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nuclear weapons, activism, immigrant

What the American Dream Means To Me

A Salvadoran-American nuclear activist reflects on 20 years of residency in the City of Angels.

Words: Cristopher Cruz
Pictures: Joel Mott

“My mom is 84 years old and she’s at home watching. Mom I just won an Oscar!!! My journey started on a boat, I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage. […] I cannot believe it’s happening to me. This is the American dream.”Ke Huy Quan, Mar. 12, 2023.

“Genius does not stem from individuals like us onstage rather genius emerges from the collective. We are all products of our context. We are all descendants of something and someone […] [To his son] If you ever watch this, I hope you know that you should never have to live up to this standard, this is not normal.”Daniel Kwan, Mar. 12, 2023.

“Though I’ve grown a lot, can’t keep it home a lot

‘Cause when I frequent the spots that I’m known to rock

You hear the bass from the truck when I’m on the block”

Still DR.E. by Dr. Dre

For the past year, I’ve been so focused on the country my mother and I left that I never took the time to look at my feet, at the ground on which they were standing. This year, I look up to see the towering skyscrapers, the rose gardens, and libraries that surround me. I hear the diversity of accents, languages and tunes. I taste the plethora of dishes from different corners of the world.

I take a deep breath because I now realize that while I left a homeland without any autonomy, I was privileged enough to be raised in the city that has made me the man I am today. This year, I celebrate 20 continuous years of living in Los Angeles, California, US of A.

Twenty years of living in Los Angeles may not seem like much to many. But to me, it means the world. It means that I have lived nearly 86% of my life in one place, in the company of my nuclear family. I think it means…that I am American now or at least a “hyphenated American,” which comes with its own baggage. After all, decades-old propaganda projects American power as only white. But being American means that I can effect change in my backyard, in my city, in my country, and in the rest of the world.

Like US hip-hop is popular and influential abroad, I have used my American/Angeleno identity to inspire action locally and globally. However, being American also means that I can be critical of the United States and also lament the impact of the high standard the American Dream has set for all of us who immigrated and sought refuge here.


For my (deceased) grandmother, the American Dream meant dressing and partying lavishly, and expanding her record collection (vinyls, cassettes, and CDs). I remember the many trips to high end fashion stores where she would buy me expensive children’s clothing. But most importantly, I remember her taking me to McDonald’s every morning to get me to stop crying for my mom.

I’m beginning to realize that as an immigrant, being “American” comes with its own set of assumptions, opportunities, and battles.

For my father, the American Dream meant economic stability. A place where he would be rewarded for the technical expertise as a mechanic unlike the oversaturated nature of the profession in his home country with decreasing compensation. For my mother? The result of a broken household, she opted to tend to others needs before her own, and so she vowed that her son would never have to struggle to get access to a good education or fall victim to the failing security situation in El Salvador.

What is my American Dream? It’s certainly having the ability to vote and voice my opinion without persecution. It’s also about economic stability and educational opportunities. But really, it’s about being actively American. And I’m beginning to realize that as an immigrant, being “American” comes with its own set of assumptions, opportunities, and battles.

To my friends in South LA, I’m “the homie that made it out the hood.” Conversely, to my friends in diplomatic circles, I’m “the guy from LA.” Every day I log onto social media to check on my cousins and their parents living in El Salvador, my heart breaks knowing that I missed out on so much. But moving to LA, didn’t mean I lost something, it means I gained something else. I gained access to a good education, upward mobility, and the chance to work on one of the nation’s most pressing issues (nuclear policy) domestically and abroad. But most importantly, I gained brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles in South Central through our shared interests in film, music, and literature (most if not all, American made).

Every time I stand behind a podium abroad to present my work as a young advocate for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, or when atomic diplomats shake my hand at the UN, I remember how proud my family in LA is. Because I’m not just representing El Salvador or the United States, I’m representing the streets of LA, home to my friends and family. Not the streets of West Hollywood, not the streets of Santa Monica, I mean the very diverse Black and brown streets of Los Angeles. And after several trips abroad to Asia and Europe in representation of the United States, a TV feature on the Spanish channel I grew up watching, and an array of diverse friends, allies, and mentors, I can attest that the upward mobility I have experienced would have proven vastly more difficult in El Salvador. This and the the past 20 years as a whole have been a huge HOLY SHIT moment for me.


Democracy relies on every one of us. My parents often told me growing up that whenever a neighbor or classmate was acting up it was because it was a reflection of what was happening (or not) at home. Similarly, if the United States isn’t doing its best abroad it’s because it has yet to address its issues at home in a healthy manner. And that is why I refuse to stay dormant, basking in the privilege of having spent 20 years of my life in one place. I refuse to believe that the United States has peaked.

The United States sold my parents the American dream, and I in turn sell the country a new American reality: one where we reduce and eliminate the nuclear threat. For me, the American Dream goes beyond personal accomplishments and economic and political safety nets. It extends to big goals like ridding the world of the threat of nuclear war, which is becoming more and more real as Russia’s war on Ukraine goes on and President Vladimir Putin continues to engage in escalatory rhetoric. For me, the American Dream is the United States ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, protecting New START, and making good on its own promises to disarm in good faith under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

As I hit my 20-year residency milestone in the City of Angels, I realize that working toward a nuclear weapons free world is no longer simply a dream to me; it’s my American reality.

“I’m representin’ for them gangstas all across the world 

(Still) […]

And I still got love for the streets, it’s the D.R.E.”

Cristopher Cruz

Cristopher Cruz is an immigrant, geek, and writer. He interns at N Square, a nuclear policy skunkworks group. He is also an active member of the CTBTO Youth Group and co-Founder of Nuclear Free Schools. Cristopher runs his own bilingual blog called The Atomic Scholar, where he writes about his adventures in the nuclear field as a Salvadoran-American. When not canceling nukes, he can be found roaming museums and parks or watching Godzilla movies.

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