American by default

By Marjorie N.

One of the things I struggled with while studying abroad was taking on the label of an “American.” I was born a US citizen, and have lived on the U.S. mainland for most of my life, but I have never felt that long-time U.S. citizens, particularly Americans of European decent, saw me as a fellow American. The perceptions of others was not, however, the only reason I struggled to see myself as an American.

When people would ask where I was from, I would say Puerto Rico. The fact that I did not have a “traditional” Latino accent often prompted people to ask
why I spoke like an American. I would have to explain that Puerto Rico was a U.S. territory, and so it began. The people I maintained a relationship with while I studied abroad seemed conflicted about labeling me as an American, but they did not know much about Puerto Rico, so they assumed certain things about me as an American. When they talked negatively about the U.S. they would excuse themselves from having to apologize, because I was not really an American, so according to them I shouldn’t have been offended.

It seemed like not only was I conflicted about my American identity, but so was the rest of the world. I could just never come to terms with identifying with a country with such a marred history.

What I didn’t realize was how offended I would become with the anti-American commentary I would come to hear. I would find that after establishing a dialogue with people who decided I was American, an onslaught of questions would begin. “Why did you Americans vote for Bush?” “Why are Americans so ignorant?” “Why are American women so ‘easy’?”

At first I’d laugh, but after it sank in that people were seeing me as an American - by default - I found myself trying to speak on behalf of all Americans. I had to explain that not all Americans are white; that we didn’t all vote for Bush; that American women are not ‘easy’; and my favorite, that not all American men wear white socks up to their mid-calve. I had to explain that Americans are from Central and South America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean. And that’s when it hit me, I was American too.

The more I spoke on behalf of Americans, the stronger I found I identified as “American,” and the more offended I became when people expressed anti-American sentiment. The toughest part was taking on the privilege that is associated with being an American. Sure, I had no problem acknowledging that on a global scale, as an American, I have access to resources that aren’t readily available. However, seeing myself as a privileged person was new. I had a tough time reconciling this idea with my identity as a minority, who is, in a sense, at the mercy of an elite group of society who distinguish themselves from the rest of us on racial and economic grounds.

Upon returning to the U.S., I noticed that I felt different. I had the opportunity to reflect on what it meant to be an American and the energy we invest in trying to make this experiment in diversity work. The longer I stay here, however, the more I find that I am returning to that feeling of an outsider, of not really having a place here.

I watched in awe as some media personalities laughed at the idea that Puerto Rican voters could actually have an impact on the democratic primaries. And it all has made me wonder when I would be included in the global branding of America? When will I stop being an American by default?

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