Who is an American?

A distinct part of American culture is growing up in an education system that preaches about this country and what makes it different, or special, compared to other places. Children are taught that America’s unique combination of liberty, freedom, and democracy makes it somehow superior to other countries. These sentiments are hammered into hearts and minds to cultivate strong national identities from a young age. In Meet Kirsten, the idea of “America” is represented as something deeper than geography and origin – her family is moving to be afforded opportunities – while in Jennifer Lopez’s Superbowl Halftime show, she highlights the fact that current immigration policies oppose fundamental American values, and that recent actions by US governmental agencies have targeted and irreparably hurt thousands of immigrant families.

In Gruesz’s Keywords essay entitled America, she tackles the complex history of the word, it’s many meanings, and the connotations of the word itself. Her essay begs the questions: who is an American? And what does America mean? In a literal sense, anyone living on the continent of America is “American.” But societal norms have relegated the word to mean a citizen of the United States. That, still, however, does not fully answer the question. The word “American” implies more than just a person’s geographical location. Things such as birthplace, race, citizenship, and culture are just part of the equation. Because America has such a diverse history and because it is made up of immigrants (and descendants of immigrants) Americanness cannot be so easily identified. Arguably the best signifier of Americans are their commonly aligned beliefs. People who identify as American often share the same values regarding liberty, freedoms and democracy.

Taking place in the mid-19th century, Kirsten’s parents decide to relocate their family to America in hope of better economic opportunities. When the Larson’s arrive in New York, they are able to then travel to Minnesota to settle land next to relatives whom have already moved to the states. When the Larson’s arrive at their uncle’s house, Kirsten’s Aunt Inger gives her a dress to wear. When Kirsten’s mom sees her, she says, “Why, don’t you recognize Kirsten Larson, my American daughter?” (Shaw 48.) Kirsten and her family embrace their new American identity by assimilating with American culture. For Kirsten, she ticks the boxes of living in the physical space, aligning with traditional American values, and now she looks the part. Perhaps part of why she had an easier time assimilating in 1854 than current immigrants is because she is fair-skinned and looks more American by traditional European standards. What I’m comparing Kirsten’s experience of being American to, is Jennifer Lopez’s very recent Super Bowl Halftime Show in which she made a very political statement by having Latinx children in structures resembling cages while singing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” all the while wearing a fur cape with the American flag on the outside and the Puerto Rican flag on the inside. She made a statement showing her immense pride in both her Latin and American heritages. The “cages” seemed to be a nod to President Trump’s policy of detaining migrant children, mostly from Mexico, in cages throughout detention centers across the country. In 1854, Kirsten and her family were able to come to America and face very little discrimination and mistreatment, but in 2020, immigrants in similar situations are met by cruelty and mercilessness. Even if they share the beliefs and values that make up the American identity, they are discounted and sent back to the countries from which they fled.

1 thought on “Who is an American?”

  1. The Super Bowl Halftime Show was definitely an extremely powerful political statement, making us all think deeply about what the true meaning of what being American is. I think it is also important that you pointed out that Jennifer Lopez is proud of both her identities; Puerto Rican and American. There are so many people living in the United States who identify as American as well as other identities. We are so lucky to live in a country that has such a huge mix of cultures and identities but in recent years our politicians have been making it harder to live up to the title of having such a diverse country. It is so crucial that we always keep in mind the ideals that this country was founded on and stick to them.

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