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THE AMERICAN DREAM

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AN ORAL HISTORY ON THE AMERICAN DREAM BY OLIVIA NIEVES
INTERVIEWING REBECCA LEVIN AND RUBEN NIEVES
My stepmother-to-be, Rebecca Levin, was born in Kansas City, Missouri. When she was 11 years old she moved to Windham, New York. This town in New York is very close to where I grew up so I know where she came from as a child. She is of Russian Jewish and Danish descent. She graduated from Cairo Durham High School in 1994 (The same school I attended 4th- 9th grade). She graduated from Binghamton University with her Bachelors in 1997 then again with her Masters in 1998. She attended the University of Albany in 2001. I asked her about being successful and about the American Dream. Now, 37 years old she shares her story of success and her vision of the American Dream.
Young Rebecca above on left and Windham, NY on right.

Where and when were your parents born?

My father was born in 1921, and my mother was born in 1938. They were both born in Manhattan, New York.

And your grandparents?

My mother’s parents were born in Denmark and grew up in Denmark. My father’s parents were born in Russia.

What is your family Ethnicity?
On my father’s side, Russian-Jews and on my mother’s side, Danish.

Do you think your parents feel their hopes and dreams for their lives have come true?

I think that my father felt a lot of success when he was alive [pauses] when he was at the high point of his career and then as he got older I feel like he started to feel somewhat worthless. And my mom does feel successful, she feels like she has been able to manage a lot of different businesses and has been successful in those businesses.

Do you feel like your own hopes and dreams have come true?

I think that some of them have... I think that I’m still trying to achieve some of my hopes and dreams, but some of the things I’ve needed to do to set myself up for success like getting an education has definitely come true.




^^^Rebecca freshman year of high school. Rebecca’s senior year of high school^^^
What did you do or have you done to become successful?

Well, I got my education, I think that I did really well with that, you know, having two Masters and things like that. I also have my professional license and the highest license you can get in the state, which I think is important. But I think some of my values, morals and
ethics also help me be successful. So having a good work ethic, taking the initiative, is really important too.

What did you plan to be when growing up?

I always knew that I wanted to be a therapist, ever since I was seven. I deviated for a little bit but found my way quickly back to being a therapist.

So you would say you followed those plans?

For the most part, I thought I was gonna go to Cornell University when I was 7. But I didn't even apply to Cornell, and part of that was because I was discouraged to apply and I wished I hadn’t listened to people I thought were guiding me. The one thing that I haven't accomplished that I thought that I would've accomplished and maybe still would accomplish is that I really want and have always wanted to get my PhD. {In therapy? I ask} Yeah, it’s a little bit tricky because being a therapist it wouldn’t really give me much more than I already have, but it would allow me to teach and that is something that I would like to do. But, it’s a lot of work and I don't know if I have the energy to do that anymore.

Did you admire any famous people or people you knew growing up?

I can’t remember admiring famous people growing up; I mean I was really into acting and singing when I was in high school and growing up. So as far as singing goes I really loved Barbra Streisand and Patsy Cline and Bette Midler. Those were huge people and I really loved Tom Hanks as an actor. But nobody inspired me to be a better person or anything like that.

Any historical events, tragedies or scandals growing up that affected you?

The first tragedy that I remember as far as global tragedies, was the Challenger explosion in ‘86. And when I was in high school Desert Storm was happening. The Challenger, I don’t think really affected me. It definitely left an impression on me and I felt very sad for the
astronauts and their families. Desert Storm really freaked me out. I was afraid that the United States was going to get attacked somehow. I was really concerned about soldiers and I knew some people who had been deployed, and then later on I babysat for one of the more publicized POWs from Desert Storm. I've kinda always had an obsession with the Vietnam War and so the Desert Storm, I thought, was going to be like the Vietnam War. I was scared that soldiers were not going to be supported when they came back home.

Any other things that had an affect on you?

Personally, the death of my father really affected me. A lot of things changed after he died. He was my primary care giver so he stayed home with me and took care of me and my mom went out and worked. When he died that meant I was home alone and I got myself up in the morning, or my sister would wake me up before she went to high school, because my mom was already at work and I would come back after school to an empty house. I became really independent and self sufficient at the age of 8 and I was in 3rd grade, that has ideally defined me, because I didn't really have the chance to kind of have that childhood or to experience things the same as my friends got to experience.

