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The Umbrella of Freedom

from What Should I Do With My Life?


Of all the psychological stumbling blocks that keep people from finding themselves, the most common problem is that people feel guilty for simply taking the question seriously.

I’d come to Miami chasing this intellectual thread. So many people I interviewed around the country felt guilty for obsessing about what kind of work they should do. It felt self-indulgent. They would say things like, “Poor people, they don’t get to choose. And they’re still happy. New immigrants, they’re ecstatic to have any job at all. You don’t see any of them stressing out about who they are. They want to do well.” There was something terribly perverse with this mental logic – we should live like poor people? Why? Poor people sure don’t even want to live like poor people – shouldn’t we take their word for it? Besides, I wasn’t even sure this oft-repeated assertion was true. Immigrants go through an enormous challenge to their identity, and the biggest blow to their esteem is in getting knocked down several rungs on the career ladder. Yes, most simply want to do well – anything that makes them money is fine with them – but not all. Some care. Deeply.

So, I thought Miami was the right place to explore these questions. A study had come out that said Cubans are the most successful first generation immigrants ever in the United States.

I met Ana Miyares at a luncheon put on by Florida International University’s School of Entrepreneurship, which was held to honor two inductees into their hall of fame. This seemed a good place to meet Cuban Americans who had rebuilt their lives after having them stripped away by Castro, or by immigrating, or by having to learn English. I chatted with a lot of attendees, hoping to find a lead. Ana was short and stocky. She looked like a nun. She told me she was recently teaching a resume writing class for new immigrants.

“I asked them to stand up and tell me what work they did in Cuba,” she recounted. “So they stand. ‘I was an electrical engineer’ ‘I was a broadcast journalist.’ They go on like this until I interrupted. I told them, ‘No. You are an engineer. You are a journalist. You are still that person. You do not lose that identity when you get here.’”

I wanted to hear more of her perspective, so I told her about my book. Could we spend some time together, and would she tell me about her life?

            “Yes, I would very much like to talk with you,” she rasped. “But you have to know: I am not a dollar bill.”

            “What does that mean, ‘I am not a dollar bill’?”

            “Everyone loves a dollar bill,” she said. “Not everyone loves Ana.”

            Ana’s story is tainted with a dark cloud of sadness. On the second day, the cloud opened up and poured everywhere. In less than an hour the streets were flooded, cars were stalling everywhere, the city was shut down. Ana kept coaxing her little VW bug on, talking slowly in her raspy voice. The sadness was over a foot deep everywhere. We sought refuge in Little Havana. She had this place where she had done some of her best and most important organizing. A nondescript 2-story community center off SW 1st Avenue. She was a hero to many here. I saw the sign, “Care Plus.” I started to get out of the car.

            “No, we cannot go in,” she said. “I’m showing it to you.”

            “It’s a building, Ana.”

            “Well, there it is.”

            “Why can’t we go in?”

            “I can’t talk about that.”

            “You won’t, or you can’t?”

            “It is too hard for me.”

            I looked at her. I wasn’t buying it. She was tougher than that. She’d already told me about her divorce, her estrangement from her family, misunderstandings between her and her daughter, and how much money was in her bank account (or not). She restarted the car and circled the block.

            She said, “I am persona non grata in there right now.”

            “I thought you were a hero.”

            “Yes, that is true.”

            “I’m not following.”

            “Perhaps since it is raining we should talk about umbrellas.”

            “Okay – umbrellas.”

            Ana was an executive at a bank for a long time, then quit to do social work, with which she has had a love/hate thing going for several years. She’s been struggling to find the in-between. Umbrellas can explain her opinion of both professions. A banker wants to give you an umbrella when it’s not raining, and then when it starts to rain, gets nervous and wants to take it back. A social worker writes a grant to get the umbrellas, but people don’t get the umbrellas because the social worker has to write a grant explaining why some people get umbrellas and others don’t.

            I tried to interpolate from her cryptic allegory. “So, are you saying that back in that building, there are a whole lot of … umbrellas, for lack of a better word, that nobody is getting?”

            She answered, “In literature, the wolf is dressed up as a grandmother.”

            The warmer I got, the more cryptic she became. I knew Ana’s first project as a social worker was at a facility in Little Havana – it had to be this one. She established a program called Time Dollars, a sort of volunteering bank in which people deposit (give) an hour of their expertise and then can withdraw an hour of someone else’s expertise. House painters and tax preparers and day care providers and grunt laborers participate. It’s a remarkably beautiful alternative economy that runs itself and costs nothing. An hour for an hour. On a starting grant of only $12,000, Ana recruited 3,500 people into the network, who exchanged 12,000 hours of time a month. I let my imagination paint in how this might have gone so awry that Ana couldn’t even show her face in the building. Perhaps Care Plus had fallen under the control of a dictatorial Executive Director? Perhaps that dictator took advantage of people’s free labor time, to inflate her budget, or to make it balance? Did Ana try to blow the whistle? I didn’t know, but these were my suspicions.

