The (South) American Dream

February 8, 2012 | 6:55 AM

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You land in a distant Latin-American culture. The honking and banging of beaten cars battles with the teeming, potholed streets to compete for your senses against the hiss of steam, the clanging of knives, and the enticingly spicy aromas wafting towards you from the frenetic mass of street vendors. They playfully fight each other, possessing only the weapons of smell and sound, for the chance to serve you what is certain to be among the best meals you’ll ever eat, for less than you would ever expect to pay. A cell phone ringing in someone’s pocket belts out the latest version of a salsa classic, which ends abruptly to the equally captivating music of sweetly accented Spanish. As you take in your surroundings, an array of flowers in a nearby storefront, infinitely varied in their shapes and colors, catches your eye…

Are you already looking up airplane tickets to South America? Well, you can close; this took place just a few train stops from Midtown Manhattan.

In fact, this remarkable scene repeats itself every day, in some form or another, pretty much right in front of the doors of Grameen America’s Queens office, in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights.

Having joined the Grameen team as Data Manager (which also serves to explain my poor writing skills – sorry) in early January, I have had the privilege of visiting this neighborhood a few times, and have yet to come away un-awed. Though Grameen in no way takes credit for the richness of the culture and entrepreneurialism surrounding its offices –those have been there far longer than Grameen – I felt personally proud to be part of an organization that is working to expand the opportunities of those very poor entrepreneurs who create the vibrancy and wealth (cultural and otherwise) of this neighborhood, at which I can really only marvel.

My first thought, truth be told, was that I was walking right back into the small town in Ecuador where I have spent the last few months working for another micro-lending outfit. The Jackson Heights area of Queens is disproportionately Ecuadorian and northern Andean, and even the accent took me right back.

But as nice as it felt to re-immerse myself, it struck me that this is Grameen America, after all. Of course, it is physically operating in the United States, and certainly not all of its borrowers are of Hispanic heritage. But what makes it American?

It hit me right away;

My stepmother, a powerful influence on me ever since she joined my family when I was four, grew up in New York City, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and an Italian father who owned a small butcher shop in the Bronx. They had nearly nothing and spoke little English when they arrived, but by time I met them they had established a modest life for themselves; a lemon and orange tree adorned their back yard in Florida, and they would claim through substantial accents that they no longer really remembered their respective mother tongues. Their three children, all now parents themselves, lament having learned exclusively English.

Her family’s is a quintessentially American story, and it began in an area not far from the part of the Bronx where Grameen recently opened its doors. This, I saw, is the America of Grameen America. A future America in which a person’s unique ability to shape her own habitat is uninhibited by her background or economic conditions. Where opportunity is truly a universal possibility.

That sometimes seems as distant from American reality as Jackson Heights.

But in truth the beautifully chaotic rhythm of today’s Queens is both a reflection and a result of the green shoots of this much pined-for America. Each of its entrepreneurial players is no different than my stepmother’s parents; present and future Americans working hard and saving to retire to their own proverbial ‘yard of citrus trees in Florida’. Many in this country are nostalgic for more of just that America. Let’s help Grameen expand to make it happen.

By Marcus Berkowitz
Data Manager
Grameen America


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