Sunday, July 4, 2010

On Being American

Yesterday as I was in Faber Park celebrating my daughter's seventh birthday, I looked around and admired the diversity of cultural backgrounds.  There were Mexican-Americans, African-Americans,  Dominican- American (from the Dominican Republic) and my family is Puerto Rican (American).  I am not sure if it needs a hyphen or parentheses since most of us who are of Puerto Rican descent just call ourselves "Puerto Rican."

It's strange because almost everyone I know will define their cultural background with a hyphen.  There are Italian- Americans, Irish- Americans, Polish- Americans, Russian- Americans, etc.  The list goes on and on.  I don't know a singe individual who identifies him or herself as just plain "American."  Don't get me wrong.  This is a great tribute to the "melting pot."  I find it amazing that so many different cultures could live in one place. What perturbs me is that we need a hyphen at all.  If we are all American, why is then that we differentiate ourselves with the hyphen.  Is this the governments way of political correctness or is it a way to separate us from the rest of the flock?  I'm still wondering about this and will probably post on just this topic.

However, as it is Sunday morning and I have not had my coffee yet, I will go off on a tangent.  Growing up in the Bronx was a balancing act when thinking of nationality and ethnicity.  On the census form, for Race, there are only a few limited options, in which I fall into none of those categories.  I am not Caucasian, Black or Mongoloid.  Now ethnicity is a different story.  Here my culture is recognized so I check the box "Puerto Rican."  This is just one example.  Next example of the tightrope act was education.  I was forced to take an ESL exam (English as a Second Language), although through my speech and writing, it was evident that I had a clear command of the language.  It was assumed that because my last name was of Hispanic descent, that I did not know English. 

It was also a little weird that I had to balance the best of both worlds.  Puerto Ricans have their own culture, customs, language, music, and food.  The United States, or New York City in my case (as a child I had a very narrow view of the world), has their own culture and customs.  I had to find the best in both and somehow blend them so that I wouldn't lose my "Puerto Rican" identity and not sacrifice my "American" identity. 

When listening to my grandmother, I realize that I didn't have it so rough.  During the 1950's, it was really rough in Brooklyn when my grandparents migrated from Puerto Rico. My grandmother tells me some pretty horrible stories of how she was treated at her factory job, in her neighborhood and the local stores. She was called names with negative racial connotations and discriminated against at places of employment. I thank her for these stories as I realize I really don't have it so bad.

So where are we.  Well, I'm still on the fence about the hyphen in identity associated with "American."  I am not sure if Puerto Rican American or just plain Puerto Rican applies to me and the world doesn't seem like such a horrible place. 

For those of you who live in the United States, what are you views on being American?  For those of you who don't live in the United States, how does your country view Americans?

Happy 4th of July America!

First two images taken from Wikimedia Commons and are free of copyright.

Final image courtesy of Zac Allen, Fireworks!


  1. This was a wonderful post, Chary. I always love it when you talk about your background, because it becomes so very evident that your heart is in your writing (which it often is anyway, but it is something special about those things that define our identities, isn't it?).

    I think I have said enough today about what I (and my country) think about the US and Americans, but I absolutely loved hearing one American (or Puerto Rican, or Puerto Rican-American) talking about it! :)

    Happy Independence Day!

  2. Lovely post. Like Mari, I love the times to take us back into how it is to be you!

    How do Indians view Americans? I guess the most popular version is of GWB as a cowboy who is out to get the world to fall in line with his (lack of) world view.

    Happy Fourth of July.

  3. *blushes*

    Thanks Mari. I read your post and love your objectivity!

    Rayna, we just can't get rid of GWB's mess soon enough. Obama is trying but people swear that he can fix everything in one day. They don't realize it takes time.

    It feels good to write again. I'm actually so excited to have more time on my hands when I get home from work during the week just so I can write. :D

  4. Most of the Canucks I know feel the same way about America as they do about Canada - we love the folks we know, the individual spirit, the hope and intelligence - we dislike fundamentalism of any sort be it gingoism, religiosity or misogyny and we don't like it when our governments think corporate rather than service. From the people to the leaders and not the other way around!
    I like your posts - you are very out there and kind at the same time!

  5. Here in Europe unfortunately there is a strong "anty-american" thinking. Normal folks, like me, like and admire America, but so called "elite" is strongly anty-american.

  6. Jan,

    I suppose that could apply to any nation. I absolutely cannot abide by the government when the "dollar" is worth more than a soul. Thanks for the kind compliments.

  7. Maciek,

    I can understand how in many European countries there may be some ill feelings. After all, G.W. Bush did not have a popular political method of dealing with the world.

    Thanks for your response.