Labeling America beyond U.S. borders

"America is a whole continent," said that snobby kid in class. The first time I said, “They should call themselves U.S. Asians,” it was a joke — a ...

Aug 31, 2013

"America is a whole continent," said that snobby kid in class. The first time I said, “They should call themselves U.S. Asians,” it was a joke — a simple quip to pass the time. Of course America is a continent, but convention is convention. These days, most people around the world refer to the United States, both colloquially and formally as America. That does not, however, change the fact that many people — especially those who hail from South America — take offense to the continent they call home being appropriated by one single country.
I’ve always believed in the importance of language.  Octavio Paz once said, "Man is a being of words," to reflect the extent to which language shapes us, and how we shape language. Somehow the irony of thinking language is a reflection of ourselves and that the America debate was a trivial one  — some sort of unconscious doublethink — escaped me for the longest time.
After much thought, I’ve realized the problem with using the word America to refer solely to the United States. The main arguments given in defense of America as a country are convenience and national ownership. Sadly, they’re both misguided.
To argue that it is simply more convenient to leave it the way it is or that it is right to call people from the U.S. Americans because that’s the way it’s been is to fall to a fallacy of appealing to tradition. Convenience is often the main obstacle for progress. At some point, using racial slurs was the convention, but that didn’t stop us from removing it from our vocabulary. Oftentimes institutional change is inconvenient and slow, but we nonetheless change in the name of human progress.
A case can also be made for national identity. One could argue that the United States has referred to itself as America for centuries, a term that has become ingrained in the minds of its citizens as a symbol of a nation. To try to change it is to dismiss an entire nation’s history. To argue this is to imply that one country’s identity is more important than the identities of 54 others. To say that U.S. Americans have identified themselves as Americans and thus changing this identity implies that 600 million other people and their identities don’t matter. We call ourselves American too. We’ve called ourselves Americans since its name was implemented. Why is that identity less important? Why is one convention more important than the other?
Amerigo Vespucci is credited for discovering that the New World was in fact a new continent. The United States was named after the continent where it is located. What would we say if Emiratis started calling themselves Arabs or if South Africans simply called themselves Africans? Understanding the indignation that this would cause is to start understanding my problem with the term American. Somehow in our world of special interests and agendas, America the continent has become less important than America the country. Where does that leave the rest of us? If language reflects the way we think, what does it say if we think that Latin America is the one that needs a prefix? Why is it America and the rest, and not the other way around?
Language, it is said, reflects who and where we are as individuals and as a collective. There’s a reason we assume individuals and groups who use racists terms are racists. Why do we think that eloquent people are cultured or educated? Not because one is necessarily indicative or causal of the other, but because the relationship between the language we use and the way we think is ever-present and multilateral.
In the same way, language carries weight. The way we choose to label things shows the way we think but also shapes the way we think. Attributing a person with feminine characteristics in a derogatory way is now frowned upon because women are finally being accepted as equal to men and gaining empowerment. To assign a group of people a label is to burden them with its connotation. In this case it is to deny anyone else from using it.
This is a vivid reminder of Latin America's history. It is a region that was ravaged by the Europeans for its natural resources, a region in which millions die from the drug war financed by U.S. American users. It is a region that the U.S. government deemed its backyard less than a hundred years ago. It is a region that suffered coups, wars and millions of child deaths or disappearances because it was in the wrong sphere of influence. That is the weight that a word can carry. I myself wouldn’t have been born if it wasn’t for the United States, or if my family hadn’t had to escape to Costa Rica because of the U.S.-backed Guatemalan Civil War. To those thinking that this is a thing of the past, it is enough to see on the news that the Bolivian president’s plane was denied landing to refuel in Portugal and Spain because Washington believed it carried Snowden. Would Mexico and Guatemala ever deny a U.S. president the right to refuel in their airport? To deem Latin Americans as the others, to perpetuate this alterity through a simple label is to remind each one of us that we are less important, an afterthought.
It is not enough to preach about change in international relations and foreign policy, and an increase in dialogue between regions if culture and perception aren’t changed. The United States is one country among 55 countries each as important and significant as the next. Denying the rest of the Americans that title is simply to cast them as less important. If the term America as a continent is less important or relevant than the term America as a country, we should really take a second to introspect and figure out what that says of us as a collective and why we perceive a particular grouping more significant than another. If we refuse to change American to U.S. American because the former is simply what we're used to, are we any better than those who used that same argument in the past? To be honest, writing two more letters won’t tire you out.
Andres Rodriguez is opinion editor. Email him at
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