America(n)s as a “Western Design”

When my professor asked in class who was American or Australian, my arm shook a bit. I wanted to raise it, but I knew I was not meant. I come from Ecuador; and even though it is located in America, it seems necessary to specify Latin or South America. Seconds after, I reflected whether what I did (actually nothing) was the right decision, since the next sentence of the professor began with: “well, both English speaking countries…”. We are all used to this: America as a country, not as a continent. Once again, feeling impotent, I had to accept that there is a right that has been taken away from us. The right to call ourselves, ‚Americans‘, as we were once named. This article is thus about why the use of the term ‚American‘ matters and why re-thinking it is not an option, but rather a duty if not a demand.

It is said that the responsible for naming the continent America, after Americo Vespucius, was the cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. In that way, his intention was to honor the first man (namely Americo) who noticed that their ships were not in India, but West of Europe. Europe, which at that time and for the next centuries to come, was considered for them the center of the world, of culture and “civilization” (Wallerstein 2006). Thus, thanks to the printing boom phenomena, that reproduced European views and ideas, Europe got to know the “New World” as America. First versions of Latin were translated to French and finally to English in 1648, as shown by Thomas Cage`s book: The English-American: A New Survey of the West Indies. This new foreign perspective responded not only to the European hunger for more narrations on the “New World”. It served above all as a tool for the “Western Design” enterprise (as dictated by Cromwell and Blake), by which British imperialism sought to weaken Spanish control over the whole territory, as well as to enable commerce access and facilitate the Puritanist expansion. Therefore, some historians suggest, the term was especially used for the inhabitants of British America so that this could set the foundations for referring to the “thirteen united states of America” in the Declaration of Independence and to its American citizens in the Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

On the other hand, other historians contradict the decision of adopting that name (from then on) USA as derived from a tradition. Raul Linares argues that many discussions took place at that time, when the general awareness of America being a whole continent (since the term Hispanoamérica was also used to refer to former Spanish colonies) was undeniable. Therefore, the result of the constitution’s fathers deliberation was rather a strategic move which actually reflected their imperialist attempt of expansion. “This little young state dared to appropriate the name of a whole continent”, explains Linares. And what is more, he adds, “even the name ‚United States of North-America‘, agreed by the Congress was not enough for them”. In this sense, it can be demonstrated that reaffirming such nation`s authority on the demonym American was not a confusion nor mistake, but rather a premeditated action going over others´ sovereignty, and what is worse, identity (Linares 2010).

In the same way that massive publication of books contributed to the myth of nationalism, by creating an imagery of a nation and building boundaries between them. Massive printing was a main strategy on the construction of the Orientalist discourse. As a consequence, until now there is a broad conception of the world divided in two parts: the developed, democratic, and civilized West versus the undemocratic, disordered. and barbarian Orient (as suggested by Said). Crucial is that in both cases those terms have always been challenged1, and with time, critical political, historical, anthropological, and other discussions increased. But what happened and remains happening with “America”? Who criticizes the unavoidable pronouncement of the whole continent when only the United States is meant? Who denounces the impossibility to refer to the United States citizens, in so many languages, without drawing a line between ‘real Americans’ and those in the North (Canada) or the South (from Texas to Cabo de Fuego)? Why did other North Americans, Central and South Americans need to develop alternative terms for the United States population, while they are denied to identify themselves as Americans? (And I am not even talking about the real walls to block the human entry they constructed.)

Over centuries we have called people, objects or customs coming from that place that way. Why to stop and change now? In a world where we are attached to the concepts of nations and states not only as the geo-political way of organizing it, but also as a determinant factor of a person`s identity, it is really improbable to deconstruct the myth of nationalism (and its state boundaries). Still, deconstructing Orientalism is easier currently due to the technological and communication channels that accelerate the world’s interconnection and allow us to personally experience other territories and cultures, in order to question stereotypes. Hence, deconstructing Americanism is even easier, since we all know that the US is a country, not a continent. So why not start calling it as such? We would just need to be aware of this fact when we speak. And no, Wikipedia, it is certainly not impossible for other languages to add a “U.S.” before American2. No, it is not “politically (among others) correct” to generalize and assume practices or events that happen in the US do concern all other states. The crucial dispute at stake is that self-proclaiming them as the “core” of America, the US left the periphery naked, without the right of using its proper name.

Insisting in that term, justifying it with tradition, or worse, “because everybody says it”, not only reflects the language of the oppressor, but reproduces it. To appropriate the gentilic “American”, subcategorizes and discriminates other American nationals as `the rest´; the incomplete Americans, the unauthentic second class citizens, who by the way have to live an odyssey to ironically receive an “American” visa. Through transnational corporations, NGOs, military bases, tourism, mass media, the US inhabitants and their government have been in some cases influencing, in others determining the politics3 and way of life of the whole continent. The myth of the American dream and the ‘best state on Earth’ discourse (“American Exceptionalism”) continue to expand the “Western Design” imperialist project. Not only the government’s, but the culture’s arrogance has to be defied, in order to see beyond each other’s comfort borders and realize that outside does not mean the Rest. Since other citizens around or even within the US (having in mind the genocide committed against the US native population) deserve to be seen as equal or even more American because of being the majority. America can indeed be a continent opening its arms to everyone, but while it happens, it is fundamental to open our minds and demand our rights. With “our”, I refer to every human being struggling for a fairer and equal world. Let’s challenge the use of “America” in any sentence, in any conversation, and let the message pass. Hopefully one of the first immediate benefits would be that you would not feel to be the core anymore, but part of a whole.

On a last note, I recall political activist and Cuba’s liberator, Jose Marti, trying to recover “Nuestra América”. But it was not and will not be enough because we deserve to stand in the same level, we deserve being called Americans as sons and daughters with a name we did not choose, but which is ours now and we are willing to reclaim.

Michelle Ruiz

1Consider as well the increasing North-South divide, as the updated (according to further capitalist developments) world dualism that emerged from Orientalizing the Other. See Mignolo’s semantic analysis of “the Global South”.

2 Here is an extract from the Wikipedia “American (word)” entry: “Likewise, German’s use of U.S.-amerikanisch and U.S.-Amerikaner[6] observe said cultural distinction, solely denoting U.S. things and people. Note that these are „politically correct“ terms and that in normal parlance, the adjective „American“ and its direct cognates are almost always used unless the context does not render the nationality of the person clear. For this reason, the style manual of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (one of the leading German-language newspapers) dismisses the term U.S.-amerikanisch as both ′unnecessary′ and ′artificial′ and recommends replacing it with amerikanisch.[10] The respective guidelines of the foreign ministries of Austria, Germany and Switzerland all prescribe Amerikaner and amerikanisch for official usage, making no mention of U.S.-Amerikaner or U.S.-amerikanisch.[11]

3In an economic sense via by the Consensus of Washington which was actually a plan to implement neoliberalism throughout the world or by crushing economies hidden by development enterprises. In a more strictly political domain, but again intrinsically connected to economic gain, refer to the Condor Plan, e.g. here or here or here.

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