I was sitting with an Argentine friend, well educated and well traveled, who was reading The Atlantic online. A headline used the term "America" as a synonym for the United States of America. "That's incorrect," he said, sounding shocked that an esteemed publication would make such a junior mistake. "America is a region, not a country."
Though I didn't share his reaction, as a U.S. citizen living in Argentina I had quickly learned that it was in best taste to avoid referring to myself as an "American" or the U.S. as "America." Such terminology almost always provoked my Argentinian acquaintances. "We're all Americans," some would say gently, with a smile. In extreme cases I would receive a tirade denouncing U.S. arrogance. Largely, in Latin America and for Latin Americans, the term "America" means Latin America, and "American," Latin American.
I was unaware of how nuanced "America" and "American" were before moving to Argentina in September 2010. I did have a moment of realization in college, though, that people outside the 50 United States also laid claim to the terms. It came when reading Cuban politician José Martí's seminal 1891 essay "Nuestra América" in a Spanish literature class. Martí urges the people of "América" to join together, strengthen the region and be proud of who they are and what is theirs--an echo of Simón Bolívar's tenets when crusading to unite the entire region in the early 1800s. Martí is undoubtedly speaking to and about Latin America and its people, and I had launched into the text assuming he was about to expound on his perception of the United States of America.
When researching this piece, I reached out to my professor at the time Nathalie Bouzaglo, an assistant professor in the Spanish department and native of Venezuela, to recount this anecdote. "The opposite happened to me," she replied. "When I arrived to the U.S. and people talked about 'America,' I thought they were referring to the continent. I was surprised that America, in fact, referred to the U.S.A."