Latin American Program in the News: What Does 'American' Actually Mean?

from The Atlantic

Jun 19, 2013



Beyond vagueness, "American" also can be interpreted as a loaded term when verbalized by people from the U.S. As one Argentine friend explained, "Someone from the U.S. calling him or herself 'American' is equivalent to people from the U.S. traveling anywhere in the world and expecting everyone to speak English." In other words, many link the practice to that negative U.S. tourist stereotype: rude, culturally unaware and self-centered.

For some ears it even evokes memories of U.S. imperialistic tendencies. "For Latinos/as here and abroad, calling this country "America" is offensive," wrote political activist Elizabeth 'Betita' Martínez in 2003. Martínez was writing at a time when anti-U.S. rhetoric from Latin America was particularly common. The movement was toward Leftist, Populist leaders, of whom the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was the poster child, always free-flowing with criticism of the U.S. and comparisons between President Bush and the devil. "We should all ask ourselves," Martínez wrote, "do we really want to approve that racist, imperialist worldview by using the empire's name for itself?"

Politics and political correctness aside, is there a factually correct or incorrect way to employ "America" and "American"? "I'm not sure if it's incorrect or correct," said Cynthia Arnson, Latin American Program director at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "I think it's an aesthetic issue. If you're in place where it is likely to be taken badly, it's better to refer to oneself as from the United States."


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