He risked his life repeatedly. He put his entire future at stake for a chance to earn a living. He traversed perilous gorges and canyons. He crossed rivers. He broke bones and spilled his own blood to reach for his dreams. He was seen as a symbol of the unquenchable human thirst for reaching beyond the limits imposed on us at birth, breaking boundaries, a rebel seeking freedom, forever linked to the stars and stripes.
Evel Knievel? Yes.
Your typical Latino undocumented immigrant? Yes.
Who would have thought that two such disparate people would have so much in common?
It took me several decades to come to the conclusion. But the seed was planted in my mind when I was a little kid.
In the 70s, Evel Knievel was a rockstar. Kids everywhere got giddy at the mention of the caped daredevil determined to defy gravity and mortality on his star spangled motorcycle, his costume inspired by the nation’s flag. I was no stranger to this phenomenon even though I lived on the border between Texas and Mexico.
My dream was to acquire an Evel Knievel motocross bike. I scrimped and saved, and my parents ponied up so I could live that dream. And I rode that bike, a blur of the American flag streaming past amused onlookers on both sides of the border. Really. I rode it in the streets of Matamoros, Mexico. All the kids in the barrio loved that bike. They begged to borrow rides on it. It didn’t hurt that it was outfitted with a handlebar-mounted radio so you could jam out to ABBA or Grand Funk Railroad on the AM while you popped wheelies and tried desperately not to crash into the telephone poles that jutted out into the narrow streets, as one of my friends actually did in one glorious Evel Knievel reenactment that sent both him and my radio flying into my grandparents’ front lawn in one terrifying but exhilarating moment.
At the time, my Evel Knievel bike was a kid’s whimsy. Now, it is a nostalgic memory. But it also came to symbolize much more to me as I looked back on it. That bike, the stars and stripes emblazoned on it in glossy paint, the fierce sunlight bouncing off the chrome, came to embody one child’s quest for the American Dream.
I sold packets of Mexican chile powder to save up money for that bike. I bought the chile at the Mercado in Mexico and peddled it on the schoolyard in Brownsville. The experience inspired my short story, “Bending the Laws of Motion,” in the book Seven for the Revolution. At such a young age I was already drawing from my culture and my heritage to reach for my future.
I was lucky though. I didn’t have to wade across dangerous waters to get here. I didn’t have to survive in a desert to reach the land of opportunity. I have never been deported only to risk my life again for a chance to make a better life for my family. Not, not me. I am an American citizen by birth. To quote Evel Knievel himself, “I am a lucky, lucky person.”
For the not-so-lucky 11 million-plus Latino immigrants waiting for reform in America, every day is a hefty risk. Every day they rise up and risk it all for the American Dream. They are the daredevils. They are the rock stars waiting in the wings. They should be our heroes. For just like Evel Knievel did long ago, today they symbolize the kind of heart and courage, the kind of faith and perseverance that is required to make a leap and reach for something more than what you were born with, to defy your circumstances.
Your typical Latino immigrant.
What could be more American than that?