We had been living in Lincoln, Nebraska, for almost two years and had booked a trip to South America in March 1997 to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Our trip would take us to Peru, Chile, and western Argentina.
A conversation with an elderly resident of Cuzco, Peru, the day after we had returned there by train from the wonders of Machu Picchu, left me puzzled from that day to this. As Ellen and I were admiring some precise cuts made in large stones in an ancient wall there, a small weathered man engaged us in conversation. His English was broken but clear and easy to understand. After some opening niceties, he got right to business and asked me in a more serious but friendly tone,
“Are you American? From the United States?”
“Yes, I’m an American.”
The gentleman then said,
“I’m American, too.” I’m South American. I’m from here, from Peru.”
With that he smiled, bowed gently, and walked away. This brief and surprising interaction left me puzzled, my head spinning with new questions:
Since when did U. S. residents come to be “Americans” in the eyes of the world, while our North American neighbors from Canada and Mexico are known as Canadians and Mexicans?
How did U. S.-born citizens come to be “Americans” in the eyes of the world, rather than “USans” or some similar handle?
Does the claim to the “American” name by U. S. leaders and citizens indicate an attitude of superiority by our birthright?
People in Central America, South America, and all other countries in North America beyond the U. S. in all likelihood believe the answer to that last question is a resounding “Yes!” In all likelihood, this is why that elderly gentleman in Peru raised the issue with me on the street. He had a point to make, and it was a good point—well taken.
As I have traveled in other countries since 1997, I am more careful when asked where I am from. The recollection of that conversation in Cuzco comes instantly to mind, and I say I am from the U. S. instead of America.
That elderly Peruvian gentleman would be proud. He got me to ask myself the question for the first time,
Who is an American?
I have found it useful to think about this question in a different way than I did before we walked the streets of Cuzco. Seeing things through another’s eyes is almost always worthwhile.
Some may rightfully wonder how this episode fits into an anniversary celebration. Well, one conversation does not an anniversary celebration make. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Readers note: I especially would appreciate comments on this post. Alternate views of the meaning of “American,” different interpretations, or just whatever you think.