Three Latinos on the American Dream: a Brain Surgeon, a Migrant atop a Train, and a College President

By Jerry Kammer, October 21, 2011

Some late-night time with Tivo this week provided three compelling Latino perspectives on the state of the American dream. The first came from a former illegal immigrant from Mexico who is now a brain surgeon; the second from an unidentified Central American migrant riding atop a train rumbling toward the U.S. border; the third from a former Cuban refugee who is now president of Miami-Dade College.

Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa told his story to C-SPAN's Brian Lamb on the "Q&A" interview program. Quinones, whose work picking crops in California qualified him for amnesty under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, has just published a memoir titled: Becoming Dr Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon.

A remarkable story it is, from his childhood in Mexican poverty, to an illegal border crossing near Calexico, to the California fields, UC Berkeley, Harvard Medical School, and now to the position of associate professor of neurosurgery and oncology at Johns Hopkins, one of the world's most prestigious teaching hospitals.

Said Quinones: "I wanted to tell the story about this underdog, this kid who came to the United States with nothing and now, based on hard work, mentorship, and doors being opened and opportunities being given and me taking those opportunities, I was able to show the world that you can still fulfill the American dream and that America is still the most beautiful country in the world."

Next came a Univision report from a freight train carrying dozens of migrants slowly northward from Mexico's southern border. Univision called it "The Train of the Poor." But one unidentified migrant called it by its more common name, which is a grim acknowledgement that its wheels have killed or maimed many who slip and fall as they try to scramble aboard. Said the migrant: "They call this train 'The Beast' because a lot of people have died for wanting the American dream."

The migrant, whose accent I took for Salvadoran, said everyone on the train wanted the same thing: "This is the only route we can take to be able to reach the dream that all of us Latinos want. … What are we going to do? We have to continue to be able to give more stability to our family."

Sitting atop the train with the migrants, reporter Karl Penhaul offered this sobering view: "We have heard reports that possibly the number of migrants traveling here on The Beast has dropped because of the economic crisis in the United States. But frankly, travelling on this train, and talking with organizations that aid the migrants, you don't notice much of a drop."

Finally, I watched Univision's "Al Punto" program, as Eduardo Padron of Miami Dade Dade College suggested that the American dream in the era of globalization and specialization is more about working smart than it is about working hard. He spoke forcefully in response to a question from host Jorge Ramos, who noted that only 40 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. over the age of 20 have a high school diploma. Referring to the other 60 percent, Ramos asked "What is going to happen to them?"

Said Padron: "That is a great tragedy, not just for them, but for this country. Citing the rapid growth of the Latino population, he said the United States cannot maintain its position of world leadership "if Hispanics don't have the necessary skills, the necessary education to hold positions of leadership, to hold positions that will support them in the middle class."

Padron said that today even a high school diploma is not sufficient preparation. He added that a worker who has nothing more than high school is going to be stuck "in a cycle of poverty for the rest of his life."

I wish that we had many more Dr. Q's and Eduardo Padrons. They are inspirational men of remarkable accomplishment. They embody our hopes for the American dream. But I fear that they will continue to be vastly outnumbered by desperate people who seek salvation in the United States and who don't get a good education. Millions of them have joined our swelling ranks of the unemployed, the poorly employed, and the impoverished. They embody our fears for the American dream.