There’s one word that always creates heated debates while I’ve been in Chile. It’s offensive to some, a joke to others and completely innocuous to the rest, but it’s sure to raise a debate if you ask. So what’s this hotbutton word? American.
In the US, most of us refer to our country as America and ourselves as Americans without a second thought. Growing up, we just assumed that’s who we are. It’s used offhand every day by millions of people. Pretty much every Presidential address in my lifetime has begun with “my fellow Americans.” It’s part of our culture.
Before I arrived in Chile, I already knew that some people found it offensive that people in the US have appropriated America to only refer to the United State because I had learned about it in a Latin American studies class in college, but I assumed that it was mostly overly politically correct people. I had seen the famous Alfredo Jaar video from the 80s called This is Not America, but believed that only the far left cared about the term. I was pretty clearly wrong.
Once I got here, I realized it was more widespread than I thought. Everyone seems to have an opinion. Some Chileans don’t care at all and refer to the US as America and its citizens as Americans without a second thought. Others playfully pointed out that they too were Americans and other were actually offended. I’d say that most were in the middle. They’d prefer that the US didn’t call itself America, but weren’t really offended. Some examples:
I was at an asado and a Chilean friend of mine asked a girl where she was from. She said America. He responded with a smile, “oh yea, me too.” He told me he loves to do that, mostly as a joke, but partly to make the point to people from the US that they are not the only ones from America. Another friend cringed when I said something about America to refer to the US and corrected me. He wasn’t offended, but said it grates on his ears when someone from the US uses America that way.
The new US startup program is called Startup America, which is especially galling to some in Chile, as the program is basically a knock off of Startup Chile, but appropriates the name of the entire hemisphere. Another friend posted the Alfredo Jaar video on her Facebook wall and got 10 likes in under 5 minutes. 24 hours later, there were over 100 likes and 15 comments. She told me tons of her friends posted it on their own walls, creating a mini-viral campaign. Most of the comments did not seem to have any vitriol behind them (see graphic below).
I’ve also seen many Chileans mostly playfully turn the globe “upsidedown” so that Chile is at the top. The most southern province, Magallanes, even has their official symbol with Antarctica at the top of the map, not the bottom. From my view there are only a small group on the far left that are truly, deeply offended by the term American, but there is definitely a large group of people who would prefer that people from the US didn’t say American to describe themselves. It grates on them, but it’s not a huge deal to them.
I think it’s important to point out that we say “America” completely offhand, and don’t mean any offense. It’s just how we were raised. For example, we were in Austin for South by Southwest and a very nice, stereotypical Texan sat next to us while we were drinking some beers, waiting for our table to be ready. He struck up a conversation with our group that included two Chileans who were in town for the conference. He was incredibly nice, shared beers with us and told us places to visit. As his table was called he said “have a great time here and welcome to America.”
He, like 99.99% of other people from the States don’t mean anything by it. We just don’t have any other word to call ourselves. North American doesn’t work, the Canadians sure don’t want to be lumped in with us. In Spanish you say estadounidense, but in English there just isn’t a word other than American. I’ve pointed this out many times, and I think the best response came from one of my Chilean friends. She said something along the lines of “you guys took the name, you gotta come up with something to replace it.” So I’ve taken it on myself. I guess I’m Unitedstatesian.