Review: Dear America
Dear America is listed as a “Personal Memoir,” but it’d be more than a little ironic to get caught up on this book’s formal classification. Really, Vargas suggests a much more apt description in the book’s subtitle: “Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.”
The book is made up of tiny chapters whose subject matter and tone vary from page to page. Sometimes defensive, sometimes grateful, sometimes indignant, Vargas steps through a range of emotions that, while somewhat lacking in coherence, reinforce his experience growing up full of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
Before reading this book, I wouldn’t have batted an eye if you told me life is easier for US residents with a documented status. I would have understood undocumented Americans’ desire to receive permission to live in the country. From a pragmatic standpoint, receiving a documented status would reduce uncertainty, and it’d bring a bunch of benefits besides.
Vargas’ loosely-kept “notes” showed me that undocumented Americans could be motivated by something more than simple pragmatism. How he wants to be more fully engaged with the country despite all the grief it’s caused him (and, in the case of “Define American”, because of that grief). The simplistic conclusion is: despite its flaws, America is a great country. I want to believe this, so it’s tempting to take it as the lesson and move along.
The trouble is, that cliche says nothing about the specific problem, and the banality of it can only be offensive to those that are actually struggling against the “flaws.”
A more nuanced interpretation needs to be more specific in its criticism. Our government is actively oppressing people, so those with any amount of privilege are obligated to help. If disdain of human suffering isn’t cause enough, then we don’t have to look very far to find inspiration from the people who are already doing their part. There are important distinctions between “America” the state, “America” the legal framework, and “America” the people who reside within the borders. It might be that my recent reading has an oversized influence on my interpretation (this was a much more explicit theme in Permanent Record by Edward Snowden), but I don’t think I’m stepping too far from Vargas’ written word.
Whatever the case, Dear America shed some light on this problem, and it was highly readable to boot. If, like me, your privilege has shielded you from the struggles of undocumented Americans, I strongly recommend that you pick it up.