Walk Like An American

Second Chances

The Benefits of a Great American Value

Constantino Diaz-Duran is a fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. He is chronicling his walk from New York to Los Angeles to celebrate his eligibility for American citizenship. Follow Constantino’s progress.

A girl goes off to a good college-the state’s flagship university. She falls in with the wrong crowd and starts doing drugs. A year later, she’s failing most of her classes and is forced to drop out. Her parents bring her back home. It’s a mother’s worst nightmare and a young woman’s biggest humiliation. And yet, a few years later, she’s back on her feet. She’s attending a smaller school in a different city, she has a job, and she’s on her own.

“America, to me,” says her mom, “is the land of second chances.” And I think she’s right. I won’t say that this is unique to the U.S., but there is something about how this country has been populated that I think makes us more willing to grant people clean slates. Whether you have made mistakes and want to right them, or simply want to start over in a new direction, most people here will encourage you-or, at the very least, stay out of your way.

A few weeks ago I met a man who, 30 years ago, was addicted to cocaine. He hit rock bottom when his wife left him. He sobered up, asked for her forgiveness, and now runs a successful, multi-million dollar company. I met a younger friend of his, who just four years ago found himself penniless and in jail thanks to his addiction. Now, he also is a successful businessman. He owns a beautiful house, and is making plans to marry. Both of these men spend much of their time helping others who have screwed up get their lives back together.

I had a good talk the other day with a guy my age. His mother was shot and killed when he was nine years old. “Two weeks after my mother died,” he says, “I was getting high.” He took to the streets and spent the better part of the next two decades “getting in trouble.” He sold drugs-not to make money but to support his own habit. And in that world, he committed more crimes. “Man, I’m telling you, I did some really bad things, man,” he says. But he has now been sober for several years, and, although he still has some demons to fight, he has managed to keep a steady job, support his children, and marry a doctoral student. He’s a good guy and someone who I think I’ll be friends with for a long time.

I have learned a lot from these people. As an immigrant, I, too, took advantage of America being the land of second chances. That is what everyone who comes here from a different country is here to do-to get a new start. This drive and ambition of people who appreciate getting a new chance is part of the motor that keeps our country going strong. It doesn’t matter why you fell-whether you did it to yourself or circumstances tripped you. When you push hard to get back up, you almost always bring others up with you.

It is often said that America has been populated and has kept going thanks to immigration. People like to point out that most Americans need only go back a few generations to find an ancestor who came here from a different country. This, it is argued, has had an impact on our culture and, in spite of the fringe nativist movements we hear so much about these days, has made Americans, by and large, a welcoming people. I think this is all true, but lately I have been thinking about it differently. Most American families have had at least one member who has benefited-through immigration or otherwise-from a second chance. This, I think, makes us a kinder and more humble nation. This, I think, is what makes us root for the guy who has fallen but is getting back up-lending him a hand, or at the very least, staying respectfully out of his way.

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*Photo by Constantino Diaz-Duran.