocks, risking our lives for the dream of a reunited, intact family.
    I didn't know back then that when a family is separated, it can never be completely put back together. Immigration can turn parents and children into strangers. My biggest shock was that I didn't really know my father. I'd gotten used to seeing him only as a black-and-white photograph. The man I found was very different from the man I'd imagined. He also struggled to adjust to being a father of an independent preteen, for I was no longer the little girl he'd left behind so many years ago, the one who'd chased after him wanting to be picked up.
    Despite our complicated family dynamics, my father instilled in me the idea that with hard work, I could be more than a maintenance worker like him or a factory worker like my mother. He called it "the American Dream." I'd arrived in this country as an undocumented child immigrant, yet he spoke to me and my siblings of college and careers, of houses and money for retirement.
    As I came of age, the American Dream meant having the opportunity to change my life. It meant accomplishing more than I ever could have in Mexico. And achieving the dream became an integral part of my vision for the future because it gave me specific goals: I had to learn English, find my place in America, put together the broken pieces of my family.

    Out of the shadows

    Though I was undocumented and initially lived in this nation's shadows, I clung to the American Dream with fierce tenacity. The dream was the only way I could look back on everything I'd gone through -- the years of waiting for my parents to come back, risking my life to cross the border, struggling to overcome cultural, legal and language barriers -- and know it was all worth it.
    I never questioned whether the dream existed or not. I still don't. It's my family's unbreakable belief in it that has gotten me where I am today: the first person in my family to hold a college degree, an award-winning author, a homeowner and a U.S. citizen.
    A new CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll has found that most Latinos say that achieving the American Dream is easier for them than it was for their parents, while most whites say it is harder. The result of the poll doesn't surprise me. The thing is that most Latinos, like me, start at the bottom rung of the ladder, and our version of the dream is modest -- having a shot at higher education, the opportunity to own a home, a chance to become a professional instead of being blue-collar workers like our parents.
    The question is not, "Can the American Dream still be achieved?" but rather, "Who is doing the dreaming and what is being dreamed?"
    Latinos, especially those of us who are immigrants or children of immigrants, are still big dreamers. It is our belief in the American Dream that helps us look toward the future with humility and hope.