What is American?

By Carlos E. Cortés / Courtesy of Univision Insights

In my last blog I wrote about ethnic umbrella labels. These labels include, but are not limited to, European-American, Asian-American, African-American and Native-American, and all share the characteristics of having a geographical reference point, but beyond that, distinctions appear. These terms raise another labeling issue, one which I’ve been questioned about. It concerns the use of the word American — including my use of American — to refer to the United States and its people. The argument goes like this.

“The entire Western Hemisphere is the Americas, North and South. Therefore, it’s inappropriate to use American when referring only to the United States.” There is some truth to that argument. Randy Newman called attention to this verbal conundrum in his classic parody, “Political Science,” when he satirically sang, “South America stole our name.”

As I’ve discussed in my blogs, national and ethnic labels are arbitrary and sometimes confusing. In Latin America, norteamericano is often used to refer to the people and things of the United States (and sometimes Canada). This occurs even though, geographically speaking, Mexico and Central America are part of the North American continent. I’ve heard critics (usually non-Latinos) argue that using the term American in reference to only the United States is arrogant or even offensive, especially to Latinos. Well, not to me. I’m not offended. Rather, I find its use to be a proud tradition, a historically-grounded expression of national identity.

Admittedly, not all traditions are sacrosanct, but our use of the label American has deep, hallowed roots. We sing “America” at public events and that’s not about to change. When Latino veterans formed an organization shortly after World War II, they proudly called it the American G.I. Forum. My forthcoming four-volume encyclopedia of ethnicity in the United States will be entitled Multicultural America.

Our country certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on the term American — after all, our schools teach Latin American history. I taught Latin American history. Nevertheless, I’m going to continue using American to depict the people and things of the United States. One reason for this is that I’ve never encountered a good alternative.

Occasionally I’ve heard suggestions of other terms, such as U.S. American and even United Statesian. However, I find these labels to be clunky, distracting and overly self-conscious, and I’d rather not use them.

On the other hand, one day some expression might replace American as the standard. After all, language does change. African-American was not widely used half a century ago. Maybe in the distant future American will become a linguistic relic, like Thee and Thou. But don’t hold your breath.

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Riverside. He can be reached at ca***********@uc*.edu

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