Albert E. Smith wasn’t born into privilege. The son of a printer and an IRS worker, he was born in Camden, N.J., the poorest city in the United States, and was the first member of his family to attend college. He earned a degree from Rutgers University College, and pursued a successful banking career, eventually becoming executive vice president of the Fidelity Bank & Trust Co. of New Jersey (now Bank of America). He later became president of Canon Financial Services Inc., expanding its portfolio from $20 million to $1.5 billion.
“The American Dream means you can come here, work hard and be successful, make a good life for yourself and provide a good life for your family,” said the 62-year-old Smith, who has just retired from Canon.
A recent MetLife study says the American Dream is endangered by growing financial burdens facing average workers. But Smith and others say with grit, determination and hard work, the dream is still within reach.
“This is the only country in the world where you have an opportunity to achieve your dreams. Plenty of people all around the world would love to come here because they don’t have the opportunity where they live,” Smith said.
One woman who seized the opportunity is Judge Maria Lopez, star of the nationally syndicated daytime TV show by the same name.
Lopez, her parents and two siblings came to Miami from Cuba when she was 8, toting two suitcases and a desire to escape the Cuban revolution.
She attended Smith College and then Boston University, where she earned a law degree. Lopez has served as assistant attorney general in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, the first Latina Massachusetts District Court judge, and the first Latina appointed to the Massachusetts Superior Court. She now works on her TV show and is a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.
“There are things about this country that give you the ability no matter what your economic situation, ethnicity, race or gender, that you will be allowed to succeed if you work hard enough for it. I think it really is about inspiration,” Lopez said.
Lopez, 53, said immigrants are sometimes more willing than native-born Americans to go out on a limb for the American Dream.
“You need people who are hungry and willing to strive-who are living discomfort and believe that they can do something about it,” she explained. “Our culture creates a mentality of wanting to stay safe and secure. People who have lived with insecurities are more readily willing to pursue the American Dream, of taking risks and going beyond where you are.”
Ratany Ma, an immigrant from Cambodia, said she’s living the American Dream. But Ma didn’t come here pursuing the dream-she and her family were fleeing political oppression.
The 42-year-old Ma arrived in the States at 16, joined by her parents and four sisters; they had $20. The family received political asylum status and was on welfare for 18 months, after which her parents found work in Minnesota. Ma moved to the San Francisco area at age 22, and within a few years started her own bakery. Today she’s an entrepreneur who runs a franchise of Right at Home, an in-home senior care and assistance service, with her husband in East Contra Costa County, Calif.
“The American Dream is real, it’s completely attainable. I don’t believe that it’s hard to get, but it is hard work,” Ma said.
Naysayers sometimes tried to dissuade her, but she didn’t flinch.
“To me it’s hard to find obstacles because of where I came from. To me an obstacle is no political freedom. Then you can’t do a lot.
“Immigrants from oppressed countries look at things differently,” Ma said.