Whether you are reading this before you arrive, while you are here, or a week before leaving, it is important to take some time to reflect on the importance of words. Specifically, I want us to pay extra attention to the word American.
If you are from the states, you may have lived your whole life thinking that your nationality is “American,” and while I plan to convince you otherwise, it is okay that you have thought this. Many extremely intelligent, well traveled, culturally aware folk from the states call themselves Americans, because they have either never thought twice about this common claim, or they never thought about the impact of claiming the name of a set of continents for just one country.
America is not a country; it is a set of continents. One’s nationality is what nation he or she is from, not what continent. I love America and I have loved my semester living here in America, because Costa Rica is most definitely in America. So why, when I say, “American” does no one picture someone from Costa Rica, or Cuba, or El Salvador, Mexico, Canada or Bolivia?
Modern vernacular in the States has redefined the word American to mean US Citizen. Our complete ignoring of the other forty-one countries is condescending and naïve. To highlight how absurd our usage of this word is, think about it in the context of Europe. In France, on their independence day, (Bastille Day, July 14th – also my birthday if you were wondering) I can assure you that nobody yells, “Happy Birthday Europe!” because if you think about it, that would be an extremely absurd thing to yell. Europe does not have one “birthday,” just as America does not. So why do I hear “Happy Birthday America” so frequently on the fourth of July? Pride in your country is a beautiful thing, but I would feel silly saying I am proud to be an American, because I only know a very small part of America. Costa Rica has made me more proud to be an American, because now I know a bit about the incredible culture of central America as well, but mostly, I am proud to be what I am: a US Citizen.
In other languages, this is less awkward. For example, in Spanish, “Soy costarricense” means” I am Costa Rican,” and “Soy estadounidense” means “I am united-states-ian,” or rather, we don’t have a word for it. We have simple, one-word derivations of every other country’s name to describe nationality (Irish, Polish, Chilean, Mexican, Canadian, Chinese) but the only way to describe our own nationality would be “US citizen”.
So yes, our language makes it awkward, but acknowledging the existence of the other forty-one countries in America is extremely important. Soon, saying, “I’m from the states,” or “back in the states,” or “eeek how much do I scream gringa from the states right now?” will become natural. As you travel, you will get more respect from Central and South Americans by saying your nationality in a way that does not negate their nationality.
While we are learning about words, remember that Africa is a continent and not a country, gringo is a description and not a derogatory remark, pura vida means: hello, how are you, I am well, life is good, good morning, good afternoon, good night, let’s go surfing, see you later and probably ten thousand other meanings that I missed, and finally, that you are coming to a foreign country to learn. You are coming to make mistakes both with your words and you actions and then you will learn from your mistakes. It’s okay that you’ve misused the word American and I’ve misused the word American and now that we are learning, it is our job to start a change. You are going to come here, fall deeply in love with Latin American Culture, and then understand how crucial it is, that we do not deny the existence of this culture by lazily using the wrong word.
Bonus points: If you are advanced in your Spanish, see José Martí make the same argument much more eloquently: http://www.ciudadseva.com/textos/otros/nuestra_america.htm