Who is an American and how do you describe an American? This is a question that I myself have thought about for a very long time. Especially, when on paper I may be of USA nationality but in reality I have not always been treated like one – as a result of my darker Mexican complexion. The United States has definitely taken ownership of the term American. We use this term when describing the “American Dream”, the “American Flag”, and/or our “American values”. In fact, it is used when describing the ethnicity of an individual who is not “fully” American, as in the term “Mexican-American”.
When filling out a legal form, in the race and ethnicity category, you will never find the sole term American. Why? Perhaps because being an American is not meant to be about race or the color of your skin and yet somehow, it is. When I was in Costa Rica, people were shocked when I told them I was visiting from the USA. Their first response was “pero si vos no pareces gringa!”, which translates to “you do not look like you are from the USA”. So what does a gringo look like? Well, at least in the eyes of Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans, a gringo is tall, has light skin, blonde or light brown hair, with blue or green eyes. That is definitely not me. Yet, I do tend to refer to myself as a Mexican-American – which is actually correct, and let me tell you why.
During our Spanish classes in Costa Rica, on several occasions, our instructors would correct us when we referred to ourselves as Americanas. We were told that they too, were Americanas. In other words, anyone from North, Central, or South America is an American. Therefore, in Spanish when describing yourself as a person from the USA, you use the term “estadounidense”. This term makes absolute sense in Spanish. However, in English, the only term available is American. The definition of American will vary from person to person in the United States, for we live in a very culturally diverse country. Suddenly, I am feeling troubled by the thought of referring to folks in the USA as Americans when perhaps not only Costa Rica, but all of Latin America, sees us as individuals who reflect the gringo look, and yet I know that I am one of many individuals who do not fit the description. Once again, I am taught of the importance of identity, and the role it plays in how we navigate through this world.