            I felt Ana’s vast loneliness.

            “I’m lonely but I’m happy,” Ana warned.

            On the Lost vs. Found Spectrum, Ana should be a Found – she quit to go where her heart told her to go. She’s found in the sense that she knows herself. But it has brought no peace. The tug-of-war never ends.

            To respect Ana’s story, you have to understand how Cuban American culture views social work, and how it views family. Social work is highly distrusted. There is nothing wrong with it, but as a system, it is easily corrupted. It hints of Castro. It is not regarded as a noble calling. Family, on the other hand, is more important than God. Your family is with you at all times. I don’t mean that metaphorically – you go to the airport, family goes with you. You go to your soccer game, family goes with you. You go to a barbecue, family goes with you. You go to be inducted into Florida International University’s hall of fame, you buy three tables – one for your employees, two for your family. 

            Ana descended from a line of prominent bankers in Cuba who lost everything to Castro. One morning Ana was a 10 year old girl in a protected household with servants. Forty-five minutes later she was a ten year old adult in a Cuban camp down in Homestead, taking care of her seven year old sister. It was years before she saw her parents again, but she carried their hopes to rebuild what the family had lost. As a teenager she began working in the microfiche department of a branch of United Jersey Bank. Filer, Teller, Branch Manager, she slowly worked her way out of the branch and into its headquarters, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In Cuban culture, there is intense pressure to be successful, to rise up. Ana wanted to be a Vice President, like everyone else. She became an auditor. Then a lending officer. By her mid 30s, she was Senior Vice President, and in line to one day run the bank. She was the pride of her family. But she wasn’t happy.

            Behind her eyes, she led a secret life. On Sunday nights, she got tired knowing she had to go to work the next day. Her friends were social workers. Civil servants at Health & Human Services, or therapists at hospitals, welfare case workers. She admired what they did. Ana was always looking to volunteer, and she found ways to do so on weekends. But she could never do it full-time. She was too afraid of her family’s disapproval, too afraid to let them down.

            One of her friends told her about a grassroots redevelopment program that was looking for a director. Ana longed to go for it, but feared how her family would react. “Please tell them I’m not interested,” Ana said to her friend.

            “No, I’m sick of listening to you. It’s always, ‘You want to, but you can’t.’ If you are not interested, then you go tell them yourself.”

            So Ana went to tell them she wasn’t interested, and walked out having promised them she’d do it for a year. The job paid $25,000 – $17,000 after taxes.

            She went home, and she asked her mother if they could move to a smaller, less expensive apartment.

            “Why?” her mother asked.

            “Because I want to give myself a chance to see if I can be happy before I die. I have $98,000 in the bank. Please don’t stop me.”

            Her mother couldn’t understand it, but she didn’t refuse. The rest of her family wasn’t so kind. One day Ana was in the kitchen and she heard her two aunts talking about having her mother committed. Ana couldn’t believe it – her mother was old but still lucid. Then Ana realized they’re weren’t talking about her mother – they were talking about her. It was Ana they wanted committed.

Another time, her cousin invited her to a party. “You can come, Ana, but only if you won’t tell people what you do.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because I am embarrassed for you. They will think you are crazy.”

The only reason she stayed in contact with her family was for her daughter, who needed to spend time with her tias and tios. To this day, they continually bug Ana, “when are you going to settle down, get married – you’re not getting any younger.” Most of Ana’s family has since moved across the state, and recently her daughter chose to leave Ana and join them, now that she is about to start her own family.

            Ana sums it up this way: “Back in Cuba, they would say of me, ‘Ana is a light, but one that projects outside the house, not inside.’ That is still true. That is me. Happiness comes at the expense of ones we love.”

            Social work didn’t make her happy though. From one nonprofit to another, from city contracts to federal agencies, she kept running into the same systemic problems. “Nonprofits require you to sell your soul to the politicians. You have to fight for money against other agencies,” she said bitterly. “Then I find there is backstabbing everywhere. And they don’t really care about the people. Keeping them poor is their business. As long as they keep them poor, they keep getting more grants or bigger budgets. Then, there are the volunteers. The message implicit in volunteering is, ‘You need me, I’m good, I’m better than you, you have nothing to give.’”

