Umbrella of Freedom
What Should I Do With My Life?
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.
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 dont get to choose. And theyre still
happy. New immigrants, theyre ecstatic to have any job at all. You
dont 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 dont even want
to live like poor people shouldnt we take their word for it?
Besides, I wasnt 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.
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.
met Ana Miyares at a luncheon put on by Florida International
Universitys 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.
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
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
What does that mean, I
am not a dollar bill?
Everyone loves a dollar
bill, she said. Not everyone loves Ana.
Anas 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. Im showing it to you.
Its a building, Ana.
Well, there it is.
Why cant we go in?
I cant talk about
You wont, or you
It is too hard for me.
I looked at her. I wasnt
buying it. She was tougher than that. Shed 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
Yes, that is true.
Im not following.
Perhaps since it is raining
we should talk about 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. Shes been struggling to find
the in-between. Umbrellas can explain her opinion of both professions. A
banker wants to give you an umbrella when its 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 dont get the
umbrellas because the social worker has to write a grant explaining why
some people get umbrellas and others dont.
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 Anas 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 elses expertise. House painters and tax preparers and day care
providers and grunt laborers participate. Its 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 couldnt
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 peoples free labor time, to inflate her budget, or to make
it balance? Did Ana try to blow the whistle? I didnt know, but these
were my suspicions.
I felt Anas vast
Im lonely but Im
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. Shes found
in the sense that she knows herself. But it has brought no peace. The
tug-of-war never ends.
To respect Anas 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 dont 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
Universitys hall of fame, you buy three tables one for your
employees, two for your family.
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 wasnt 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 familys 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 Im not interested, Ana said to her friend.
No, Im sick of listening
to you. Its always, You want to, but you cant. If you are not
interested, then you go tell them yourself.
So Ana went to tell them she
wasnt interested, and walked out having promised them shed 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 dont stop me.
Her mother couldnt
understand it, but she didnt refuse. The rest of her family wasnt so
kind. One day Ana was in the kitchen and she heard her two aunts talking
about having her mother committed. Ana couldnt believe it her
mother was old but still lucid. Then Ana realized theyre werent
talking about her mother they were talking about her. It was Ana they wanted committed.
time, her cousin invited her to a party. You can come, Ana, but only if
you wont tell people what you do.
Because I am embarrassed
for you. They will think you are crazy.
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
youre not getting any younger. Most of Anas 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 didnt 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 dont 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, Im
good, Im better than you, you have nothing to give.
Within a few years the $98,000
was gone. Her lifes savings. She didnt want to go back to banking.
So I went to church. And Im 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. Shes
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. Thats 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. Shes 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
shes 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 doesnt want to be
dependent. Like a jilted lover, unable to ever commit again. And she sees
money as a danger too. If you dont need money, she said, it
cant control you. Most of her friends now are new refugees;
theyre learning to have everything while Anas learning to have
nothing. If they go to dinner, they ask for a doggie bag and put half the
plates food in it before they eat. (Theyll 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.
Theyre 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, Anas going native. Meaning shes adopting the customs and habits
of those she leads. Ive continued to stay in touch with her, but it
hasnt been easy. Ill 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 Ill get her
if its between 10 and 11 p.m. The rest of the time shes 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 shes 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 cant hide what I
saw. Im aware that when I mention shes getting by on less than 25
grand a year, I kill any chance that someone else will choose to follow
the path shes blazed. Anas 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 doesnt have to be that way. Thats Ana. Shes a bit
of a slave to her ideals freedom, independence. Or, I should say,
shes 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
Anas 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
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?