What Does 'American' Actually Mean?

In Latin America, "American" means anyone from the American continent. U.S. citizens claiming the word are considered gauche or imperialist. So what's the solution?


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.

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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."

Meanwhile, my father, a first generation Mexican immigrant and U.S. citizen, informed me (I guess I had never noticed) he has always replied "the U.S." when asked where he is from, because for Latin Americans, saying one is "American" is a vague identifier.

Beyond vagueness, "American" also can be interpreted as a loaded term when verbalized by people from the U.S. As one Argentine friend explained, "Someone from the U.S. calling him or herself 'American' is equivalent to people from the U.S. traveling anywhere in the world and expecting everyone to speak English." In other words, many link the practice to that negative U.S. tourist stereotype: rude, culturally unaware and self-centered.

For some ears it even evokes memories of U.S. imperialistic tendencies. "For Latinos/as here and abroad, calling this country "America" is offensive," wrote political activist Elizabeth 'Betita' Martínez in 2003. Martínez was writing at a time when anti-U.S. rhetoric from Latin America was particularly common. The movement was toward Leftist, Populist leaders, of whom the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was the poster child, always free-flowing with criticism of the U.S. and comparisons between President Bush and the devil. "We should all ask ourselves," Martínez wrote, "do we really want to approve that racist, imperialist worldview by using the empire's name for itself?"

Politics and political correctness aside, is there a factually correct or incorrect way to employ "America" and "American"? "I'm not sure if it's incorrect or correct," said Cynthia Arnson, Latin American Program director at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "I think it's an aesthetic issue. If you're in place where it is likely to be taken badly, it's better to refer to oneself as from the United States."

There's also the question of what "American" means to those in other countries or of other tongues. "In France, it's 'Americans' that's largely used (to refer to people from the USA)," Martine Rousseau and Olivier Houdart, editors of French newspaper Le Monde's language blog, wrote in an email. Rousseau and Houdart themselves, however, consider the term imprecise, which inspired them to write a post entitled Should U.S. Americans Instead Call Themselves 'United Statesians? ' They pointed out in the piece "'American' is a multi-layered word, of which the meaning varies depending on context, and which can illustrate a form of set theory: all Americans (of the U.S.) are American, and yet all Americans [i.e. of the continent] are not American (of the U.S.)!"

When it comes to potential substitutes to clarify the situation, the two noted that "People from Quebec and other francophone Canadians have used the term "Etats-Uniens" going back decades, "since well before the birth of the anti-globalist movement.'" (Meanwhile, anglophone Canadians, at least in my experience, seem to stay largely removed from the debate: Canadian friends have all said they "definitely" do not consider themselves "Americans" and reserve that term for people from the U.S.)

In Latin American Spanish, estadounidense is the widely used term to refer to someone from the U.S. Francophone Canadians and Latin American Spanish-speakers, therefore, both go for their language's equivalent of "United Statesian," a term that surely has been uttered as a self-identifier by "United Statesians" themselves very few times, if at all. Even this more specific adjective could incite further debate: Mexico also contains "United States" in its official title, as did Brazil until 1930.* Brazil, fascinatingly enough, is the exception to the broader Latin American rule, though the country has always remained largely independent of the Spanish-influenced narrative the majority of Latin America shares. Brazilians, like Canadians, actually do use "American"--in Portuguese, "americano/a"--to refer to those from the U.S.

Yanqui, the Spanglish take on "yankee" is also a commonly used label in Latin America -- in fact, Martí uses it in his essay -- and some Latin Americans present it as an alternative. Many from the U.S., however, would deem "yankee" an inadequate substitute, as it refers almost exclusively to the Northeast region--and is dated by the Civil War. Perhaps not for Latin Americans, but "yankee" also has a "pejorative taint," which Rousseau and Houdart acknowledged in their post. As Bouzalgou elaborated, "words have to be considered within their context."

This all presents the possibility that the "America" debate might not be about political correctness, but rather translation. "Every language carries something other than just words," said Alejandra Uslenghi, who was born and raised in Argentina, moved to the U.S. for graduate studies and now is an assistant professor in the Spanish department at Northwestern University. "There is an experience of a culture and a certain worldview and that is not as easily translatable as you would think. Even in the age of Google Translate we find these culturally interesting problems."

The art and issues of translation have intrigued thinkers like the great Argentinian writer and translator Jorge Luis Borges and it emerges as a theme throughout his body of work. "The original is unfaithful to the translation," is one of Borges' famous quotes (one layer of irony being that itself is a translated quote). In other words, what the word "América" or "americano" means in Spanish may render it a different word entirely from its apparent English equivalent. While they seem to be linguistic parallels, it could be that "americano" is not a direct or even appropriate translation of "American," and vice versa. "Can an identity of a nationality be translated?" Uslenghi asked. "Sometimes yes, sometimes no."

*This section has been corrected. Brazil does not currently contain "United States" in its official title.