“If you are born in America, and do not speak Spanish, you are not Latin American,” proclaimed my professor. She had no contempt in her voice, neither malice nor ill will. But rather, she spoke with an unwavering certainty that declared that what she said was not opinion, but a simple, undeniable truth. However, I could not help but think that the millions of Latinos living in the United States would disagree.

This was not the first time I had encountered the question of American identity; almost daily, either in class or in my free time, curious Ticos* asked questions like, “What is it like to be American?” or “What are some typical American customs?” However, the difficult task of answering these questions lies in their simplicity – their ability to reduce America down to one, single, uniform country with a prevailing identity. This type of deduction is logical in Costa Rica. After all, the country itself is roughly the size of West Virginia with a population of only 5 million people**, allowing for a more homogenous culture. Most Ticos trace their lineage back to Spanish, African, Caribbean, and Indigenous roots – with a few other small immigrant populations in between. Identity, in fact, is not even a question in Costa Rica because every person that was born in Costa Rica and speaks Spanish is considered Costa Rican (a Tico) and Latin American. While the latter identity causes wider controversy across Central and South America, the former does not.

Quite oppositely, the trademark of the American identity seems to be that we do not posses one. That is to say, we have no central identity, no uniform characteristic or trait that makes us “American”. For many of us, our identities lie on the fragility of a hyphen or space that bridges together two or more cultures; African-American, Latino, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, etc. The irony of it all is that for many of those same people, we belong to neither of those identities. The very duality of each identity is an example of Double Consciousness*** – we neither belong to America or to our cultural places of origin either. In the case of U.S. Latinos, many Americans look at them not as Americans, but as Latin Americans – an “other”. Similarly, in Latin America, you are considered American (from the U.S.) – with no roots in Latin America at all. Even as much as I like to find some commonality with my distant ancestors in Africa, the truth remains that many Africans, to the dismay of many Americans I am sure, would consider me to be more culturally close to a white American than to any ethnic group or country in Africa. We float so delicately through each space, navigating on the thin line between who society tells us to be, what culture we “should belong to”, and where we actually want to belong. When do cultural traditions and physical characteristics precede national origin and visa versa?

Resha Swanson b-american

This is not to say that America is better off when reduced to a single identity. Despite its ambiguity, the cultural soup and mixing of identities, cultures, and customs is what in fact, makes us American (or at least, it is supposed to be). And while Costa Rican culture and traditions are definitely more homogenous than the United States, this does not mean that they are free of internal conflicts, or, more poignantly, they too go through small identity crises. I think the question worth asking perhaps, is not “What is it like to be an American?” or “Who is an American?” but maybe “Does the concept of ‘American’ even exist?”

Author Notes

* Tico/a – Costa Rican


***Double Consciousness is a term coined by W.E.B DuBois in his publication, “The Souls of Black Folks”

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