Mama Nena is in the kitchen, reheating a pot of fried beans from several days before.
Papa Mon sits in the living room, his frail, ancient body occupying barely any space on the wide couch. He is asking me about my life: “How is your mother?” Well. “You have a girlfriend now?” Sí. “You like your job?”
I don’t have an easy answer, and I pause.
“Yes, I like it,” I say.
“Having a job you like,” he says, his English halting and hesitant, full of abrupt pauses and dropped words, “is the most important thing. My first day on the job—United Airlines—when we came to this country, and I knew: Here was a job I liked.”
I try to imagine my grandfather immigrating to the United States so he could fulfill his “dream” of working as an airline agent. America: “The Land of Opportunity”…or something.
“When was that?” I ask, my mind iterating what he said, committing it to memory. “When did you come to this country?”
His eyes shoot up and to the left, seeking whatever left-brain function would empower him to access the sought-after information and translate it into verbal language for his nieto.
“What year did we come here, to San Francisco? 1950,” he says.
It is difficult for me to imagine that, given the current state of the country, people once came to the US in search of their “dream jobs” as unskilled laborers and corporate underclassmen, but then, sometimes, the dream is only to have a job—any job—not any one in particular. When one considers the political climate in El Salvador in the 1930s and ’40s—30,000 people were massacred during La Matanza, the 1932 insurrection of rural poor led by Agustín Farabundo Martí, setting off five decades of military dictatorship—maybe this is an improvement. Only later do I start drawing connections between La Matanza and the present issues that preoccupy me.
El Salvador’s bloody modern history continues. On Dec. 21, the Peace Corps announced it had cancelled its January 2012 volunteer training classes for El Salvador and Guatemala, citing security concerns that follow a swath of drug- and gang-related violence.
Mama Nena sets the table: bean and meat soup, ribs, chicken with olives and tomatoes, tortillas, avocado, crema, pupusas, curtido—“Salvadoran soul food” as my homonymous progenitor calls it.
My father has interesting stories about this table, about sitting around it as a child while illicit deals took place over questionably acquired merchandise.
The next morning, I go out for coffee. Leaving the house without breakfast is an affair in itself. Something is always being done for someone else in this house, and Mama Nena won’t let me leave without checking that I don’t want food, that I don’t need her to do my laundry, that my jacket will keep me warm.
I walk north along Valencia Street, window-shopping for Christmas gifts after a stop-in to Ritual Coffee Roasters. A block north of the café, at Valencia and 21st, I pass the Artist’s Television Access, where a black stencil across the glass storefront projects a simple message: “Capitalism is over if you want it.”
Wouldn’t that be something? If capitalism were gone, what would be left? I wonder. Capitalism is inherently a top-heavy social structure. If one achieves financial success, then the system makes sense. If one doesn’t, then it doesn’t, but the possibility that he or she might one day succeed prevents most people from fighting for a better system. The American dream is comically ineffectual for people at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid.
It’s a nice thought that someone can come from nothing and afford an education, find a decent job and move up in the world. But in a system where education and living costs increase while jobs and salaries decrease, where innovation and aspiration are checked by a need to just get by, is that still true? In many ways, the belief that we can eventually be whatever we want if we just keep on keeping on holds us back at the same time as it empowers us. A lot of people aren’t just keeping on. A lot of people are giving up [Indicators, Oct. 12, 2011: “Jobless Mess”].
Later, I meet up with some friends for pizza in Noe Valley. We sit around, shooting ideas for profitable enterprises back and forth, discussing Occupy, ruminating on the nuances of professional life.
“You’ll never have as much tolerance for failure as you have right now,” one of them says.
On Christmas Eve, four generations of Alvarenga-Lovatos and friends sit around my grandparents’ table: airline workers, schoolteachers, journalists, writers, programmers, businessmen. My cousin Omar, a cop, is there with his recently announced fiancée, Eve. My grandfather offers a toast to their future.