Why I don’t feel American, even though I am

Sunday, December 2, 2018 - 6:09pm

Here’s the thing about identities and labels: in some instances, they’re placed upon your shoulders even if you have a hard time relating to them. It’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just how society works nowadays. When you remotely resemble or align with a certain group, that label and identity is painted bright red on your forehead because the idea of a “middle ground” (of being a hybrid of sorts, a melting pot of different identities that combine to form another different and unique one) is still not entirely accepted as an actual identity.

Let me explain a little more. The other day, I was studying in the aptly labeled “Sky Lounge” of my apartment building. I have a pair of noise-canceling headphones I like to wear while I work, so I can focus better and drown out unwanted distractions. Unfortunately, after wearing them for a while they start hurting my ears, so I take them off from time to time. During one of these breaks, I accidentally overheard a conversation between two girls a few feet away from me. One of the girls was talking about how, even though her entire family is from the Philippines, she doesn’t feel comfortable identifying as such. She’s lived her entire life in the United States, only speaks English, never visited the Philippines and her parents never taught her about the culture. In essence, she just feels American, but everyone calls her Filipino because of her roots and because of her looks. Is that right? Is that wrong? Should she accept she’s both or that she’s only one?

It’s a very complicated topic that hasn’t been discussed as much as it should. I don’t think I know what the correct answer is, but I do understand where she’s coming from, in a way, because I feel the same.

At first glance, I look American. I’ve got white, slightly tanned skin, and I speak English perfectly. Back home people confuse me for a “gringa” (Spanish slang for mainland American) all the time.  

And I hate it, completely despise it. It irritates me to no end having to say, “No, no, I’m Puerto Rican, not American, which is kind of absurd because in reality I’m both. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States; I have an American passport; I am American, right? But I’m an American who was born in Puerto Rico.  

So why the discomfort? Why shouldn’t I just accept it?

Because, unlike the girl I mentioned above, I grew up and still live in Puerto Rico. My first language is Spanish; my music is reguetón, salsa y merengue; my sport is soccer, not football; my national anthem is “La Borinqueña”; and my flag has one single, bright, shining star in it. Because I grew up in a place that many mainland Americans are unaware of — that many don’t even realize is actually national, and not classified as international. Because I’ve been asked if I need sponsorship for a work visa, if I have a student visa; because, even though it has a spot in Congress, Puerto Rico doesn’t have a voice or a vote. Because I saw how the United States treated Puerto Rico after hurricanes Maria and Irma; because I witnessed how the media failed to account for the actual death toll of the hurricanes until a year after the disaster; how they completely stopped reporting on the state of the island a little less than a week after the storms had struck; how the president of the United States (and of Puerto Rico — it’s a colony of the United States, therefore under the same governing body) threw paper towels in an absurd attempt to aid the islanders after the disasters.

Why should I feel American if all that I have witnessed recently and for my entire life is how terribly the United States has treated Puerto Rico?

Are my feelings right? Are they unjustifiable? Are they wrong?

I’m not going to pretend that I know what the correct answer is because I honestly don’t. I just hope that you finish reading this and are willing to speak up more on the idea surrounding the identities people are born into and the ones they align with, because in some cases, they’re different. Given all the conversations and discussions that have surfaced in the past two years or so around the topic of immigrants and immigration, it should be taken into consideration.