Who are you, America?
I still remember that quiet summer in the 2010s when my dad came home with a new trilogy. ‘Recently translated to Portuguese,’ he said, ‘from a guy named John dos Passos — it is called the USA trilogy’. The book was all-out writing experimentation that mixed prose, poetry, newspaper, and rants, which in itself was a big thing already.
I read the first chapter, an opening that aims to explain what the USA is. My mixed-race heritage (Japanese-Spanish-Italian-Hungarian-born in Brazil), lack of interest in the United States, not-good-enough-English, and immaturity were all playing in here for this to be just another book. And yet, I was in tears when I finished reading it.
I arrived in the United States in May 2019. Nervously handling the immigration officer my Visa Approval papers, I secretly prayed he wouldn’t send me back — we all know how immigration in the US works.
I didn’t want to come here. I had come for a marriage promise that was broken the day before I left Mexico, a country I had chosen to call home. In deep heart-pain, I felt like all my bridges with a happy country were burnt, and now I was in that strange, cold, and unfriendly land.
“Where is this accent from?”. “Oh, Brazil, I love carnival — it’s so relaxed back there, no?”. “Hmmm, Brazilian, you want to go out for a drink? I love the samba you girls dance”. “But why do you look Asian?”. “Seriously, Japanese in Brazil? The biggest colony outside of Japan? Weird”. “Oh yeah, it’s not a good country; I bet you couldn’t find jobs there”. “Oh — you are Catholic? I heard in Latin America being catholic is so hard with those conservative families.” “Where did you learn your English?”
My ethnicity, culture, religion, and past were up for grabs of curious eyes. Commentaries like these became part of my day-to-day. ‘Let it be’, said my Japanese descendent mom, ‘don’t let it hurt you’. No one wanted to hear how Brazilians are creative, hard-working, and beautiful. Or how we are leaders in industries like agri-business and have a world-class healthcare system that vaccinates all kids from small villages in the Amazon and to the most complex megalopolis in the globe. God forbid I told someone we have excellent pizza in São Paulo, my hometown. “Are there even Italians in Brazil? And I bet it is not as good as in NYC.” Brazil was destined to be a ‘second-class’ country, at best, in the eyes of almighty-powerful-beacon-of-light-of-the-world America.
“Well, at least you are not the superficial fashion-croissant-baguette country”, would argue my husband-to-be, whom I met only a few months after arriving. “At least you don’t get as sexually tokenized as me”, a Swedish girlfriend would say. I was not sure what was worse, but it was not like it mattered. To bully, humiliate and gaslight anyone that doesn’t share that their nationality was a right inherent to the American passport.
On May 25th, 2020, I was on a call with my mom when my phone was bombarded with tweets from journalists I followed. Confused, I opened up a video that brought me to tears half-way. From São Paulo, my mother fell silent while she watched, on her end, a son calling to his mother. What was that?
The next few weeks passed by quickly. Protests, inclusion circles, talks, a bunch of “I hear you “s and “I see you “s hanged in the air. What could I say? Did I even have the right to say anything? I was a foreigner, the token from Carnival land. Did I even have a voice? What would I know?
The historian I was sparkled, and I shifted my endless readings on colonialism and Latin American development to American history. A memory flashed up in my mind — a six-year-old me seeing a drawing of the American Eagle hovering over the map of Latin America. A certainty they were the enemy. A teacher saying ‘if they are the enemy, you need to learn about them’.
I read, and read, and read. So much to catch up on. I knew the basics but had so many questions. Who was in the Mayflower? Why slavery? Lincoln? The world wars? Vietnam? War on drugs? Reagan? Police violence? What was that all? I skimmed classics, non-classics, articles from academics, activists, nobodies. I talked to friends, strangers, whites, blacks, Asians. I thought I reflected. America, who are you?
A morning in August came with a strong headache and nausea. I was sick. Was it the virus? But where is my period? Two weeks later, a tiny ultrasound showed my son — a microscopic bean. Lockdown, borders close. He will have to be born here — in the United States.
In the United States.
‘We need to get him the French and Brazilian passports’, I told my husband. The birth certificate is the first step, and the birth certificate will be… American. America. The USA. This is my son’s country.
We will leave, I promise myself, in tears. We will tear this passport apart, forget it, no one will speak of it again. He will be French-Brazilian, he will speak English with a heavy accent, end of the story. He was born here in passing; we were on vacation. My mind scrambled to come up with a narrative that would excuse his identity, his passport, his birthplace. With the nationality, he was carrying a bit of the country’s history. The country of slavery, of Jim Crow, of Reagan, of multiple invasions to other nation’s territories. He was going to be part of this — wanting or not. Could I excuse him? Could I pretend this never happened? I would erase it, destroy it, burn it. Not my son, not him.
‘You cannot deny him the right to make a choice for himself’, my husband said. He was right. My son’s fate and history were now connected to this land that I chose to ignore, to fear, to forget. It was his country, and so I guess it was a bit mine.
But who was this America?
‘Those are isolated incidents. ‘White supremacy is not ‘widespread. ‘We are all good people’.
‘We are better than this'. ‘The guy was having a bad day’. ‘It is not racial’. ‘We have tons of immigrants; we are not a racist country'. ‘USA! USA!’. ‘This doesn’t happen in California’. ‘It’s only the Texans that are rednecks’. ‘Look, I hear you. But we need to go beyond anger’. ‘It was a prostitute’.
To America, the black, brown, Asian, and Latino blood spilled are the product of exceptions. ‘Bad days’. ‘Unfortunate’. ‘Sad’. Happened to a man buying something at a convenience store. A nurse sleeping in her home — ‘well, she did have a sketchy boyfriend, no?”. An old man running his errands in San Francisco. Six women going for a spa day. Exceptions. ‘We are not whites with torches killing people of color. We are so good’.
‘This is not who we are’.
Slavery, war, Vietnam, killings, mass shootings, War on Drugs, lock them up, KKK. ‘This is not who we are’ — exception, not history. ‘We are good people; this is not our America’.
Don’t walk alone, I tell myself. It won’t happen to you. I pray for St. Francis; I don’t want to be the exception. My belly grows, a weight heavier than I can carry. Is it wrong to wish my son takes after his French father? Will that protect him more? My dad yells when I say I am afraid for the Spanish surname his grandson will carry. ‘Are you ashamed of who I am?’, he asks. I am not, dad. I am afraid.
‘This is not who we are’. ‘Russians are the real killers’. ‘Chinese are the anti-democratic ones’. ‘It is the UK that denies their racism, their colonial past’. ‘We are the beacon of light to the world. We are the country of freedom. Those incidents are exceptions’.
My son hugs me from inside; we cry together. Will we be harassed when we take you home? Maybe you will have your father’s green eyes, and this way, the only one to be spanked will be me.
‘Who is my country, mom?’.
Maybe we should ask them, son. Who are you, America?
I still go back to that reading I did in the 2010’s. The first chapter says:
“U. S. A. is the slice of a continent. U. S. A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stock- quotations rubbed out and written in by a Western
Union boy on a blackboard, a public library full of old newspapers and dog eared history books with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil, U. S. A. is the world’s greatest river valley fringed with mountains and hills, U. S. A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bank accounts. U. S. A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U, S. A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home.
But mostly U. S. A. is the speech of the people.”
I smile. John dos Passos was educated as a leftist, but by the 1950s, he was campaigning for Richard Nixon. I guess this work, from 1930, was the last lie he told us before his own shift to conservatism.
No, the answer is not there in this book. I still don’t know who you are, America.