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.
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.