On being “American”

By Sara Gold

My last day in San José, Costa Rica – September 8, 2018

“Along the way we have even lost the right to call ourselves Americans […]. For the world today, America is just the United States; the region we inhabit is a sub-America, a second-class America of nebulous identity” (Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America, 1971, p.2)

What does it mean to be “American”? In the English language, this word often refers to the United States rather than to the continent, whose name it derives from. Frustration with this idea has been publicly expressed as early as 1971 by Galeano in Open Veins of Latin America. The concept remains part of present day discourse in the English-speaking world.

No individual better exemplifies this line of thinking than President Donald Trump. Throughout his campaign and in his published foreign policy, he explicitly stated that his “foreign policy is putting the interests and security of the American people first”. [1] Informally, this notion bleeds in our day-to-day speech; I myself have often carelessly referred to the people of the United States as “Americans” or to my travels to the United States as a trip to “America”.

“Being an American, for me, is being born or living in the United States. I’m not sure if it’s because of geography or intention, but firstly, the word South America represents me the best and secondly, Latin America, but not America”.Colleague from Argentina (translated from Spanish)

But what does it mean to be “American”? [2] Interning at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights this summer, working with colleagues from all over the Americas, and then subsequently travelling by land and sea through Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia allowed me to reflect on this question.

“Being American is a commitment. A commitment of having to bear the burden of unfairness, from the past and the present, but always worrying how to help. Being American is being proud of the mixture of races, ways of thinking and belief systems that constitute the American continent. Being an American is to live life’s hardship and trying your best in dealing with it”.Colleague from Colombia (translated from Spanish)

First, my experience at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica showed me the implications of a regional human rights protection system. In my opinion, this institution interprets “being American” as being a member States of the Organization of American States (OAS) and as being located on the continent. After all, it is the Inter-American system; all countries are considered as part of the Americas. The decisions issued by this Court have often been tailored accordingly to regional considerations.[3] Unfortunately, they have also reflected the consequences of the tragic side of this continent’s history, which has been marked by conflict, exploitation, and inequality.

Being American is not limited to being born in this great continent, it implies belonging to a great multicultural heritage, full of traditions, and thousands of different ways of seeing the world and living life. Americans enjoys a rich history that continues to be written every day, in which we are all its characters. – Colleague from Mexico (translated from Spanish)

Second, my experience working with colleagues from all over the Americas allowed me to realize that “being American” cannot be defined in one singular way. I worked with individuals from the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. I learnt about their legal systems, their customs, their slang, their prejudices, their food, their realities. I learnt that everyone’s preoccupations are different, but that many are concerned about things that I take for granted, like their country’s democratic process, like their right to safe and free abortion, like their job security, like their future as a young lawyer in their countries, just to name a few. These concerns reminded me of how privileged I am, which is easy to forget in the daily grind of McGill Law and Montreal.

For me, “being American” has a double meaning which, despite the political rhetoric coming out of my country lately, is not mutually exclusive. In one respect, I am American because I am from the United States. I probably think of this aspect of my identity fist when I hear the word “American”, not because I believe that only people from the US are Americans, but because we do not have another word to describe our nationality, and this is the aspect of my identity with which I come into contact most regularly. However, and equally important, I am American because I am also from one of the many rich cultures of the Americas. This aspect of my identity locates me on a global scale and ties me in a much larger community. Colleague from the United States of America

Third, following my internship, I furthered reflected on what it means to be American throughout my travels by land and sea in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. In these countries, I witnessed the inequalities that are very much part of the Americas. I listened to individuals tell their stories, list their concerns, reflect on their history, and debate their place in the world today.

These stories led to two current issues that have strongly impacted me. Both are related to migration. The first is the influx of migration of Nicaraguans into Costa Rica, and the extreme racism they face on a daily basis. Second, is the mass exodus of Venezuelans into neighbouring countries. While in Colombia, I encountered many Venezuelans who had left the country, in search of safety and stability. I learnt about what actions countries like Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are taking in order to try and alleviate the crisis. I wondered what the role of other Americans was in order to help our fellow citizens.

Finally, I realized that being American means sharing your culture with others. On several occasions, I was welcomed into people’s homes (such as my former colleague), shared life stories, and was invited to discover what made their country unique. This generosity allowed me to realize that “being American” does not only mean living in and being from the Americas, but also means being part of a larger community, that shares, that supports, and that helps. Ultimately, as my colleague from Costa Rica put it, maybe the term that should prevail is “human”.

“For me being “American” is a label that is useful for expressing a distinct cultural process that took place in the past. However, it is often used merely for reasons of discrimination, criminalization, stigma, etc. Nowadays it seems to me that the label “American”, “European”, “African”, etc. loses legitimacy as we mix more and more, it is social myopia to deny multiculturalism. In my opinion, the label that must ultimately prevail is “human”. Colleague from Costa Rica (translated from Spanish)

 

My colleagues from all over the Americas 🙂

 

[1] See: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trumps-foreign-policy-puts-america-first/

[2] Note: I asked five colleagues from the Inter-American Court, all from different countries, to reflect on what it means to be American. Their reflections can be found in the Italic portions of this text.

[3] The Inter-American Court (alongside the Inter-American Commission) were created to “safeguard the essential rights of man in the American continent”. See: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/index.php/en/about-us/historia-de-la-corteidh

 

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