Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The last thing that Diego says in Patricia Engel’s “Desaliento” stands out as a damning critique of an immigrant’s experience of the American dream. Diego says to Sabina, “You broke my heart just like you said you would. Like the fucking wind. You broke it wide open” (75.) This quotation works double duty as a comment on the relationship between Sabina and Diego and as the representation of the illegal immigrant’s experience in the United States. In Patricia Engel’s story, “Desaliento,” Engel Contrasts similar experiences between American citizens and Illegal aliens to highlight the flaws in American ideas about illegal immigration.

Sabina plays an interesting role in this story because she has a foot in both worlds. Sabina is a rich American citizen and she understands illegal immigration from the perspective of a citizen. She identifies with Diego as an immigrant because her family emigrated from Columbia under similar circumstances, but their immigrant similarities only go so far. Sabina sees in Diego her chance to experience the full immigrant experience. And instead of taking measures to help improve the conditions that Diego is living in, she decides to sit back and watch his poverty in all of its glory. However, instead of motivating Diego to try to change his circumstances, Sabina’s presence in his life served to reinforce the degrading experience that he was having at the hands of the bigoted American.

When discussing the other women that Diego sleeps with, Sabina says, “Roberta offered to marry Diego on the spot because she had her papers already. And Diego was considering it, which made me nuts” (64.) Sabina seems dubious about Diego’s consideration of the idea of marrying for citizenship, but when Elsa decided to marry into Israeli citizenship, Sabina is only slightly concerned. Sabina says, “The next summer, Elsa was pregnant. She met this Israeli guy in a Tel Aviv nightclub and they fell in instant love” (70.) When Diego was considering getting married into American citizenship, Sabina assumed that there was no way that he could possibly love Roberta. But when Elsa, a rich American woman wants to marry into citizenship of another country, Sabina does not feel the need to question her motivations. Additionally, when Nacho tells Sabina that he has a business degree, instead of believing that he is a qualified individual with a the skills and opportunity to better his place in the world, Sabina thinks of a joke about people from Argentina and laughs at him (69.) Therefore, Sabina shows that even with her special insight into problems that illegal immigrants face, she cannot help but contribute to the stigma that illegal immigrants face.

Upon further critique of Sabina’s interactions, one can see many more ways that she seems to be using Diego’s status as a way to make her feel closer to her Latina heritage without having to lift a hand to help solve the problems. Sabina does not hide her appreciation for Diego’s looks. She said, “I was mad for his fat lips and clear eyes, his choppy singsong Spanish and the way he thought shirts were optional” (63.) But what seems to interest Sabina is Diego’s exotic nature rather than the typical standard of masculine beauty. Although Sabina does not go straight out and say that she likes Diego for his poor lifestyle, she goes into great detail when describing the squalid conditions of his apartment. She described the overcrowded one bedroom apartment as a lover describes every detail of her partner’s body (62.) She didn’t just see the place once and never show up again. Sabina was there every time that she and Elsa were not at the beach (62.) When Nacho criticizes Diego for resorting to dealing drugs to get by, Sabina defends his defends him. She claims that Diego deals pot with integrity (69.) During all of the time that Sabina spent with Diego, she never once stopped to question the system that was holding Diego and illegal immigrants in the kind of poverty that forces so many of them to resort to breaking the law by doing things such as selling drugs.

Diego’s cousin Nacho is able to recognize that there is something unusual about Sabina’s obsession with him. Nacho asks her why she hangs out with Diego. Then, he says, “You’re a rich girl that likes to play poor” (69.) Although Sabina is hurt by being told that she does not belong, she never does anything to counter Nacho’s claims. Sabina’s hurt is not so much because she gets insulted by someone that she does not respect but because she feels at least in some small way like he is right. And not only is she a rich girl who is playing poor, she is a rich girl who is not doing anything to help the poor people that she is deriving her entertainment from.

The biggest difference between Sabina’s and Diego’s experience of the United States is in employment. Sabina always has a good job in one New York art gallery or another that she does nothing but complain about. Not only does she have the luxury to complain about the job that she has, but when she quits her job, she has the luxury to stay for months at a time in her parent’s condo in Miami while she lives on their money (61-62, 71.) Even though Diego is not legally allowed to hold a job in the United States, every time that Sabina and Diego meet up he has a new better paying job although his jobs are never ones that would be considered secure or prestigious. Diego hands out fliers for clubs, he busses tables, and then he deals pot (61, 66.)  Even with the fear and uncertainty that comes along with working illegally, never once is Diego ever heard to complain about the jobs that he has.

Like most other illegal immigrants, Diego was driven by the economic chaos in his home country to the United States by the desire of a better life and the desperate need of his family. Diego left Argentina because of an economic collapse and while he was scrounging for money in the United States, his mother was diagnosed with cancer (62.) After his mother died the economy of Argentina took another dive and the money that he had sent to his father was worthless as well (72.) But the United States is the land of opportunity where people of even the lowest means can become successful through dedication and hard work.

Through the eyes of the illegal immigrant running from economic disaster and living in the poorest of conditions the smallest amount of success can seem like fabulous riches, and Diego allows himself to be blinded by his rising standard of living. He buys himself two motorcycles, an Isuzu Trooper, and kite surfing gear (66.) He provides a place to stay for his cousin and he supplies his house with expensive beer (68.) He begins to use his money to buy the things that are meant to symbolize his attainment of some semblance of the American dream instead of saving all of his money for his eventual move back home. But with every added step on Diego’s ladder to success, the stress of living in a country that does not want him continues to weigh him down. His step up from handing out fliers to becoming a busboy added an increased level of interactions with the citizens that look down on illegal immigrants with disdain when they even notice them at all. Then, the step from busboy to drug dealer added increased scrutiny form the police. The increased possibility of being arrested by the police or being robbed and murdered by the other criminals that he had to deal with on a daily bases pushes Diego to finally leave the country. Diego seems to realize that if the American dream applies for anyone, it does not apply for illegal immigrants.

Once Diego leaves the United States he is given the chance to finally decompress from the daily anxiety that he must have been feeling. Now that he is free from the system that did not allow him the freedom to obey the law, Diego is free to invest his money in a bar, and hold his first legal job since before he had arrived in the United States (73.) The release of the constant day to day pressures allows him the time to reconnect with his cousin Nacho after all the bad blood that they had (73.) And Diego is finally able to see his relationship with Sabina for the tragedy that it was.

Desialento by Patricia Engel shows how even Illegal immigrants themselves and the second generation American Latinos that should be their best hope for political change are only doing things to hurt their chances to bring about positive political change in the future. And every day more and more Latino Americans, legal and illegal, are having their hearts broken by the American dream, broken wide open. “Like the fucking wind” (75.)

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