Do you think that was a good thing in the end?

I think that out of every bad thing there is something to be gained. I love who I am and it means I had to go through some hard things in my life, to experience that stuff and again that defines who I was and I do ideally love who I am. I know I would have been a different person if I hadn’t lost my father. I don’t know what I don’t know; I only know this life at this point.

Back to your parents being successful, do you believe that they were successful?

I do. My father was in advertising and he had a lot of awards and very famous accounts that he worked on and I can say that my dad created certain ads that people are familiar with. I think that’s cool. I think that my mom made herself. She didn’t go to school, but what she has done, she has done with 100% effort and she has a great work ethic and a lot of my work ethic comes from my mom.

Now transitioning to the American dream, Describe what the American Dream of society is today.

I think it has really changed. I think now people there are fast ways of getting money. I think the American Dream still includes financial stability. But I think how people go about getting that financial stability is very different and people try to do it quickly. Back in the day when I was growing up I kind of thought we were supposed to buy a house and that was kinda the American Dream. Now it seems like everyone is buying several houses and flipping them and trying to make a lot of money off of them, or buying houses in bad neighborhoods that are changing over, to try to make a lot of money. What I grew up thinking the American Dream was, was the house and the family, that is different now. We have blended families now and we all don’t own houses and things like that.

Where do you think people get this dream from?

I think some of it is passed down from our parents. I think my parents wanted me to do better than they did, and I want my children to do better than I have done. I think some of our ideals can come from our families of origin. But I think a lot of it has to do with peer pressure. What we see our friends doing and what we hear in the media on what we’re supposed to be doing. That is creating what we think we want and need.

Has the American Dream changed in any other ways besides the ways you mentioned?

Some of the other changes that I’ve noticed is that it is not the mom or woman staying home all the time. I know a lot of stay-at-home dads and working moms. As I said I was pretty much raised by a stay-at-home dad. So I think like what we think of a family has significantly changed. (Short pause while thinking) It just seems like everything is so in the moment now, like although we’re told to save for retirement, some people aren’t saving because they’re just trying to get the biggest and best things. Or have the best vacations and stuff. It seems like we have more short term goals versus long term goals now.

Would you consider that a problem or obsession?

I do. I think that it puts a lot of pressure on us, on people. Whether you have money or not, I feel like there’s always pressure on us. Like I said, from the media and everything you’re constantly, I feel like I’m constantly, getting the message that I’m not doing enough.

Do you think the American Dream is realistic to achieve?

You know, it depends on which American Dream you’re talking about. The American Dream of my parents? No. That stay-at-home mom, the owning the house, no. My American Dream of being financially stable I think is achievable. I think it takes a lot of work and a lot of planning though.

Anything else about your American Dream?

If I were to wave a wand and have a wish I think I would like it to more equal. I feel like there is more of a divide from the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. I think that we all have a responsibility to each other and I’d like to see more people giving back or paying it forward versus trying to figure out how to get more for themselves.

Did your American dream change from high school to college to now?

It has, I remember when I was eight thinking I wanted exactly what my parents had. A husband, I wanted to have 3 daughters, I wanted them to be the same age difference that my sisters and I are. Then somewhere in highschool I started thinking to myself there are too many people in the world and maybe I should just adopt. Then, I thought I’ll go to college and I would wait a year after college and get married and start a family a year after that. Here I am, 37 and I’ve never been married and never thought that I would be a single mom. Had never thought that I would have a blended family like I do now, so yeah it definitely has changed.

Why do you think it has changed?

I think that eight year old dreams are eight year old dreams (chuckles). I think that life happens and they change.

In regards to your American Dream, did anyone help you achieve this dream?

I do feel like I did my education by myself. I put myself through college financially and emotionally I made those decisions by myself. My career I have achieved by myself. But, I have... probably over the last 12 years I have felt the most support ever from my family, emotionally and sometimes financially. I feel I couldn't have done the last 3 years by myself.

