What does it mean to be an American?
As a woman who was born in Elmhurst, Queens but has family that hails from as far as Italy to Portugal (and speaks no language other than English), it’s hard to find an answer that satisfies me. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve truly started to ponder the question. I’ve come to the realization that the answer to that question differs from person to person, and there is no definitive answer.
The definition of what we consider an American to be, I believe, has a lot to do with personal history. Benjamin Franklin, speaking of those who wished to colonize America, wrote that those people “appear to have formed, through ignorance, mistaken ideas and expectations of what is to be obtained there” (referring to America). Misconceptions are hardly uncommon, and though they can be damaging they are a huge part of the hustle and bustle that is America today. In fact, according to this article, 42.4 million immigrants live in America as of 2014.
Many can say that once upon a time, their families came to America on promises of “streets of gold.” That, as we all know, was untrue. Poverty and unemployment, or unfit working conditions for those who could find work, ran rampant. These kinds of mistaken ideals have always been present, and for some people they are a big part of what it means to be an “American”; whether that is because of their denial of these ideas or their validation of them. While those immigrants may have considered themselves Americans once they got here, the people as close as their next-door neighbors might have still considered them foreigners. Being an American is so much more than paperwork, so much more than cards or documentation. It is, to me, willingly accepting the title, whatever you take it to mean, and understanding that that title comes from you alone.
Each of us in America, recognized citizen or not, is different because of classifications like race, gender, ethnicity, and so much more. Yet, all of us here are able to continue to live here because of just the right circumstances, and just as important to me, the will to do so.
When tasked with answering the question, “are you an American,” I balk. Still, even knowing all that I do about my family, my country, and myself such a question feels like it’s never really within my power to answer. The best answer I can ever give, and the one that might only make sense to me, is that I’m just as American as everyone else.
Photo from: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/J9odaIHPXVM/maxresdefault.jpg