An acquaintance recently sent me a message on Facebook that read, “I’m proud to be an American”. He then asked that if I agreed with the statement, I should re-send it to everyone on my friend list. This phrase is very common, but it is also problematic. Given that we are entering Memorial Day weekend, I think it is important to unpack the phrase…and make it better.
First, we need to clarify the name “American”. Many people from the United States use the word to refer exclusively to people from our country. Many are unaware that this comes across as very arrogant to others in the Americas. My wife is a Brazilian. Brazilians are Americans. I have lived many years of my adult life in Mexico and Costa Rica. Mexicans and Costa Ricans are as much “American” as I am. Those who are from Canada southward to Chile and Argentina can all claim to be Americans.
A little bit of history helps. The wars of independence broke out in Spanish America in 1810 in Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina, then quickly spread to other colonies. Much hinged on the word “Americano”. On the one side were Spaniards born in Spain but had moved to the colonies in the Americas and received special privileges. They were known as “Peninsulares”. On the other side were the “Americanos”, who were Spanish by ancestry but who were born and raised in the Americas. They were treated as second class citizens. (This is similar to life up north where the Anglo colonists suffered “taxation without representation” at the hands of their British relatives.) The founders of the new nations in Latin American paid dearly (some with their lives) for being “Americanos”.
Part of the problem is due to our limited vocabulary. We have words like Canadians, Hondurans, and Peruvians, but we would need to create something like “United Statesians” to achieve greater precision. “North Americans” is somewhat better, but as seen with NAFTA, Canadians and Mexicans are geographically also in North America. To communicate more accurately, I choose to use “U.S. citizens” or “people in the United States”.
Even more problematic in the phrase “I’m proud to be an American” is that it appeals to our emotions, but it does not clarify what “American” attributes we should be proud of. Should we be proud of our pursuits of Manifest Destiny even though European settlers took lands that were under the stewardship of indigenous people? Should we take pride in our history of slavery or repent of it? Which side of the current cultural wars should we be proud of? There is room for reasonable disagreement and debate on specific issues and attributes but a blanket statement of pride to be an American does not advance that debate.
So, where do I stand? I am proud of the American belief that all men and women are created equal before the law, but I lament our historical failures to put that belief into practice. I am proud of the invitation to immigrants etched on our Statue of Liberty, but I am horrified how we closed our doors to Jewish refugees who tried to flee Nazism. This Memorial Day, let’s reflect on our national past, learn from our mistakes, and contribute our words and deeds to making our country better.