Rebecca is a strong independant woman who worked, by herself, for what she has accomplished in life. She has faced many struggles in life, as have us all, but the way she handled them instead of giving up is what I admire about her.


A recent picture of Rebecca and her daughter Kayla, who is now my sister.


Manhattan Born, Puerto Rican, Ruben Nieves, graduated from Windham-Ashland-Jewett High School in 1989. Although my father did not go to college, I consider him the smartest guy I know because he is very knowledgeable. He knows pretty much the answer to any question I ask him and that is fascinating. During this interview I asked him about the American Dream and what it means to him. He also talked about tragedies that affected him growing up.

My dad on his motorcycle

Where were your parents born?

Both my parents were born in Puerto Rico about 1936

And your grandparents?
Also Puerto Rico around 1917

What is your family ethnicity?

We’re Hispanic Puerto Rican

Where were you born?

I was born in Manhattan, NY

Do you think that your parents feel their hopes and dreams for their lives have come true?

I would probably say yes. Well, as far as my mother goes I think that she is pretty content in her life and she’s doing what she wants to do, when she wants to do it and I think thats pretty much all she could ask for. Unfortunately, I don’t know my father. My parents got divorced when I was a teenager and I really didn’t keep contact with my father and I found out that he recently passed away so I really don’t know what his life turned out like.

Do you feel like your own hopes and dreams have come true?

They’re coming true. I still got a long way to go. Well, I got a couple great kids, and so far they seem to be on the right track. I’ve got a good career going and that has a lot of promise and I think that my future’s bright.

What did you plan to be when growing up?

Growing up I thought I was gonna be an actor, I really didn’t think that there were any other options for me. I thought I was destined to be a movie star so I really didn’t think too much about other careers when I was younger.

So you didn’t follow your life plan?

I would say no.
Did you admire any famous people or people you knew growing up?

Well, I admire my mother a great deal because after my parents got divorced she took on a lot more responsibility and I saw that faced with adversity one person can really go one of two ways either give up or try twice as hard to do what they need to do and meet their obligations to their family and she did just that. As far as famous people go I'd have to say no I really don’t. There's no one out there that I truly admire as far as famous people go. I mean, theres some great scientists I admire for their amazing discoveries and their achievements. Albert Einstein of course and Nikola Tesla.

What historical events, tragedies or scandals growing up that affected you?

I think the biggest one that stands out was when the Challenger space shuttle exploded as it was taking off. I remember I was in school and we were watching it on television and just the shock of it all happening live on t.v. was something I’ll never forget. I think another tragedy is September 11, it’s a day I’ll never forget. I don’t think I’ll ever forget where I was, what I was doing, the people I talked to, all the crazy feelings and thoughts that came to my head as it was all happening. I guess those two things really stick with me.

So where were you during 9-11?

I was home, I had the day off from work. I was having a really lazy morning and my boss called me up to ask me if I had heard or seen what was going on and I really had no idea. I hadn’t turned on the t.v. yet and I turned it on and saw what was going on. Where we were living at the time we weren’t too far away from West Point in New York and not too long after turning on the t.v. a bunch of airplanes flew right over our town at a really low altitude and that kinda added to the whole drama. I was wondering if these planes were going to war or what exactly were they doing. I remember talking to friends and family just wondering if this was the beginning of something much worse or was that gonna be it, just kinda not knowing what to think from moment to moment. It was very scary.

Is there any advice that your parents have given you that has made an impression on you?

Yes there’s one thing that my mom would always say to me that I believe to be true is that to never be ashamed of what you do for a living as long as you’re making an honest dollar, as long as what you’re doing isn’t hurting anybody or stealing from anybody, that you shouldn’t really be ashamed of what your job is. Everyone has a role to play in society, some people need to clean toilets, some people need to invent a better toilet. As long as you work and your heart is in what you’re doing and you’re earning your money that it really doesn’t matter what your job is.

Now, do you consider your parents successful?

I know that my father had a pretty successful career as a teacher, he started out as a teacher and ended up the vice principal of the school that he was at when he retired. So I guess personally he was successful, I mean, he saw his career through to the end and he was happy that he did it and he also was a veteran of war. He fought in the Korean War, and served his country and he was very proud of that. My mom, well she very successful as a mother, and later on as a mother and father. She, like I said, after the age of 15 (referring to himself) she was playing both roles and worked very hard and I see her as a success.

