“The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources — because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.” — Lyndon B. Johnson
In a small town just west of the upper Mississippi River, nestled between endless fields of corn and soybean, we spot a store sign that startles me.
God and Guns, it says in tall black letters. I find this pairing incongruent. I don’t understand what one has to do with the other.
But this isn’t the only encounter that has opened my eyes and challenged my thinking. Several months after coming across that sign, the newest member of my extended family reminded me that people in America connect in different ways. In parts of Georgia and Tennessee, where she’s from, the typical introductory question is not what you do for a living but what church your family belongs to.
Clear across the country, in a chichi bistro that’s all about organic food, I overhear a conversation about the necessity for affordable housing and a tax on the uber-wealthy. In this town of algorithms and young millionaires, a teardown house on a postage-stamp-sized lot can go for a cool $2 million. But you can bet all your company stock options that hunting isn’t a popular pastime here.
My travels this year have reminded me that this country is quilted by a diversity of ideas and a variety of beliefs. Clocking miles and crossing states also has prompted me to wonder what it is that makes us American. Is it language? Ancestry? A set of values? Belief in a certain destiny?
I’ve been asking myself these questions as I visit family in the Midwest, the Bible Belt and Silicon Valley. And I ask again the week of Independence Day, at a time when our differences feel particularly profound. For me, this isn’t a philosophical exercise but a desire to understand the places in which my grandchildren will likely live.
How each of us answers surely is as varied as our country’s geography, but I like to think that, despite a medley of opinion, basic beliefs transcend race, religion, ethnicity and politics.
What makes me American is my belief that hard work pays off. That opportunity (and luck) might come knocking if I prepare well. That I can earn my way to better circumstances. And yes, I know this sounds Pollyanna-ish. I’m well aware that recent research claims that upward mobility has become more a myth than a truism and that people whose parents held high-status and high-paying jobs are significantly more likely to hold the same. Still, I know of many ambitious men and women who have lived the rags-to-riches fairytale — enough to keep that tenet of faith as my shiny beacon.
What makes me American is the belief that education is the ticket to a better life. Of course, truth is more complicated. College tuition has skyrocketed and student loans burden my children’s generation, making higher education unreachable for large swaths of the population. Yet, we have hundreds of affordable community college programs and I, a proud graduate of Miami Dade College, tout them at every turn.
What makes me American is the belief that we are a country forged by immigration and made great by generations of people who came here from elsewhere. While this doesn’t preclude border control or immigration laws, it does mean that we must hold true to George Washington’s words to “become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.” Regardless of creed or color.
What makes me American is the belief in our many freedoms, in my unwavering faith in possibility and opportunity. Today and always, to be American is to be optimistic that, no matter how soul-crushing Washington becomes, no matter how we fight over abortion, immigration, gerrymandering, climate change and language, we will find a way to keep this land as my land, your land, our land.
Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.