Reclaiming American identity outside of the Stars and Stripes. (Guest Post)
Greetings from Colombia! As a university graduate who is supposed to be educated in all things global (I majored in International Development Studies and minored in Latin American Studies), I wish I could say that I knew everything about Colombia and could swiftly report on the politics, the culture, the issues affecting the different groups and neighborhoods but unfortunately…I can’t. It wasn’t in our news outlets, it wasn’t in our academic readings, most of the time no one mentioned it, and I (shamefully) didn’t question it. Coming away from that though, most Colombians can easily name the U.S. president, list some of the biggest social and political issues (such as police brutality, legalization of same-sex marriage, mass shootings, etc.), and recognize the state that we live in (California, while my roommates are from Minnesota and Michigan).
I wish I could say I’m surprised, but really I’m not. The United States has long been criticized and seen as a self-centered country, reporting mainly on the goings-on within our borders, and not very much on any other countries until it affects one of our own (ex: the Ebola virus). The U.S. has been coined a country of wealth and status, but at what cost? As a U.S.-born daughter of Mexican immigrants, I cringe at the reverence many people have towards U.S. Americans. I feel extremely fortunate to have been born in the United States due to the opportunities I’ve been granted (ahem, UCLA Alumna) but in no way do I feel superior to any other culture or people, and honestly it hurts me to see how easily people who aren’t from the United States look up to a gringo (U.S. American), and how easily gringos in turn embody the need to save everybody or come in and fix everything.
One detail that I constantly bring up is the use of the word American. Around the world people use the word American to describe people from the United States, and I can see how that has come to be: The United States of America has long been referring to itself as “America” (also “’Murica”). Is it petty that this makes me livid? My answer to that question is no. “America” is actually referring to North, Central, and South America that is home to over 30 countries, hundreds of ethnic groups, hundreds of languages, and thousands of dialects. I see the use of “America” to refer only to the United States as erasing so much of what America is, and the United States as taking ownership over a term that can better represent many people.
So when someone says that everyone in the United States should “speak American” (yes, I’m looking at you Donald Trump and Sarah Palin), I don’t believe it’s wrong of me to call them ignorant. Also, last I checked, the United States still had no official language so “speaking American” in a country that is only one small part of America and where over 150 languages are spoken in that country alone, you can’t really go wrong with whatever sounds your tongue creates because all of it is as American as it gets. As my roommates can tell you (and are probably annoyed at by now, but really it’s an issue of representation and superiority), whenever anyone here in Colombia, in Mexico where I visit often, or in the U.S. refers to the United States as America or to the people who live there as “Americanos,” I feel the need to remind them that they’re also Americans, that they are just as much American as anyone in the United States and that really people in the U.S. can be better referred to as Estadounidenses. Whenever I mention this, some look at me in quiet shock, some look at me like I’m crazy, and others just stare at me with a blank expression. So is this an issue of do or die? No, it’s probably not, but it is an issue of representation, a small part in the long history of world powers (colonization, anyone?) erasing people and taking over, even if in this case it seems to be just a word.
I am a proud American, and when I say that I don’t necessarily mean a proud U.S. American; I mean a proud Mexican, proud to have been born in the Americas, proud of my indigenous roots that come from the Americas, where a huge part of me wishes that neither Spanish or English were my first language but rather that I could speak the language of my ancestors and not my colonizers (another issue for another time). Although this whole post probably just seemed like a small rant about a small word, I hope it would be a small stepping-stone in the way we think about language and how it can work to erase people, and how it can work to make others superior. I want us to take on our own homework and learn about issues happening around the world because other people matter and what’s happening in other places matter, whether it “affects us” or not. If we want to be proud of living in the U.S., if we want to be able to call ourselves educated, how about we take on the task of looking outside of the United States and educating ourselves on the plight of others, stop making memes about “first-world problems,” and instead think about perspective and why we have so little of it? So as a U.S.-born daughter of Mexican immigrants living abroad in Colombia, I know that I’m American, but I can rest easy knowing that I don’t believe that in reference to the country I was born in, but rather acknowledge that every part of me has proudly belonged to the Americas.