Faculty Spotlight

"American Dream or Generational Nightmare" An Interview with Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal

In the conversation below, Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal, Assistant Program Director and Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Public Health at Simmons University, and Taylor Eubanks, graduate student in the Gender and Cultural Studies program, discuss Professor Verma-Agrawal's research on the idea of an American Dream.

What is your current project?

Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal: Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal: The title is "American Dream or Generational Nightmare?" and it is centered around understanding the idea of migration, especially in a U.S. context. The American Dream is the idea of upward social mobility that says if you work hard enough, you can achieve success. So when people migrate here, there is a belief in what can be gained—like access to education and jobs.

"...there is actually a lot of loss that comes with the pursuit of the American Dream"

There is a perception, a narrative or story, about the American Dream told in other countries. When people migrate here, they mostly think about possible gains because many of the countries that migrants come from are suffering from war or dysfunctional postcolonial structures. In reality, we live in a racialized society built on the tenets of white supremacy and racial capitalism. The American Dream is a farce and is difficult for people to grasp today because it has shifted over time.

So coming to the United States makes folks feel confident in new opportunities for their children and future generations. While researching I realized there is actually a lot of loss that comes with the pursuit of the American Dream, and that loss has generational consequences.

What kind of generational consequences?

MVA: Two clear examples are loss of native language and loss of connection to native food. The need to assimilate into American society often meant losing native language and cultural representations because there was a fear the white majority might not believe that you have assimilated enough.

When my parents came to the U.S. forty years ago, the only place to buy Indian food and ingredients was in the basement of someone's house in Worcester. Now you can walk into most grocery stores and find many ethnic or native food options, but it took time for this to be the norm. As a consequence, many generations lost connections to their native foods. And those lost connections have a negative impact on a migrant's wellbeing.

There can also be a loss of educational status. If you have come from certain countries, your education may or may not be honored in the United States, so you might have to start over or work a low wage job that does not reflect your previous education or training. My parents were both professors in India, but when they came to the United States they had to choose completely different professions because their degrees were not honored here. Over many decades both of my parents worked hard to send my siblings and I to college and then help us settle down in life. It was very different from what they had imagined in terms of coming to the United States.

"There exists a lot of trauma that is passed on when people migrate to the US and have to erase aspects of their identity to survive."

This is a very personal project for me, and my research has caused me to question the idea of an American Dream. This is because when migration happens in the context of a racialized caste system, the American Dream can shift into a generational nightmare.

Can you elaborate on the consequences of generational nightmares?

MVA: Health outcomes are a good example of this shift. The data shows that many times when someone migrates to the US they will generally benefit from healthcare privileges and experience good health outcomes, but their children are more likely to have chronic diseases or mental health issues.

Further, the messages and often rhetoric around migration impacts health outcomes as well. When Trump was president, physical manifestations of trauma were reported on Latinx women's bodies, especially during pregnancy. They suffered a certain percentage more miscarriages during that time, which tells us trauma lives in the body. This means living in America can actually be toxic for your health, and I believe goes against the idea of the American Dream.

People migrate here in pursuit of opportunities for their children. Why, in this American "melting pot," do we have to adopt cultural norms steeped in white supremacy? If we are unable to preserve our identity and native culture, then there is a tremendous loss to us and future generations.

How do you think identity and native culture can be preserved?

MVA: Identity and native cultural practices can be preserved by nor Americanizing. My parents migrated to the United States when I was five years old so English is not my first language. My parents were very proactive in preserving some of our cultural practices—eating our foods, retaining Hindi as our first language, participating in the arts,—and that helped us preserve our sense of identity. These are some practices we were able to do because we lived in New England, in a city like Worcester, where multiculturalism was acceptable.

However, not Americanizing is not always an option, and sometimes assimilation is a form of self preservation from racial animus. I knew families where the children were told specifically not to ever speak Hindi because their parents worried if they spoke their native language then their English wouldn't be as clear. My childhood was filled with trips back home to India to understand my country of origin and to meet relatives. Many families had to, or chose to, create a disconnect to their native country because to survive in a culture that is based on white supremacy, like America, you need to properly integrate into American society.

"This new American Dream sees community, kinship, healing, liberation as a path to upward social mobility."

I'm thinking about how communities of color can begin to heal and use healthy practices. The research shows healthy practices will help protect them and their health, and two ways to preserve culture and a sense of identity is through retaining native language and eating native foods.

There exists a lot of trauma that is passed on when people migrate to the US and have to erase aspects of their identity to survive here. If trauma lives in the body, how we use healthy practices on our bodies can have a positive effect. My goal is to think about how we can start to heal from intergenerational trauma so the generations to come can not just survive, not just thrive but imagine a new dream. This new American Dream sees community, kinship, healing, liberation as a path to upward social mobility.

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