Growing up, Juana Ortega only knew a life of poverty. Born in a poor farming village in central Mexico, her father grew corn on a small plot of land, and her mother took odd jobs to make ends meet. Unable to compete with subsidized corn imports from the United States, her father’s debt steadily grew.
Eventually, he and Juana’s older brothers were forced to go north in search of work. “My father was so desperate, he had no other choice,” she explains. As Juana grew older, her village slowly became depopulated of young men, as they were attracted to el Norte (referring to America in Spanish) like moths to a flame.
At the age of 16, Juana dropped out of school and decided to go to the US like many of the others. It was a life altering decision made in the hopes for a better life. Looking back, she recalls the inner struggle that came with making such a difficult decision. “It was hard saying goodbye to my family and friends,” she says. “I was leaving my whole life behind.”
Juana moved to a Mexican border, where she took up a job at a factory for two years. After saving about $2,000, she hired a coyote (guide) to lead her across the border. She packed light.
“We were told not to carry a lot, so I brought only a few things with me. I had a picture of my family and a letter from my brother with his address on it.” While crossing a rocky hill, Juana twisted her ankle, and couldn’t continue on.
Her guide abandoned her on the spot. Recounting her frightening ordeal, she recalls the helplessness and fear of being left alone in a strange and unfamiliar place. “It was so hot—I thought I was going to die.”
As nightfall approached, she began to believe that her chances of survival were becoming more and more improbable, and even wondered, “What if this is my last night? Will they find my body? Who will tell my family?”
Thirsty, hungry, and tired, she remembered staring at the picture of her family when she heard someone in the distance. Luckily for Juana, a man with whom she was traveling returned for her and carried her safely to the United States.
Though her story is a moving one, Juana’s gripping account is unfortunately not unique among immigrants coming into the US illegally.
Why did Juana have to risk her life in order to come to this country? Why is she considered “illegal” and deprived of rights that ordinary Americans enjoy? Some would argue that her act of coming into the country was illegal, hence her status is as such. But if she is illegal, why is she rewarded with work upon her arrival?
Others would argue that people like Juana “steal” the jobs of Americans, and that they “refuse” to assimilate into American society. The more paranoid would even argue that undocumented immigrants threaten the demographic (and by this they mean “white”) nature of the country, and threaten to turn it into a third world country within a few generations.
If these assertions are to have any merit, then what it means to be an American must be properly defined. If we assume that the term American denotes a national identity, we must define what a nation is.
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, a nation is “composed of a body of people who share a common history, culture, ethnic origin, or language, and who typically inhabit a particular country or territory.”
The first part of this definition states that a nation is composed of people who share a common history. Do Americans share a common history? If each American, except Native Americans, were to trace their lineage far enough, they would find that their family history leads them to another nation.
If they were to trace even further, they would find that all humans came from the same nation or tribe at one point in time. Nationalists may argue that nations share a recent history through common experiences.
However, this statement is misleading because although nations may collectively experience the same event, such as a war or natural disaster, that experience may not have been the same for or interpreted in the same way by every member.
The second part of the definition of a nation is “a shared culture.” Anthropologically, there is no accepted definition for culture. Culture is an abstract concept that feels real, but in reality does not exist. It defines gender roles, family structures, power relations, and the way people think.
Cultures are dynamic and change to meet the needs of the people within them. Within each culture exists sub-cultures, and within each sub-culture there are even more sub-cultures. It is impossible to measure if one culture is better or worse than another, because culture is subjective, and most people believe their own is the best.
The abstract nature and inconsistency of culture makes it a poor tool by which to describe a national identity. The very fact that a clear definition of culture doesn’t exist and that it is essentially an imaginary concept makes it an illogical descriptor to use at all. Nationalists may argue that a nation shares common values and norms by which its members abide.
But if this was the case, all members of a nation would share the same moral values, which is evidently not the case in the United States, or any nation for that matter. Ultimately, every national culture is simply a subculture of a collective human culture.
The third part of the definition of a nation is a “shared ethnic origin.” Ethnic origin is the weakest measure by which to define a nation. The United States is composed of multiple ethnic groups, and if each ethnic group constituted its own national identity, there would countless nations within America.
Like history, if anyone were to trace their lineage far enough they would find that we were all once from the same ethnic group. Similar to the idea of a shared culture, a shared ethnic origin is a false means by which we define our national identity.
People often attribute certain qualities to ethnic groups, but this would be stereotyping, which is the basis of racism. Hence there is no justification to use ethnic origin as a definition for national identity. Language–unlike history, culture, and ethnic origin–is real and is truly shared among people, but it too can be used to divide and marginalize people.
The Pakistani government, for example, tried to force Urdu on the Bengali-speaking people of what was then East Pakistan. The result of this misguided policy was a campaign for linguistic rights which morphed into a national independence movement. This gave birth to modern state of Bangladesh.
English-only movements that have sprung up in many states in the US are more examples of the misuse associated with the idea of a national language. These movements use the false pretense of “protecting English” as a means of marginalizing non-English speakers, particularly those who speak Spanish.
Although many people assert that linguistic differences are insurmountable barriers that contribute to rifts in national identities, this barrier can be overcome. India serves as a true testament to this idea, as it has 36 official languages. Furthermore, the average Indian speaks multiple Indian languages, in addition to English.
Nationalists argue that nations are defined by the languages they speak. If this were the case, then one could also argue that all people who speak English, or Spanish, or any other language for that matter each constitute national identities respectively.
Finally, if we are to accept that national identities are associated with a territory or country, then we must accept the concept of a border. If an American were to move abroad would they cease being an American once they left the country?
Did Juana cease being a Mexican, and begin life as an American as soon as she stepped foot across the border? Borders define the extent of a particular government’s control, not the extent of a national identity. Multiple national identities can exist within the same national borders, and a national identity can be divided by multiple state borders.
Borders, like culture and ethnic origin, persist in our minds, but in reality do not exist. Borders are the physical manifestation of the illusory nation state.
Returning to the question at hand, what does it mean to be an American? In other words, how do we define the word American? If we use the concepts laid out by nationalism as our criteria, we must accept the problems associated with them.
Nationalists claims that members of a nation share history, culture, ethnic origin, language, and sometimes a geographic homeland, but the basis of these claims are weak and dubious at best. One fact that is not disputed by anyone is that all humans, regardless of nationality, share a common ancestry and origin.
Once we accept this fundamental truth, we can move past nationalism, racism, sexism, and all the other mental constructs that divide us. Addressing the original question from this context becomes much easier. It doesn’t mean anything to be an American, because there is no definition for the word American, or any other nationality for that matter.
If we can accept this, then lets end the needless death and suffering at our borders, and let everyone be an American, or any nationality for that matter, if they want to. What’s more, let’s stop viewing people like Juana, as the “others” and start viewing them as our own.
FARZAD ALIKOZAI is a fourth year International Studies major at the University of California, Irvine.
Photo courtesy of Google Images