What does it mean to be an American?

In the past decade, there was about 700,000 new naturalized citizens per year. That’s a new US citizen approximately every 79 seconds.

I never gave this question much thought, and I can imagine that most of peers didn’t either. I really didn’t have to– although I was born in Colombia and was raised by Colombian parents, I have always considered myself to be an American first and foremost, Why shouldn’t I? I have spent most of my sixteen years here in the USA. I go to school here. I have friends here. Most of my family lives here. My house is here… my entire life is here. I am more American than I will ever be Colombian.

Others have a much different opinion than I do, and I didn’t realize until recently. Some people don’t necessarily agree with me, however, and I didn’t know to what extent until recently. The last presidential campaign really drove home the nationalistic mindset of “us” and “them.” They believe that the United States will rise to the top once again, and anyone who doesn’t belong must go. But that begs the question, who really does belong in the United States? Who can truly claim that they are American? What does that even mean?   

If “freedom” was the first word that popped into your head, then you are like most people I asked. The United States prides itself in its commitment to “liberty and justice for all,” as it says in the pledge of allegiance we recite every morning. After all, we are the land of the free and the home of the brave.

When you become an American citizen, you receive a pamphlet congratulating you “on becoming a US Citizen.” On this pamphlet, there is a list of general rights and responsibilities you were bestowed upon officially becoming part of the American family. At the very top of the list of your rights is the “freedom to express yourself.” It is the first thing stated for a reason; it is a defining trait that sets America apart from other nations.

“It feels special [to be an American]. From where I’m from, you can’t always say what you feel, but here you can just say your opinion about anything you want,” said Basil Ramadan, a ninth grader at Leesville. Ramadan was originally from Syria but immigrated to the U.S. three years ago.

When I asked him if he considered himself an American, he stated he did. “I’m treated just like anyone else.”

Which brings me to my next point– equality and opportunity for all. Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “America is another name for opportunity. Our whole history appears like a last effort of divine providence on behalf of the human race.”

Opportunity is how I ended up here, after all. My dad was able to find employment as an architect in the United States when Colombia had no good options left. In the United States, I have the chance to get a quality education without having to pay for a private school. I can go to the best universities in the world and get the guarantee that my degree will be recognized by most- if not all – nations.  The American Dream is very real and very alive for immigrants who come into this country. Many immigrants, like my family and countless before them, came to America with the hopes of being able to achieve anything you want to be through hard work. James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book Epic of America  puts it brilliantly:

“The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

Many of my classmates recognize the American Dream, even if they don’t know it by name; it’s not only for immigrants. “I have the potential to be a millionaire, or like donate to a charity, or help someone in need. [To] do whatever you want,” said Griffin Lange, a junior.

Another key identification of an American is pride. Americans are well known for their patriotism all around the world. According to a study conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center in 2003, the United States was considered the most patriotic country in the world.

Almost everybody I asked said that patriotism was a defining characteristic of an American. We are shown patriotism in this country from an early age with reciting the pledge and/or national anthem at the beginning of school, high school competitions, professional games, etc. I recall my mom once saying how much she admired American patriotism. She said that she never had seen that much pride in their nation on the citizens’ part in Colombia. “It really brings a country together,” I remember her saying.

However, this strong sense of patriotism isn’t always seen as positive by people of other countries. As someone with a dual-citizenship, I have the advantage of being able to see both the insider’s and the outsider’s point of view. I can relate to the foreigners position that Americans are loud and proud– perhaps too much so. However, I also realize that our pride and drive to be the best has lead us to the top, so that we can accurately say we are one of the most influential countries in the world.

There is nothing wrong with being proud of your country, especially when it’s well deserved. The problems start coming when we think that we are considerably better than other nations, and refuse to interact with them. Even worse when diversity isn’t accepted because it’s not ‘American.’

The most important thing about being American, and the one that makes us truly stand out among other countries, is our wonderful diversity. The United States is a melting pot of cultures, languages and religions, and the American culture itself is a mixture of cultures brought here by immigrants many years ago. For the most part, people from different nationalities have coexisted peacefully in the US.

“You are not going to have that [diversity] in your country,” Paola Caro, my mom, said. “You are exposing your kids to be with people from all around the world. You let them understand other cultures. They can learn here to respect other religions, because it’s a melting pot. In the Montessori school you went to in Morrisville, [there were] people from everywhere, [coexisting] in peace. Muslim teachers with Christian students with Jewish classmates, Indian classmates, Mongolians, from everywhere around the world. In peace. Just in that small school. So that’s what makes America great. That people can live in peace [with people] from everywhere around the world.”

An important distinction must be made, however. That to be American doesn’t mean to forget your roots, to forget where you came from. For me, being American and being Colombian aren’t mutually exclusive. I don’t have to chose one or the other because my very existence is contradictory to that statement. I was raised in the United States, with Colombian parents, learning Spanish and English, immersing myself in both the Colombian and American culture. Although I am more American than anything else, being Colombian is still part of my identity. It’s not a part I’m willing to erase simply to coincide with someone else’s definition of being an American.

At this point you’re probably wondering, “Why are you asking this now? Why does it even matter?” It matters now because this question has been addressed many times over– maybe not specifically, but it has been hinted at– in today’s political environment. It’s never been directly answered though. It’s the constant narrative of the “other,” but it not clear who is part of the”other.”
It’s unfortunate, really, because I’ve always seen America as a wonderfully diverse country that  welcomes other people with open arms. Although we may all look differently, speak differently, and believe differently, we all share one thing in common: our pride in our nation and our dedication for equality and opportunity.


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