            Within a few years the $98,000 was gone. Her life’s savings. She didn’t want to go back to banking. “So I went to church. And I’m sitting in church, and I asked God, ‘where do I belong? Where do I go? How do I make a living?’”

            Shortly after, she met Edgar Kahn, the founder of the Time Dollars movement. Time Dollars seemed to be the answer to her prayers – she could work in the impoverished communities, but teach them to help each other, rather than to be helped by the government. She told Kahn, “I will not write you a single grant. I will not come to Washington to shake hands. I will not be an employee of Time Dollars, because I do not want to be dependent on you. I will work on contract by contract, getting Time Dollars programs started.”

            Kahn said okay, and Ana has been much more resolved about her place in life ever since. She’s incredibly proud of Time Dollars. “All people really need is to be treated with respect. We need someone else to help us see inside ourselves, until you can see how beautiful you are. That’s what Time Dollars does. So-called ‘poor’ communities are rich in assets and resources. Time Dollars helps people in those communities remember in what ways they are rich.” She’s started programs in Miami, Baltimore, Phoenix, St. Louis, Kurosawa, and England.

            That said, Ana is still wary. The theme of her life is the continuous fight for her freedom – Castro, family, husbands, jobs, enemies, all tried to make her into somebody she’s not. She seems unable to put her whole trust in Time Dollars. She takes other projects on the side – teaching in a housing project in Homestead, or hurricane relief – simply because she doesn’t want to be dependent. Like a jilted lover, unable to ever commit again. And she sees money as a danger too. “If you don’t need money,” she said, “it can’t control you.” Most of her friends now are new refugees; they’re learning to have everything while Ana’s learning to have nothing. If they go to dinner, they ask for a doggie bag and put half the plate’s food in it before they eat. (They’ll eat the rest tomorrow.) They save plastic grocery bags for a million uses. Ana teaches them the importance of opening a checking account and getting a credit card. They’re afraid of the credit card but Ana pushes them to use it and build credit. One friend had saved $2,000 and was going to buy a used car with it. Ana persuaded her to use it as a down payment on a brand new car. These lessons are reproduced and exchanged in her classrooms and in her work. At these fringes, an economy takes root.

            In that classic Joseph Conrad way, Ana’s going native. Meaning she’s adopting the customs and habits of those she leads. I’ve continued to stay in touch with her, but it hasn’t been easy. I’ll leave messages at her home, in Washington with Time Dollars, at the motel she sometimes stays at, on her cell phone, and on her pager – and I usually never hear back. Sometimes I’ll get her if it’s between 10 and 11 p.m. The rest of the time she’s out there somewhere, beyond reach, doing her work, helping the people she considers her real family.

            This would be such a happier story if I could say that Ana found her in-between in Time Dollars, and now her life is happy and she’s reunited with her family, and she makes a decent, modest living, and she even has a new boyfriend. Plenty of people who do the kind of work that Ana does have that sort of picturesque life. (My older brother, for example – a former bank lending officer, he runs microcredit programs in several countries for Project Hope, a large non-profit, and lives in the suburbs of Northern Virginia with his family.) But I came to Miami and I found Ana, and I can’t hide what I saw. I’m aware that when I mention she’s getting by on less than 25 grand a year, I kill any chance that someone else will choose to follow the path she’s blazed. Ana’s story becomes the story of a saint – maybe a curmudgeonly saint, or a flawed saint – but a saint nonetheless, because who but a saint would find her security in getting by on less and less every year? The only thing I can do about how her story turns is perhaps say it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s Ana. She’s a bit of a slave to her ideals – freedom, independence. Or, I should say, she’s a bit of a slave to idealism – any kind of idealism. Her mother sent Ana to America because she believed that there was something in Ana’s character that was going to make her a big communist. Only ten, Ana was already in love with Castro. He was such an idealist! Ana was the kind of person who would want to be a martyr. Today Ana has different ideals – capitalism for all, capitalism will rescue the poor – and she will probably die in her boots, forever devoted to it.

            Back to my original query that brought me to Miami – how are we to handle the privilege of being able to author our own life? Should we renounce our privilege, and live like others, finding meaning in family, in God, in providing, and in country? Or should we revel in this privilege, because we live in countries where we are free to choose friends over family, choose from many religions, and choose how we provide?

            “Americans take this country for granted,” Ana said, when we were out having dinner with her friends. “Too many neglect the opportunity they are given. This is the land of dreams.”

            What is freedom for, if not to live where nobody can tell you who to be, and who not to be? What is freedom for, if not the chance to define for yourself who you are?