The Right to Identify as ‘American’

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The Right to Identify as ‘American’

It’s amazing how some things, even the ones we think are minor; get to us when they touch a fine fiber within us. Like many minorities and people who belong to any multicultural group, the first time I hear something I tend to ask myself if I’m being over-sensitive.

Personally, I try to tread lightly when it comes to feeling bothered by a comment or an idea another person has. In this case, I decided to write this post because the comment came from a well-known journalist, a lady who I personally admire and respect and who, I believe, did not have any hidden agenda or motive in her words.

However, that’s precisely why the comment got to me and has stayed in my head for many months now. Ms. Barbara Walters and the other ladies at The View were talking —I don’t remember the subject exactly, but I think it was about fashion— and the name Oscar de la Renta came up.

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What I do remember vividly is that Sherri Shepherd said, “Oscar de la Renta is Dominican,” and Ms. Walters replied: “No, he is considered an American designer.” It was a shock at first; I continued to watch the show and kind of forgot about it, or so I thought.  This happened around the beginning of the year and that comment kept coming back to me again and again for different reasons, and I kept just ignoring it every time.

A few days ago, a member of my twitter posted a quote from Oscar de la Renta: “My great strength is knowing who I am and where I come from – my island.”  Then it dawned on me. I think that after all these years living in the United States, he is most likely a U.S. Citizen, as I am; and has a lot to thank this country for, as I do.

Nevertheless, this is the country where American born Latinos are not viewed and considered as Americans, they are considered Mexican-Americans, Dominican-Americans, Colombian-Americans and so on.  So, how is it that a foreign-born designer is considered American? Well, the answer is obvious.  He is a world-known successful designer and of course this success is coming from his Americanism…right?

So, is it fair to say that all Dominican immigrants who come here at an early age and grow up to be delinquents are just as American? Are they also a product of this society all along?  Well, if you ask mainstream media the answer is ‘no’. It’s just so easy to embrace success that all the self-proclaimed “real Americans” can overlook a rhetorical Americanism when we are in front of an outstanding achiever.

So, here is how it apparently works. It doesn’t really matter if you were born here or not. If you became a U.S. citizen, and you are just a regular person who works, abide by the laws or, on the other hand, have committed a crime but are not a celebrity, you my friend are considered a Latino, always will be. If you are part of the group of successful, high-achieving Latinos, then you can call yourself ‘American’ and appear on the mainstream media as one.

This is a subject that got my attention a long time ago, even before I lived in this country, when I started coming here as an exchange student for the summer.  Then, it was not about Latinos, it puzzled me why black athletes will compete in the Olympics as Americans (as team USA) but then here, on their own soil, they were African-Americans?  Shouldn’t it be an African-American team then?

After living here for over seven years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the labels were created to separate minorities. It has been a successful system, since the struggle of the American-born minority, to find their identity and claim their rightful place, is constant. For others, it has become such a big part of their identity [the label, that is] that hearing they are Americans is like saying they are Caucasian.

I still have mixed feelings about raising my children here because of that.  As an immigrant, like de la Renta, I’ve always felt that my strength relies in knowing where I come from, so for me to be considered “just a Latina” is an honor and a normal thing.  However, kids that are born here have the right to feel like they belong here; this is where they were born. So what happens when all people can see is the color of their skin, their name or last name?

Should our children fight to be successful celebrities to have their Americanism awarded to them? Is it okay to label all minorities just for the sake of “preserving” their heritage? Or is it the “heritage thing” just a masquerade to make them less worthy or somehow inferior?

In this case, Ms. Walters was just making a normal comment based on the reality of this country. If you are successful, famous, wealthy or all of that, you definitely belong here. If not, you are just a minority, an immigrant and some sort of a second-class citizen.



  1. Melissa says

    I have many friends of different backgrounds and races that were born here and I do not consider them to be anything but American also if you get citizenship you are American unless you want to show you have Dual-citizenship then use the Mexican-American or what not.Heck you could come up to me speaking a language I don’t understand and I Still would not think you were not American(unless you told me otherwise) because there are so many languages in the country how could you weren’t born here from what comes out of your mouth? I know most people do not see it this way but I do.

  2. Ezzy Guerrero-Languz says

    Somehow I'm not surprised at Walters' statement. But, wow. A nice glimpse into her mind-set. I answer to Mexican, Mexican-American, Latina, American. I'm proud to be a combination of all these and take no offense to being called one over the other. I am who I am. I'm complex. I really believe some people stumble over their choice of words at times for fear of offending someone. Then, there are people like Walters, educated journalists, who should think before they speak. Thought-provoking post, Dania.

  3. says

    Dania, this is such a well-written article!  It's a topic that I think is often misunderstood, but you hit the nail right on the head!  This is an issue that has deep roots in America and the label "American" is often given or rewarded to certain individuals, specifically by the media.  The media is often used to create a wedge between groups of people, in much the way that they turn individuals away from a political candidate, they also make Latinos, African Americans, immigrants, etc. seem like outsiders in America…unless, like you said, they are (extremely) high achievers and celebrities.

  4. Dania (a.k.a. MamiCo says

    I understand what you say Ezzy by embracing all of the things that make your identity. However, I think that even if you embrace your heritage that should be a personal thing. I mean, being Mexican-American should not make you "less of an American" and that's the way it seems. Even the people that were here originally are not considered American, they are Native-Americans. So, to me, the labels are meant to separate us rather than to acknowledge our heritage.

  5. Dania (a.k.a. MamiCo says

    Thanks for you comment Melissa. Unfortunately most people don't see it that way. Specially in the media, things are handle differently. Minorities are an statistic and something apart from "mainstream America", another term widely used. I think this is one of the reasons why many American-born people try to separate themselves from their parents origin; most likely the label is attached to something negative. So, it becomes a struggle; specially for younger generations.

  6. Francia Henriquez says

    My baby boy is 7 weeks old, I like the idea of identifying him as Honduran-American  because I, his mother am a Hondurans. but he is also American because his dad is American. I would feel very offended if people identified him only as American whether or not he is a successful person.