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“America” – a continent or a country?

“America” – a continent or a country?

How [and why] “America” became synonymous with the US

What comes to mind when you hear the term “America”? Is it the country – the US – or the continent? Presumably, you thought of the former. How odd that the name of an entire continent made up of 35 countries is widely associated with only one of those countries. Have you ever stopped to think why this is the case? In this piece, we explore how a continent became a country, why “America” is now synonymous with the US, and the ramifications of this peculiar phenomenon for the rest of the continent.

WORDS & MEANING

When I was a freshman in university I took a fantastic course on business writing. I loved it for the obvious element of writing, but also because the professor teaching it was brilliant, Mr. K. He was incredibly engaging, smart, and witty. In one of his classes, Mr. K told an innocent anecdote that left me feeling slightly puzzled. During the summers, he taught a business writing workshop to professionals of international backgrounds. In this specific workshop there happened to be a few students from South America and somehow the topic of who gets to claim ownership to the word “America” came up. One of his students told Mr. K that she was baffled that US citizens went around calling themselves “American” without any regard for the rest of the continent. She asserted she was Colombian because this was her country of origin, but also as American as any US citizen due to her continental affiliation. The sense of entitlement to the word by US inhabitants was borderline offensive to her.

When Mr. K spoke of the incident, he scoffed at the situation. Based on his tone and body language, it was obvious he found this student’s statement ludicrous, as if she was threatening his identity by affirming that every person living in the Americas was American, regardless of which country they came from. He concluded this story by more or less dismissing her logic. I was left a bit perplexed because I had never really taken the time to ponder about these particular geographical terms, but it seemed to me her reasoning was sound. Yet, Mr. K was completely at odds with her argument.

This incident provided a glimpse into the power of words. The importance of language is undeniable but it’s not words on their own that matter, it’s the meaning we attribute to them. In this case, Mr. K opposed his student’s affirmation of her Americanness. He clearly had a personal attachment to the term “America” and held strong opinions about who could and could not claim inclusivity to the word.

Somewhere, somehow, with the passage of time, “America” became exclusively associated with the US, but it seems the inhabitants of the continent either didn’t get the memo or disagreed and have chosen to disregard it.

A [NEW] LOGO FOR AMERICA

I love music and one of my favorite musicians is Nicolas Jaar. I harbor a delusional hope that one day we will meet and he’ll realize how perfect we are for each other. Two creative souls, sharing Latino backgrounds, with a passion for art and expression… You get the unrealistic idea. One can daydream, right? I digress. For his latest album, Sirens, the cover art was a photo of Times Square with a billboard showing a map of the US accompanied by the phrase “THIS IS NOT AMERICA.” I was very intrigued because Jaar does everything with deliberation. My nerdy inclinations kicked in and I dived into a research and Googling spiral to gain context. I learned that the image was taken in the 80s and it depicted a project undertaken by his father, the Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar. The installation, titled “A Logo for America”, consisted of a 45-second animation showing three digital renderings combining images with text. “A Logo for America” was a critique of mainstream ideas about Americanness – about the definition of the term and to convey that by exclusively associating “America” with the US, superiority over other American countries and cultures is heavily implied.

When we say “America” and mean the US, we’re claiming incorrect geography. It would be like the Germans calling themselves “Europe” or the Japanese claiming exclusivity to “Asia.” It’s nonsensical, yet the association between “America” and the US is ubiquitous. Interestingly enough, this matter is rarely considered. For most people living in the United States “America” implies one country, one flag and one nationality, as it did for Mr. K. As Alfredo Jaar put it, “… It is so embedded in their education [US inhabitants] that the U.S. is America, whereas the rest of the continent is erased.” The fact that the entire hemisphere is, in fact, “America” largely goes unacknowledged by the US population.

When “A Logo for America” premiered in 1987, it was met with outcry from New Yorkers who complained the billboards reflected and promoted an anti-American sentiment. But Jaar’s point was about the US disregard for Latin America by claiming ownership to the term. People living in Mexico, Central and South America don’t appreciate being excluded from their own continental affiliation. Jaar’s message gave voice to the argument made by Latin Americans that they, too, have the right to call themselves “American”.

Jaar’s intention was to redefine, to clarify what “America” actually is. America is not the US. America is not the US flag. America is, in fact, an entire continent. The final image showing continental America should be the new logo for "America", one to accurately reflect geography.

AWARENESS IS ESSENTIAL

Recently, while reading Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, it all came together for me. The book analyzes the history of Latin America, since the colonization period to contemporary times, exploring the effects of economic exploitation and political dominance by Europe and the United States.

In a passage, the author remarks that the US wasn’t satisfied with imperialism over Latin America, but that to boot, the country appropriated the continent’s name too. This left me thinking about Mr. K’s story with the South American student. Perhaps I had felt puzzled at his anecdote all those years ago because his student’s argument resonated on a deep, unexplored inner layer of myself. At the time, however, I was molding and coming to terms with my Mexican-American identity to worry about identity on a grander, continental level. Turns out that Mr. K and his student were both correct, in that they were speaking from their own personal perspectives. But, I completely agree with the Colombian student, anyone living in any part of the American continent has a right to call him or herself “American.”

Now, I understand the unlikelihood of people suddenly starting to correct this geographical error in their speech. I’ll admit I’ve referred to my adopted country as “America” on multiple occasions while living in South Korea, but I try to be more mindful these days with my use of language. However, I won’t be holding my breath for the disassociation between the US and “America” because the linking is so ingrained and often reinforced by the media, brands (American Airlines, Bank of America, etc.) and those surrounding us. As for US inhabitants, most are unaware or uninterested in the implications of claiming the term, that they are disregarding 30+ countries by claiming exclusivity to Americanness. This is why it’s crucial to understand the power and significance of the word. We must realize that every time we refer to the US as “America”, we are slowly contributing to the erasure of a continent and its people.


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