America’s Greatest Export

Well I’m a-runnin’ down the road try’n to loosen my load
I’ve got seven women on my mind
Four that want to own me, two that want to stone me
One says she’s a friend of mine
Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy

The Eagles classic blared from the salon’s audio system as Simona shampooed my hair. Head back in the wash basin, her muted humming and my occasional singing were never in sync. But that didn’t stop us from a very interesting conversation wherein she explained her fondness for classic rock.

Simona has washed my hair at Elektra since the mid-90’s, a salon frequented by my wife and I since 1991. No one except Roy, the owner, has cut my hair since but for one unfortunate occasion. Once our two kids graduated from Kids Kuts, they too became clients of Roy’s and Simona’s. Until the Eagles, I had through the years gleaned bits and pieces about Simona’s background. She grew up in a small Mexican town, moved to the US in her early twenties, became a US legal resident, had a child, and enjoys telenovelas, a variety of foods and dancing, though her husband not so much.

The second of five children, Simona’s story begins on a tiny corn and goat farm in Villa de Casas, a very small town in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. After her mother left the family and parents divorced in 1968, her father sent the seven-year old Simona and two sisters, ages 8 and 2, to live full time at Casa Hogar del Nino (Home for the Children), an orphanage and school for 150 boys and girls from newborn through age fourteen located in the State’s capital of Ciudad Victoria. At Casa Hogar, Simona enjoyed a much richer learning environment than in Villa de Casas’ one-room school house.

Beyond education, the convent exposed Simona to experiences, ideas and culture far beyond anything available on the carless, radioless and televisionless farm. On the convent’s TV she watched Bonanza, Land of the Giants and Little House of the Prairie. Via the Sisters’ weekly motor transport, Simona saw movies in the theatre including The Nutty Professor, Cleopatra and James Bond.  Through the mail, she read Vanidad (Vanity), the influential and iconic Spanish language fashion magazine with a focus on American culture and Hollywood glamour.

Heard primarily on the radio, and occasionally records, music provided the greatest influence. Rock & Roll became Simona’s beacon, pointing her towards a new, expressive and geographically amorphous culture that offered an undetermined fate. Viewing the United States as a culture rather than a country a few hundred miles north, she considered any English-speaking actor or Rock & Roller as American, including her favorites James Bond, the Beatles and the Stones.

Simona departed Casa Hogar del Nino at age 14 with these sentiments intact to work as a live-in nanny. For the next nine years she immersed herself in “American” cultural and at the age of 23 immigrated to Houston, TX.  With English learned primarily from TV, movies and music, Simona received her GED within a year of arriving and a cosmetology degree soon thereafter. She worked one job before joining Elektra.

While Simona never sought the “American Dream” she said that, “One day you look back and see yourself living it. I did not think I could have what I have.”

In the spring of 1984, I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria. Throughout my travels to Eastern Bloc countries Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, months following the lifting of martial law,  I repeatedly heard youth express the same sentiments of American cultural as Simona. Without doubt Rock & Roll, TV, movies and media played as significant a role in the demise of the Soviet Union and liberation of its satellites as any other factor.

Though the International Monetary Fund lists computers, aircraft, vehicles, and minerals as the United States’ top exports, our cultural tops any product in intrinsic value.  Shaped by our democratic foundation itself supported by pillars of economic mobility, voting rights, due process, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, separation of powers, religious freedom and separation of church and state, our evolving culture continues to inspire. Quite possibly however, nothing since the Civil War has shaken these pillars as have the impact of President Trump’s policies, tweets, lies, and rhetoric.  Combined with his administration’s immigration policies, including the pending repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, needless deportation of Salvadorians and Haitians, and significant increase in the removal of non-criminal illegal immigrants,  we see a devaluation of our greatest export.

I wonder if Simona and my eastern European friends would have dreamed of an America as reflected in Trump’s vision of “America First”? I know Trump’s recent, racist “shithole” comment brings shame upon, and harms, our nation’s image abroad. To explain the United States as a nation of immigrants from wretched, destressed and disconsolate settings from around the globe should be a superfluous exercise.

As Defense Secretary James Mattis told a group of U.S. soldiers stationed abroad this past August:

You just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, you just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it, and being friendly to one another, as Americans owe to one another because we’re so doggone lucky to be Americans.

We’ve got two powers. We’ve got the power of inspiration and we’ll get the power of inspiration back. We’ve got the power of intimidation, and that’s you, if someone wants to screw with our families, our country and our allies.

We can be powerful and generous, open and secure, and wealthy and compassionate. How do I know?  Because these qualities shaped the United States into the greatest nation on earth. For us to remain, we must continually safeguard the values that, as Ronald Reagan stated, made the United States “a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Nothing about our nation’s politics, culture, immigration or economy has ever been, or will be, perfect. However, history instructs us that if we do not abandon our principles, we will thrive.

Understanding America remains an elusive quest requiring perpetual searching and questioning within our dynamic union. And though we flourish as individuals, we must collectively achieve a common recognition for the basis for our democratic and cultural development to prosper as a nation. As Simon & Garfunkel’s song America begins:

Let us be lovers,
We’ll marry our fortunes together.

“We” are the all of us. And our fortunes, whether riches, love, or health, are tied, united. And when others arrive on our shores in their search, we join them. Because we’re all, looking for America.

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