Growing up in the United States, I never really felt American. My first language was essentially spanish, with english coming in a quick second. I grew up with a deeply embedded pride in Argentina and El Salvador, and the collective Latino identity that is special to life in the US. Growing up was sometimes awkward and exhausting, and my interactions with adults were uncomfortable and often times intimidating. Even though I grew up in a diverse school district, with children from around the globe, I remember instances where my place of birth was assumed to be outside of the US – some spanish speaking country in Latin America – even though I was born on rt. 59, right in front of Good Sam Hospital in New York.
And so began my problems with connecting with my American identity. As I progressed through the educational system, I came to know biases – how the color of my skin coupled with the words from my voice told the people around me I was probably an immigrant. I didn’t have a problem with that, given that my parents are immigrants, as are cousins, aunts, and friends of mine. They are all amazing people, and so my young mind didn’t care. But as I grew, this dual identity began to mean more.
Too many times was my ethnic phenotype the cause for racial slurs to be thrust toward me, people who looked like me, my parents, and friends. Suddenly, being an immigrant also meant being criminal and different. It meant being an undesirable. It meant being a dirty spic. It meant being something that didn’t deserve to be American. Like many of my peers, this angered me, and my much younger mind thought the only available recourse to cope after fear and sadness was hate.
As I began to grow into my adolescence, my father, and older friends, began to speak about the cruel realities of the world. We didn’t get the sugar coated versions of slavery in the US taught to us in the public school system (the version where slavery was abolished and everything was okay) and my anger began to heat up. I learned about Che Guevara, US imperialism, Malcolm X and MLK (a much more critical and in depth look than the paragraph they get in US textbooks) and my confusion toward who I was quickly transformed into antagonistic fervor. For a time, I hated the US. I hated it for all it had done, for celebrating Columbus, for the wars it caused and instigated in Latin America, for its Racist history, for everything. This new hate was compounded by the aftermath of 9/11 – the discrimination my Arab brothers and sisters received, as well as the newly intensified immigration debates and the drug war. For a time in my adolescence – I hated America and the fact that I was American. I hated who I was.
If I didn’t want to be American, what then? For many people of color who are lucky to be able to trace their family migration origins (I say lucky, given that many African Americans do not know their country of origin due to the slave trade), I began to over impose the Latino identity that I had grown up with, identifying myself as a Argentine-Salvadorian. Seldom would I say I was American, if I ever did. But when I went abroad, I was not Argentine or Salvadorian. I was the “Gringo” primo from the North. I didn’t want to be, but it was undeniably so. I had spent large amounts of time in Argentina and El Salvador, but that was not enough to qualify me as an Argentine, a Salvadorean, or a mix of both. Like many of my Latino brethren who were born in the US to immigrants or who had spent most of their lives in the US, we were an anomaly. Neither from there or here – we existed in an in-between, a place we would never be able to step foot in because it existed solely in the depths of our thoughts.
But as I grew, I came to re-asses my anger and hate for America, and consequently myself. I came to realize, even if it was faced hypocritically by those who are supposedly more American (the anglos), the US is a nation of immigrants, even if that immigration in the beginning was a violent one and not celebrated with a feast on the “first thanksgiving”. It is unfortunate that those who claim to be more American than me (and those individuals still exist) forget that the original inhabitants of the land are the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and that the threat of a migrant narrative was true at some point in their genealogical history. As I began to move through the end of high school and into my freshman year of college, with my hate dissipating (very slowly), I came to understand that America was a strange place – the narrative of evil I had constructed was not as simple as I wanted it to be.
I began to understand that the super-imposed identity of “Latino” which became synonymous with “Immigrant” was a political one and one that I did not choose. The battlegrounds of the District of Columbia had more to do with power than they did reality. The super-imposed identities were not exclusive to me, either. The Irish, the Chinese, and virtually any group that was not directly descended from the original immigrants were victims of the same political wars that didn’t really concern immigration, but power. For those on the hill (the vast majority) – it was all about who sat on and around the throne in the oval office than the well being of the people, and by people I mean all the people.