Ruben’s mom.Now going to the American Dream, what do you think the American Dream of our society is today?

Well, for someone my age I think the American Dream is to own a home, and put your kids through college, whatever college they want to go to, to see their education through to the end no matter what it is that they wanna do. Whether it’s having good enough credit to help them get the loans that they need or paying for it on their own, or instilling the values in their kids so they know how hard they have to work to get scholarships and stand out as a student. I also think the American Dream is to retire with a good, comfortable savings that when you do retire you can actually relax and enjoy the things you kinda put off doing because you were working for that retirement.

Where do you believe people get this dream from?

I think it goes from generation to generation. As a youngster you notice and kinda learn that when you get older you put in so many years of work and you retire and from there you pretty much get to do what you wanna do. You work hard and in the end its pays off, you save your money, invest your money, and you get to do the thing that you’ve always wanted to do and hopefully you’re at an age where you have enough energy to live it up.

Do you think the American Dream has changed?

I don’t think the end goal has changed so much, but I think it has grown a little bit. Kids in your generation (speaking to me) want a little bit more out of the American Dream rather than someone like me. I’d just be happy to by the time I retire to really have no debt and have enough money saved to not have to pay a mortgage or anything like that, I wanna be able to travel, and not worry about where my income is coming from. Where I think kids your age would probably want a little more than that. I think the younger generation expects a little more from themselves than someone from my generation.

Do you find any problems with the American Dream? Has it become an obsession?

For me, no. (Pauses while thinking) I’m happy with life, I’m not gonna get bothered too much about what’s gonna happen in the next twenty years. I know what I need to do and I don’t think there’s really any sense in obsessing over it. I do see that some people, I don’t know if I would call it and obsession but, I think they are just working a lot harder at a much younger age, I don’t know if it’s to retire early or to be that much more well of when they do retire. That’s where I think people that are a little younger than me, 15-20 years younger than me, i would say they expect more out of it. Instead of retiring with $1,000,000 they want 2 or 3 million. I think they want a bigger “nest egg” so to speak.

Do you think this dream is realistic to achieve?

Absolutely, I think if you work hard at achieving the education that you need to get the career that you want. Once you get that career, you put in the work that it takes to excel and advance yourself - I think it’s totally realistic. I think you gotta be smart with your money, you gotta be smart with your time management, but I think with proper effort it’s totally do-able.

What happens if a person falls short of their American Dream, do you think it still satisfies them?

I can’t really speak for anyone else but I think for me, I think I’d still be alright if I didn’t achieve quite everything I wanted to by the time I’m “supposed” to achieve. I just would say ‘okay I guess I gotta couple more years to go’. I really wouldn’t let it get me down or break my spirit or anything like that, I’d just keep going.

So what is your American Dream?

My American Dream is to retire by the time I'm around 62 and have a house that’s paid off, have my kids college education all paid off, have the time and the financial independance to do what I want to do, which is travel, see more of the world, more of the country, and open myself up to new things, to learn new things, to experience new things. And that's pretty much it.

Has your American Dream changed from high school to now?

I’d say no, I’ve always wanted the traditional American Dream: a couple kids, see them succeed, feel a sense of personal success by the time I retire... thats about it.

Did anyone help you in achieving this American Dream?

Well I haven’t achieved it yet. I’m on my way, I definitely had some help, networking has gotten me to the place I’m at now. The job I have now is definitely the best job I’ve ever had. It has the best potential for career advancement, and I can see my path laid out and I never used to before. I can actually see myself in five years or so in a different position, and I can see the steps that I have to take more clearly than I ever have before. Networking has a lot to do with it, knowing someone who knows someone that can get you to somewhere you wanna be.

My fathers American Dreams is the typical American Dream, I respect his wants and I found out many of his wishes are to similar mine. I know my father's hard work will pay off in the end just like he expects it too. The idea of the American Dream is different for everyone and my fathers was great to learn about

My dad and Rebecca at a dinner event.



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