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When Is America at Its Best?
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In the immediate wake of November’s election, The Atlantic spoke to people out and about in Manhattan to learn how they define America. What are the country’s strengths? When is America at its best? Tourists, natives, and immigrants, from the High Line to Harlem—everyone had a different answer.

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Zuleyma Peralta, 29, Ph.D. candidate
Lives in Sunnyside, Queens; emigrated from Mexico

To me, America really means trying to look for the American dream. When I came here, I came from the mountains of Guerrero. My parents were poor. My dad was struggling; even though he was a teacher, he wanted me to have a better future, so he brought me here. It wasn’t my choice, obviously, but I’m really glad he did, because he opened a world of opportunities here for me. Every day I just wake up and try to make him proud. I’m currently doing a Ph.D. Making sure that their sacrifice, and the sacrifice that they’re still making, is really worth it. And to me that’s what America symbolizes. The fact that you can come here and make something of yourself, even if you come from nothing.

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Robin Glazer, 61, Director at the Creative Center at University Settlement Lives in Jersey City, New Jersey

America’s strengths are in its immigrant communities, and all the amazing things that they’ve brought to the table and influenced. I was in education for 22 years as an art teacher for a public school system here in New York. And I will tell you that every year as my classes became more diverse and rich, the artwork that came out of that was more diverse and rich. The teachers were influenced by it, the administration was influenced by it.

The best American is somebody who is inclusive of all, respectful of all, curious about all, doesn’t shut anything down—which is kind of an oxymoron in the fact that I really cannot talk to Trump supporters now and I do shut them down in my mind. People felt disenfranchised. They needed somebody to blame.

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Darryl Scherba, 68, Architect
Lives in Upper East Side, Manhattan

For the last 300 or so years, we’ve been a pretty unique place in the world. Most immigrants, when they come here, they have a better understanding of what America means than most natives. We have an unbridled spirit. Optimism. A belief in the future. A sharing of disparate pasts. And a coming together, unlike most other countries in the world. And I think we’re unique in the sense that we’re a melting pot of so many nationalities.

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Michael McLean, 50, Construction Worker
Lives in Upper West Side, Manhattan

I think America is at its best under turmoil. Not war, although we do respond very well to war, but when there’s a need—there’s a crisis. We are the most giving country in the world, as far as philanthropy, so when there’s a crisis, we’re at our best.

An American is someone who bleeds and is willing to defend our country. Somebody who realizes the big picture—you’re only a piece, part of the whole. Someone who can put aside their biases, their personal, political opinions, and realize what's better for the greater good.

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John Moody, 35, State Farm Agent
Lives in Charlotte, North Carolina

I think America is unfortunately at its best when there are events that force us to come together—9/11, major storms, catastrophic events—are what really brings us out together. Kind of like the church shooting we had in Charleston, South Carolina. We were living in Columbia, South Carolina, at the time and it really kind of brought everybody together. There wasn’t any kind of violent protest or anything like that. People were just hugging and kissing.

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Carlos Alvarado, 45, Production Manager
Lives in Riverdale, Bronx

Right now I think we live in two different countries. You have the urban, cosmopolitan lifestyle. And then you have a rural life that thinks that we’re all liberal elites or whatever. I think if we all just talked to each other, we could see that we have a lot in common. You know? America is at its best when we’re all together. I’m not sure if it’s a good example, but when 9/11 happened, we all became Americans. It wasn’t white, black, Spanish. We’re all Americans. So I’m not sure if a tragedy would get us together, but maybe. When we’re together is when we’re at our strongest.

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Thomas Cheeseboro, 49, Warehouse Worker
Lives in Harlem, Manhattan

America’s strength is that we are “a free country” and we are a leader in the world, the free world. Freedom of speech, the rights that we have that most countries don’t have—that’s America’s strength. Creativity. Ingenuity. Thoughtfulness. Love for your fellow man. That’s what makes America.

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Anthony Verdille, 35, Retirement Services
Lives in Massachusetts

I think America’s always been at its best. I don’t think it matters how bad we are, how bad we think we are. I think … the people who travel across the world, know how well we are doing, regardless of what situation we’re in. I think we’re diversified, innovative, and leading. We always want to be leading in everything we do. And I think that’s the history of our country. I think that’s kind of what each person delivers.

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Naomi Shaanan, 64, Retired
Lives in Israel

America is a great democracy with a beautiful history. People came out from religious persecution, and that’s what created a nice country. The Constitution is a work of art. And Americans are very proud; they’re very sure of themselves and very sure of their country.  

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Mike Puckett, 26, Comedian
Lives in Brooklyn

I don’t know if we’ve been at our best ever. Well, maybe the past eight years, I guess I’d say, because we had a president most people (that I know) were excited about. I know that means I live in a bubble, to some extent. But also because even though we have a lot of problems we’ve become more aware of them, and at least started a lot of dialogues that I don't think were being had otherwise.

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Kevin Hines, 52, Kite Flyer
Lives in Midtown, Manhattan

I don’t mean to go off on America, but in order for America to really be America, we say “the land of the free, home of the brave.” A lot of people in America don’t feel free. They don’t feel like America is with them and it shouldn’t be like that. We should embrace each other. Our differences are just what they are: differences. But we are all the same, in our own unique ways.

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Ollie Corchado, 26, Actor and Courier
Lives in Washington Heights, Manhattan

During the Olympics this past year, I feel like everybody just loved everybody. We were just like, “yes, we are on top, man.” We got Michael Phelps and Simone Biles just kicking ass, and like doing awesome. Everybody just loved everybody. I think that’s when America’s at its best. When everybody focuses on the positives, and not so much on the negatives. There’s a lot of bad stuff that happens, but if we just focus on the positives I really think that’s when we get things going. You don’t quit, you don’t give up. And even if you lose, the idea is you pick yourself back up. That’s the big American quality that I think is cool.

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Zarmina Amin, 30, Doctor
Lives in Miami, Florida; originally from Pakistan

Everything’s always been great. We’re welcoming, we’re honest, and everybody here is very hardworking. I’m an American and I love this place. I hope that Donald Trump proves to be a good president, which I don’t doubt that he will be, and everything goes for the best for our country.

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Brittany Grey, 28, Social Entrepreneur
Lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn

I definitely think we’re at our best when we’re just working together and really just trying to be more understanding, rather than fighting everybody to have the same beliefs as us. Because we have to have understanding. I don’t feel that the people who voted for Trump are necessarily bad people, but there’s something deep down that we don’t understand about them and they don’t understand about us, so there’s gotta be some type of dialogue for us to come together.

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Lewis Long, 51, Art Gallery Owner
Lives in Harlem, Manhattan

I think America is at its best when it really values the vast differences of its people and when it provides opportunities for those people. We’re at a pivotal time in our country. Demographics are changing. I think structurally, our economy is changing. There is less labor required to do the work that’s been done. And so, there are a lot of people that are fearful.

I think it’s going to be a difficult year. I think there are going to be convulsions from approaches that are nontraditional, from leadership that has been polarizing and hasn’t really made efforts to kind of resolve some raw feelings. I think that it’s a big unknown, but at the end of the day I think that the spirit of the American people, you know, it’s resilient. I think that ultimately our democracy is strong enough to overwhelm any type of behavior. I think in the short term it may feel like a setback. But I think in the long term it will galvanize, mobilize people, and will make us a stronger people, a stronger country.