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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We've also been asking people what song represents the American Dream to them. Today, we turn to historian Robin Kelley. He studies African-American culture and jazz. Kelley's choice of song comes with a Latin beat. It's by a Panamanian icon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBIN KELLEY: Ruben Blades' 1984 anthem "Buscando America," looking for America best captures my version of the American Dream - a dream of not individual success but of democracy and social justice. My American Dream comes from mother, who left Jamaica in 1950 at age 11 to live with her Panamanian aunt in New York City. Shortly thereafter, she was joined by her Cuban-born mother. But as Blades sings, the America they hoped to find proved elusive. They hit walls of discrimination at every turn. My mother was put back two grades simply for being Jamaican. Eventually, she left school and joined other West Indian women in the labor force.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUSCANDO AMERICA")

RUBEN BLADES: (Singing in Spanish)

KELLEY: "Buscando America" is not a rags-to-riches story but one of democratic promise, appropriate for the mid-1980s. That's when men and women fled U.S.-backed death squads in Central America and mind-numbing poverty in Mexico and Haiti to come here. And the Panamanian-born Blades knows well that the policies that brought us the good life of cheap commodities and cheap labor fueled the waves of the immigrants looking for America. But finding America also meant liberating America, realizing the dreams of democracy, justice and equal rights, born of their own home countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUSCANDO AMERICA")

BLADES: (Singing in Spanish)

KELLEY: In Spanish, it sings: you've been abducted, America. Your mouth has been gagged, and today it's our turn to bring you freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUSCANDO AMERICA")

BLADES: (Singing in Spanish)

MONTAGNE: Robin Kelley is a professor of U.S. history at UCLA. You can see what other songs people have chosen to represent the American Dream at NPRMusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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