You hear the word “Amurica[sic]” and think of big, burly, sweaty men in football jerseys chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” At least, that is the patriotic image called to my mind. For most of my life, I honestly did not understand that above and below the United States is land also considered to be America. Canada is America. Mexico is America. Brazil is America. Much of Latin America would, if asked, identify as Americans, yet if they did, it would sure confuse the heck out of me. For a while, this ambiguous identity of an American was a radical concept for me. I did not understand the subtleties in this word, “America.” It is a country and an entire continent. When we–in the United States–say “America,” it is understood that we mean just our own fifty states and anyone outside of that is somehow wrong, confused even. What right have they to identify, certainly not with us but, alongside us and using our word! This was a good question that caused me to wonder, what is an American?
I Google “Patriotism,” just this one word, and immediately get images of the American flag–the United States flag, that is. I wonder, what kind of jingoism has survived to the 21st century? In Letter III of J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, the then recent creation of the American nationality is addressed and marveled upon. Crèvecoeur begins by saying that he wishes to be “acquainted with the feelings and thoughts which must…present themselves to the mind of an enlightened Englishman, when he first lands on this continent” (48) and this shocks me. The first Americans were still .Englishmen. Simply landing on this continent and pitching tent was not enough to be a citizen. When was it then that these settlers, as well as the Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans and Swedish emigrants, become American? Crèvecoeur admires these people for leaving their native land where they “had nothing” and landing here where “[they] will receive [new prejudices and manners] from the new mode of life [they have] embraced, the new government [they obey], and the new rank [they hold]” (54). So is it this assimilation that makes them American? Is it their labour, which Crèvecoeur says is in “self-interest” and which will equal their value in this new world, that determines their identity? Crèvecoeur states that “the American is a new man, who acts upon new principles…entertains new ideas, and [forms] new opinions” (56) and based on this definition are any of us in the present, Americans? These settlers are piling their efforts together to make a government from scratch. They have a dream of being free and of having all that they could not have in their former lands. I ask you, is this not the same dream that most immigrants to the U.S. have today? Then, how are they not American?
I am a first generation American and, according to the law, seeing as I was born and raised here, I am an American. Is my father not? Are my mother and brother not Americans? My mother is not a naturalized citizen and my brother moved the States when he was eight. Surely, they are American by now. They have, according to Crèvecoeur’s definition of the American identity, that same American dream. My brother has abided by the newer notions of a true American–no accented English seems the be the main criteria–and has lost his Dominican accent. Is he now an American. I would not describe myself as a patriotic person, I do not have the kind of fervor to succeed that immigrants seem to have. If I had to choose a side, in history and in the present, I would find myself hard-pressed to feel any sympathy or pride for the United States–yet I have never lived anywhere else in the world and can speak so from a place of first-world privilege. Am I not American?
It seems to me that to be American you must be more than just a citizen. You must have American notions, American pride, American entitlement, and you must conform to these demands. It is not just a name. American. There is a history in it and there is guilt and a sense of responsibility to the world in this word. The definition is always changing and the stereotypes perhaps stay the same–we are loud, ignorant, proud, assertive yet out of place outside of our domain–and that is, really, what an American is. Evolving, dynamic, optimistic and young–relative to the history of the world, that is–can we really be defined?