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This art project asks people about the day the American Dream died for them

Dominican artist Lizania Cruz is collecting testimonies from people in the US and around the world, when they realised the American dream of freedom and opportunity for all was nothing more than an illusion

In his 1931-published book The Epic of America, writer and historian James Truslow Adams coined the term “American Dream” as a way to describe a vision “of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”. In it, he also wrote: “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognised by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

This ideal has long been heralded as an attainable goal if you can just work hard enough to get it. However, for many people living in America, the American Dream is just that – a dream. While the oppression of minority groups in the United States has been ongoing since the first colonisers dropped anchor, it is in recent years, specifically with the election of Donald Trump as President, and COVID-19, that disparities between who can reach the American Dream have become crystal clear.

For Lizania Cruz, a Dominican artist based in New York City, the American Dream diminished as she learned the history of the country she had come to call home. With America’s pursuit of individualism over community wellbeing being amplified even more due to the pandemic, Cruz launched a two-part project titled Obituaries of The American Dreamwhich was commissioned by the curators of El Museo del Barrio's triennialEstamos Bien: La Trienal 20/21

In its first chapter, Cruz is asking people to submit their testimony detailing “when and how the American Dream died” for them via the project’s website. These testimonies are then published on the project’s website within 24 hours. Later, they will also be printed in a newspaper, to be distributed in New York City. The second part will ask non-im/migrants and im/migrants to take part in an online ideathon to “co-write a collective new ideal”. Below, we speak to Cruz about the project.

“For me, the American Dream had terminal cancer but died of Covid-19 complications” – Lizania Cruz

What was the spark that started this project?

Lizania Cruz: During the pandemic, I joined a virtual study group with the National Liberation Movement on universal programs and the different biases on it in the United States. The pandemic put on a spotlight on the inequalities in NYC and the US in general. This group allowed me to see how the ideals of individualism and hard work were ingrained in me through the American Dream.

At the same time, I was approached by the curators of El Museo del Barrio's new triennial, Estamos Bien: La Trienal 20/21, Rodrigo Moura, Susanna Temkim, and Elia Alba to participate in the triennial. They were interested in commissioning a project that combined the participatory aspect and social justice in my practice to address the pandemic. I knew that I wanted to focus on the collective grief we were all experiencing and address all my learnings from the study group. So it made sense to create an obituary of this ideal that has proliferated globally. 

What has been your own experience with the ‘American Dream’?

Lizania Cruz: I’m originally from the Dominican Republic (DR). In the DR, most people dream of coming to the US to make it. Everyone has an aunt, a cousin or a sister/brother who is in NYC. Since my first visit to New York when I was eight years old, I was obsessed with the vibrancy of the city. Therefore, I always envision myself living and making it here. You know, the land of opportunities... As I learned more on the history of this country, that idea has decimated and I realised that that dream wasn’t meant for a person like me.

Can you share your own testimony of when that died for you?

Lizania Cruz: For me, the American Dream had terminal cancer but died of Covid-19 complications. It was through the pandemic that I realised the failure of our current value on work and individualism. I knew the system wasn’t created for a person like me, but, somehow, I believed the idea that through my hard work and my exceptionalism I could make it through. As we were all forced to pause, I could see clearly that I was wrong.

What’s the process of publishing the testimonies?

Lizania Cruz: No, there is no curation. I want to allow for multivocality in the project. That said, it’s not a hate speech project. Therefore I’m mindful of that dynamic.

The process to publish is simple. You go to the website and share your story by basically filling out the form. Then your story is published within 24 hours. On the website you can select if you want your story to be printed on the newspaper next year that will be publicly distributed in NYC or not. 

What has been the reaction to the project in the couple of weeks it’s been launched?

Lizania Cruz: So far it’s been great. I’m always surprised by the stories that are shared. Currently, there are conversations on the decline of America as an empire and a global leader. So it is exciting to have the project live within this context.

“I knew the system wasn’t created for a person like me, but, somehow, I believed the idea that through my hard work and my exceptionalism I could make it through” – Lizania Cruz

What do you hope will be the outcome of this project?

Lizania Cruz: Next year, a set of responses (those from the participants who agree) will be printed in a newspaper that will be distributed in NYC publicly. Additionally, I’m planning an online ideathon where we will collectively and with some community leaders write a new ideal. For me, this is a way of documenting this moment in peoples’ histories. 

Have you learned anything so far?

Lizania Cruz: The project is so new that it is hard to tell yet. But, through the research, I’ve learned more about Reagan and how he proliferated the idea of the wealth fair queens. This has had a profound impact on the biases we have toward universal programs. 

If you could reenvision the American Dream, what would it be?

Lizania Cruz: We shouldn’t reenvision the American Dream. We should collectively ideate a global ideal that is based in interdependency instead of individualism and where our worth is not measured by our work but by our humanity.

How does this project tie into your work and previous projects?

Lizania Cruz: In my practice, I’m interested in creative pluralistic narratives around migration and inviting the audience to co-create the content in the work. This is also true for this project. I’m also interested in mass printed media such as zines and newspapers and how effective these are in sharing knowledge and building movements.

What do you hope people take away from this?

Lizania Cruz: I want people to reevaluate and consider how the ideals of individualism and pushing yourself through hard work has affected their lives and their beliefs in what the government should provide for them. Sometimes we are quick in labelling someone as lazy if they can’t support themselves without considering all the conditions in place for that to happen. Or we worry more about obtaining individual wealth rather than community wellbeing. My hope is if we bury these ideals like the American Dream we will be able to build relationships of solidarity and mutuality. And demand better universal programs from the government for our collective wellbeing.

Read more testimonies from the project here and follow Cruz’s work here