For eight years, Define American has asked thousands of people how they sum up what makes this country unique, special and free. The overwhelming answer: We are American because we are here. We are in the game. We are building a nation together.
“You can be an American because you’ve made this your home. You’ve put in the same amount of passion and you want to live here,” said Sydrah Al-Saegh in a video for Define American.
Sydrah echoes former presidents like JFK and Reagan in acknowledging that this country is the biggest social experiment in history, where people from every corner of the globe have been coming — by choice, by necessity or by force — for over 500 years, joining indigenous people who were here all along.
“Trump’s recent remarks about ‘go back to their country,’ targeting our congresswomen, are a representation of the xenophobia and racism that exist in this country today and are embedded throughout our history,” said Jesus Ramirez, founder of the Define American chapter at Stanford University. “Trump and many people in this country don’t understand who immigrants like myself truly are. We are your doctors, your lawyers, your cooks. We pick your fruit and are so much more than a piece of paper. We are what makes this country great.”
Define American challenges Americans of all backgrounds to take a deep breath and consider your own answers to the questions raised by the president’s tweets and the widespread response.
Ask a deeper question
When you meet a person who does not look like you, dress like you or sound like you, do you seek out differences or similarities first? Questions like “Where are you from?” put up walls between people. Try building bridges when you first meet someone. Ask more specific questions about the circumstances of your meeting: “How do you like this school? What’s your favorite brand of crackers? How do you take your tea?”
Sam Tuero, founder of Define American Chapter at Rutgers-Camden, said: “My mother, who immigrated to the United States, as a young child was told to ‘go back to her country’ throughout her childhood due to her heavy accent and dark skin. The president’s remarks evoked a feeling that he does not view my mother or my family as American. It hurts to see the president disregard the experience of my family as Americans because they were born elsewhere.”
Ask what you know and how you know it
Do you know when the first Africans or Asians came to the USA? How about the first Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists? Do you know the history of immigration from Latin America to your state? Do you know that almost 15% of the US landmass was part of Mexico until 1848? Do you know your own family’s immigration story? Do you know about Puerto Rico? There are basic historical facts that all Americans can learn.
“The congresswomen’s and my family’s experiences with the degrading comment ‘go back to your country’ are heartbreaking. As a Puerto Rican, from the Latinx community, my family is often mistaken as not being American citizens. By saying ‘go back to your country,’ the president believes our families and our cultures are not worthy enough of the freedoms and privileges of being American,” said Melani Cruz Stokes, communications chair for the Define American Chapter at Rutgers-Camden. “This is our country just as much as it is his country!”
What can you do for your country? This is an old cliche at this point, but it’s an essential question. What are your ideas for carrying the idea of America past this sad and divisive moment toward a new cultural understanding of the thing, the glue, the tea, that holds us together, united, federated? What are you going to do today to show the promise of a nation? Tell us on social media and tag @DefineAmerican and #IAmAnAmerican. And check out our toolkit for more ideas.
“In a democracy, the president and speaker of the House do not get to define what it means to be an American,” said Define American Executive Director Rev. Ryan M. Eller. “We all define this nation, together. From the Kentucky coal mines, where my family has toiled for generations, to the California sun, where our nation’s most diverse state flourishes, American culture has never been stronger.”
More from the Define American Storytelling Platform
- “Get out there and learn from an immigrant and maybe you’ll find your own story.” — Lorenzo Santillan
- “So having to give up certain culture, or having to give up my language, because I go toSafeway and not Mi Rancho, a Latin supermarket. I don’t think I should have to change my language just because I’m in a white space. If I want to speak Spanish I should be able to speak Spanish wherever I want.” — Maria Sosa
- “I’m still defining American myself and I realize that the definition of what an American is is not exclusive to one person. It is a combination of people’s stories, of people’s opinions, of people’s experiences in the United States.” — Jay Todd Richey
- “I think it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you have, you can create the American dream if you have courage, if you have perseverance and if you have faith.” — Laura Berrocal