The Thing About Americans Is…

12 Apr

It happens from time to time—a common situation could find me in a cab. The driver strikes up a conversation and soon asks me where I’m from, and though I’ve trained myself to answer with the politically correct “estadounidense” or United Statesean, the word “americano” slips out, and before I finish I already regret it. “I’m American too,” he’ll tell me with a chip on his shoulder. And from there the conversation becomes awkward and tense.

This is such a normal issue that I’ve had a debate with friends and co-workers too many times to count. On the one hand, they’re right, and they are Americans. On the other hand, I and my fellow United Stateseans are right, in that the adjective in the English language to describe us is American, and thus it’s only logical for a second-language speaker to translate that in the most direct way. But why is it such an inflammatory remark for certain people to hear?

I’ve been here in Latin America long enough to listen to good arguments for and against why citizens of countries in South America should refer to themselves as Americans. As the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca encouraged, we should listen to our friends and not try to figure out why they think a certain way, but how they got to thinking that way. So let me work through it a bit while playing Devil’s Advocate.

In the English language we have only one adjective to describe us: American. So of course we’re going to make the easy connection and say “americano” without trying to be arrogant or elitist. Yet a good point is made in that we should be referring to the continent. We are North Americans, while Argentinians are South Americans and Costa Ricans are Central Americans. Together, we are all Americans. However, most of the time we don’t bother with the giant geographical distinctions from this side of the globe, instead going for regional borders and national identities. Why do we do that?

We refer to things as European, Asian or African, don’t we? European design hints at something avant-garde and unique. Asian culture (while incredibly diverse and variant according to each individual culture) carries a stereotype of food with rice and chop sticks. (In reality the Asian continent extends so far as to include parts of Russia and the Middle East, where these ideas couldn’t be further from the truth). Africa might conjure up images of exotic sceneries and animals roaming around a plain, despite the fact that a number of geographies are included on the continent and large cities abound. So for America, what do we refer to?

The majority of people who live in the Americas are the descendents of the daring and brave bunch who had no land rights in the old country or sought freedoms for their radical beliefs (apart from indigenous groups or those who were forcefully brought here as slaves). We are a breed of adventurers and survivors not by coincidence, and maybe that’s what sets us apart. Yet one contradiction that puzzles me still is how Argentinians take such pride in saying how European they are. And it’s true that the country is greatly influenced by their European roots (as are the U.S. and Canada, by the way). While we’re on the topic, the last time I checked, Spain is and has always been part of the European continent. Since most of Latin America was founded by the Spanish conquistadors, wouldn’t that make them European as well? Why do we break it down into a Hispanic category, as if the Hispanic edge isn’t the same as Anglo-Saxon?

Despite the claim that Buenos Aires is the “Paris of South America,” it’s more of a watered down American version, and to me, it gives this sort of inferiority complex to many porteños. Yet even with the European pride, they insist that they are Americans as well.

Not only that, but a great number of people here simply stated do not like the United States nor its policies. For better or worse, the term American is widely understood throughout the world to refer to the United States. So why do they want to associate themselves with what they know will just cause confusion? On the other hand, those of us from the United States should be more sensitive to their desire to be included in the continental picture. I can see how it comes off as arrogant to say that we are Americans and everyone else is just from their own country. I think if we all understood the linguistic reasons for stating ourselves as such, it would be less of a conversation stopper.

In any case, Argentinians don’t usually say estadounidense either, citing it as being too long of a word. Instead they use one I find offensive: yanqui. But that’s another argument which I’ve already had too many times. Just remember that when you travel to Latin America (even to Spain for that matter), if you’re unsure when you first meet someone, describe yourself as estadounidense, and then take it from there.


4 Responses to “The Thing About Americans Is…”

  1. dbrindinshire April 13, 2011 at 5:19 am #

    I can definitely relate to this. I lived in Mexico for year some time ago and, as my Spanish improved, I became aware of the whole way that it is viewed when we refer to ourselves as “americanos” in Latin American countries. I remember entering Quintana Roo one time and being asked for my citizenship. When I told the Immigration officer I was “American”, his response was, “Me too, but which country are you from?”

    • Jon April 13, 2011 at 8:10 am #

      Right. I’m not entirely sure why the need to identify with a continent is so strong. I can’t think of a case in which a British or French citizen would become insulted if the other said they were European.

  2. laura May 7, 2011 at 5:49 am #

    Maybe it’s not so big the desire for us to be identified with the continent that we are in (America) but the desire to remind United State citizens (United States of America, America the Contintinent) that they are not the only ones here. When you name you create reality too. You have to see it from an historical point of view: nobody can’t deny the hegemonic rol that USA had and has in the region. So when you call yourself “American” or “Americano” it’s like you are owning (adueñándote) something it’s not only yours.
    By the way I agree with you with the European complex that many Argentinians have. Again you can understand it if you see that in an historical way. And it’s racist too because here you have indigenous peoples, afroargentinians, so it’s not true that we are all descendants from european inmigrants. We have to recognise the genocides, ethnocides, that happened while the SateNation was configured and that is happening now.
    Good luck!!

    • Jon May 8, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

      Thanks for commenting, Laura. It’s definitely a complex topic that I think deserves some thought.

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