Even though I was slowly embracing my American identity, I still underwent discrimination from my fellow Americans that were of a different skin color, and they were not always white. Regardless of my dissipating hate and embracing my legal status, I understood too well the current narrative, both the political and social one. I, along with virtually every ethnic minority, was not as American as our white counterparts, and here I am being blatant. It was not only about my self proclamation, it was about what I looked like. I know those who are not ethnically white/anglo, but are phenotypically so (“look white”), and they are more easily embraced than I am. It was the privilege of looking white, and I am being unapologetic about this reality. My old rage was clashing with my newfound internal acceptance. I could accept the political narrative and know it was a consequence of a few playing a power game, but I could not understand how the social one was still so pervasively oppressive (at least in interpersonal experiences). Time and time again, my American identity was put in question for one reason, and that was because of the color of my skin.
Fast forward to graduation. Three years at John Jay only supercharged the confusion I was accustomed to in my earlier years. It was at John Jay I came to value multiple perspectives (thank you Vera), delved into critical race theory, and became aware of how criminality is infused within the immigrant narrative throughout US history. But feeling American still eluded me. I still didn’t feel American, because I was grappling so much with my Latino identity, the history of the US, and the everyday reluctance of my white counterparts (as well as others) to accept me as their patriotic equal. If something had changed, it was that I no longer hated the US as a monolith. I came to love it, its people, its ideas (the constitution is a brilliantly drafted document, even though the context in which it was written is as oppressive as you get), but more importantly, I loved it because it was my home. My home was in New York, and America as a whole. Not Argentina, not El Salvador, but America (however, Latin America acts as a different home for me – another post). I came to realize that that was only half the battle, because then I came to the UK.
Arriving in Liverpool, I had trouble understanding everyone. But my accent gave me away immediately. It was obvious that I was from America. However, even after the question for confirmation, my nationality or personal identity was not put into question. I was not asked the “but what really are you/where are your parents from/what is your ethnicity?” – to the English, I was American. My Latino-ness was not brought up, unless I did it for them. After a few times of this happening, I felt it. I felt American.
For some indescribable reason, everything clicked. I had always known I was as American as anyone else, from the descendants of George Washington to the first generation baby born moments ago, I knew it, but never felt it. And now, as people asked and let be, I felt American.
I was suddenly confronted with the deeper reality of the struggle in America. While there are two narratives in the US, the political and the social, there intertwined histories do not negate the importance of the one over other. Politically, we are constantly told that we (I) are different from the real American, and socially, we are forced to contend with that existential question because we all are, in one way or another, American. But what the political can never touch is our unique existence as a country that has perhaps not existed since the time of the Roman Empire. I am unable to put this epiphany into words, but America, its beauty, is perhaps seen from the outside – just as is the entirety of the planet earth. Through all its struggle to come into its own, and we’re still getting there (we are a young nation after all); the American identity is an evolving one, and every battle fought, from wounded knee to the civil rights movement to the now, we are fighting not only to fight injustice, but to understand our national identity, not as individuals, but as a whole. Thats part of the point.
This isn’t me justifying institutionalized oppression/racism/sexism/classism. This isn’t me telling my white counterparts that they can rest easy and not feel an obligation to work with the rest of us to make America better. And this is definitely not saying our political system isn’t in shambles. This is me telling those who don’t think I am as American as them, to ask the world what they think and to ask me what I think American means and not only ask themselves. This is me telling my white counterparts, unapologetically, not to only accept others as American, but to ask us why we feel the way we do and listen. This is me telling everyone to ask harder questions, but most importantly, to look back at OUR history and why we, people of color and immigrants, still don’t feel as accepted as we should. And this is also me telling my fellow persons of color – its okay to be confused. Its okay to not know what you are, because you’re not alone, and because that it part of America growing up.
A newly found friend of mine said, when I made these comments, that what he believes is part of the beauty of America is this multifaceted reality – we’re American, but we are also something else, no matter what that is (or means). It was good to meet an American in Liverpool and be able to stand in solidarity with him, even though we come from different backgrounds. America, I don’t hate you anymore, and can’t see a time when I will. I love you, and now I know what it feels like to be a fruit from your young, but strong tree. But you have a long way to go, a very long way, but we’re getting there. And those who have privilege and power need to consciously re-asses what we (American) means.