“Where are you from?”
“I’m from America,” I answered hesitantly.
“Oh, you mean the U.S.?”
“Because my father comes from Guatemala. That’s also America.”
“Yeah, of course.”
In the moment, I had hesitated merely because I have a difficult time pronouncing the German: die Vereinigte Staaten.
There is an unavoidable problem with the term “America”.
After this conversation, a couple of my German friends insisted that they always correct people.
If someone refers to the “United States of America” as simply “America”, they said, that person is using imperialistic language.
I disagree, mostly.
In fact, perhaps we could use it as a method of fighting imperialism through language.
We should start with a longer view towards history. Undoubtedly, the very term “America” is inherently imperialist.
“America” is derived from the name of an Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci, who at least made two visits to the Caribbean and South America. Initially thought to be parts of the West Indies, it was Amerigo Vespucci who probably was the first European to recognize the territory as part of a completely separate landmass.
On top of this, the term “America” is the feminine form of his Latin name: Americus. Here we see the classically gendered language of the “Age of Discovery”. The underlying sexual metaphor behind imperialism is clear: the continent is available for penetration by the male explorers.
Today, it is next to impossible to get away from this word. So, regrettably, we rely on it rather than on a perhaps more desirable indigenous term. There are literally thousands of available words we could use, but “America” has become the name of the two continents.
Regardless of this, in what way could I possibly justify using “America” in place of the “United States of America”?
I defend using this term out of simplicity and clarity.
First, people from countries use shorthand names for those countries. No one from Australia says, “I am from the Commonwealth of Australia.” No one from Guyana says, “I am from the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.”
You can say it if you’d like, but I’m willing to bet that’s not the case.
Second, when we talk about people from specific places, we utilize demonyms. Someone from Russia is a Russian, someone from Germany is a German. What about someone from the USA?
A United Stateserin! A United States of American!
It seems to me like the demonym here might be misleading, but nevertheless indicative of a clear shorthand. If we call someone an American, then which country should they be from?
So even if we say that a preferable term would be “The United States”, then we still run into a problem.
The official name for Mexico is Estados Unidos Mexicanos – The United Mexican States. So which “United States” are you talking about?
Then we have another problem if you respond, “The United States of America.”
Are you talking about Organización de los Estados Americanos? The Organization of the American States? Because that’s a political, regional organization between all the states of the hemisphere.
Therefore, unfortunately, none of the dominant terminology is totally unproblematic.
There is a way, it seems to me, of decolonizing this word and using it in an anti-imperialistic way.
Although I admit that I did mean the USA when I said “America”, I think there can be an alternative.
For example, if someone from Guatemala were to also simply say, “I am from America,” then this could serve to show a form of unity between the peoples of the Americas.
We can all begin to hollow out the meaning of term until it serves as a shorthand for peoples beyond national borders. “America” can become decolonized when we all use it together, to move past and against arbitrary divisions.
When we use “America”, we ought to use it to signify that we are from the continents (even if our ancestors are not). We can maintain the signifier and permanently broaden the signified. We can find “America” to be unifying. We can establish some level of solidarity against imperialism.
Who owns “America”? I’m tempted to say that we all do.
I may be mistaken, but for now, this seems like the clear path.