A Child’s-Eye View of the American Dream

I drew the train because I have seen that many times people suffer because of migration: People jump on trains and they take their small children and because of that many times they die. Sometimes the train can crash. When I grow older I do not want to be a migrant anymore.  

–Cecilia, 9, Mexico


I don’t know about you, but sometimes reality smacks into my blind spots so hard it robs me of my breath. I’m running between my often intertwined personal and professional lives keeping the domestic funny carts on the track and amassing the statistics and the policy analyses to show how promising or how horrific something in the public sphere is.

And then people—the fragile, splendid, surprising people this was all supposedly about—interpose themselves. I realize over and over that I may have described the contours of their struggles, but I haven’t given them voice or their stories texture.

Sunday afternoon I was in New York getting ready for a retreat with colleagues. There’s a Latinx art museum on the very northeastern corner of Central Park I’ve always wanted to go to, Museo del Barrio, and I actually had the time.

I thought I had exhausted the serious art when I came around a corner and there, in the nearly immeasurable instant it takes for a heart to contract, was a small hallway exhibit on U.S. immigration and deportation as seen from the eyes of children. Photos and drawings and quotes, arranged thematically.


Dear reader, I know personally any number of children affected by the issues on display in this small space, and I have plumbed the numbers that describe the human rights violations inflicted on them by adult politics. And I am intimately involved with educators trying to equip them with academic and life skills in this vacuum and to keep them here, safe.

But this vantage? It was like I had never heard of the violence and trauma incurred by children who cross the border–and then sometimes cross it back, involuntarily.

A little from the description of “Dreaming up North: Children on the Move Across the Americas”:

When children migrate, they are claiming a human right. They are going home to their parents after many years apart, they are looking for an income that will provide their siblings with the opportunities they did not have, they are resisting gangs and drug cartels’ strategies of fear and domination. But foremost they are challenging our understanding of childhood, innocence, dependency, citizenship, and even geography and time.

One of the first groupings of photos was pictures of children—many of them citizens, born here and deported with their parents or because their parents are in indefinite detention–in crude dwellings. The stories they tell that are relayed on cards below the photos are about bullying.

Maybe they do not speak Spanish or speak it imperfectly or with a funny accent. Maybe they are late, abrupt arrivals into a tight community. Whatever the condensed backstory, it’s subjected them to harassment and even violence in a place we think of as “back home”—and that’s anything but.

If we think of ourselves as compassionate, we think of them as outsiders here. Clearly, along with homelessness, trauma and marginalization, we also need to understand that home-not-home isn’t just a more impoverished version of here.


Some are about working alongside relatives, crossing into the United States for an agricultural season and then crossing back out of it for another in another clime. The work stories are shot through with abuse, and with the child’s terror of watching their parent–their idealized, all-powerful protector—abused and exploited.

This is one of those things we know in the abstract: Children cross borders alone, or in the company of adults who are just as likely to abuse them sexually, traffic them or leave them behind as to safeguard them. They make it or they don’t, regardless of our idealization of childhood as a time of innocence and exploration, and when they do make it our tiny huddled masses carry with them huge reservoirs of trauma.

I was a bit afraid to leave and I also felt sorry for our grandparents. They stayed back in Tambo (in the Andean community of Canar, Ecuador), and they had taken care of me all this time. But [my parents] sent for me. Yes, I felt scared, but I left because I was going to see them, my parents. We went all the way to Quito by bus. From there we took a plane and then a bus again, but we were stopped in Mexico. We left with a lady that was taking care of us and we had to say she was our aunt. Now that we got caught, I don’t know.

–Miguel, 14, Tapachula, Mexico

The final section of the wee exhibit was entitled The American Dream. It won’t surprise you even a tiny bit to hear that the drawings representing the dream all presented education as a reason to risk all of the trauma and violence of migration—even alone.

This is about my “American Dream” and how I would like an education and a life in the future.

–Nancy, 12, Ciudad Neza, Mexico

I want to get into a good university and then follow the career that I want. My name is Michelle Aucapina. I’m 15 years old. My parents are from Ecuador. My drawing is about “My American Dream.” I want my life to be great.

–Michelle Aucapina, 15, born in the United States

The present moment, and whether and how we choose to nurture the most fragile among us, will define us for generations. It’s time to start seeing some of our ugliest adult fault lines from the clarion-clear viewpoint of children.






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