I spent Wednesday afternoons sitting around and doing homework while my grandpa watched TV when I was around 10 years-old. He babysat me on Wednesdays after school while my mom went to the office for work. I always looked forward to those afternoons filled with Spaghetti-O’s and the strange black-and-white programs he reminded me to call “classics.”
On this particular day, I must have had some sort of lesson on cultural diversity in school. Amidst my snacking, I perked up and shared my thoughts with my grandpa.
“Guess what, Pop-Pop,” I chirped. My grandpa looked over at me, always gently attentive. “Do you know what my nationality is?” Without waiting for a response, I said, “I’m Puerto Rican and Irish!” Smiling to myself in my seat, I continued to dunk saltines into my bowl.
Evidently very satisfied with my own intellect, I awaited his praise. But for the first time, it didn’t come. He blinked at me for a moment before broaching the topic. “Shannon,” he began carefully. I looked up at him. “If you ever remember anything I tell you, I want you to remember this: You are an American. If anyone asks you what your nationality is, you tell them that you are an American.”
Confused, I looked at him. He started again, “What country do you live in?” he asked me.
“The United States of America,” I responded smartly.
He responded, “So why wouldn’t you say that you’re American?”
I have a murky memory. Meaning here that I don’t remember much at all. I only survive in this world with the help of my assignment planner and the to-do lists in the notes app on my phone. However, I remember this exchange. It must have been because his tone was so unusual. It was…harder than it generally sounded. Even at such a young age, I could tell that this was something he felt deeply passionate about.
Today, I am so incredibly proud of my heritage. I love telling people about my roots and the traditions that have seeped into my current lifestyle. Raised on my grandma’s rice and beans and hearing about my cousins in PR, I am proud to call myself Puerto Rican. I also loved visiting Ireland a few years ago and staying in County Cork, the land my ancestors came from on my dad’s side. But my ethnicity is just that—my ethnicity.
Today, in my communication class, my teacher asked us to discuss our nationalities and the differences among their respective cultures. He proceeded to list various countries as examples, and I was confused. Only a couple of students in the class were there with international exchange programs, meaning that they live in other countries. So, the majority of the classroom lives in the United States. Yet, he did not mention the U.S. in his list of countries. And I felt upset.
Our ethnicities and our nationalities are different, and this difference is especially significant in the U.S., as we truly and proudly are a melting pot. Isn’t that what we’ve been learning since first grade? That we’re one big mix of people, and that it should be celebrated as one of the most fundamental pieces of our existence?
It is so easy to get sucked into the accumulated heap of political despair that the presidential election kick-started. Now, I’m not going to comment on the immigration ban or our current president’s views. Why? That would require an unrestricted word count. But I will say this: In this time of pain, confusion, frustration and constant struggle in both our personal and political lives, I think we need to remember one thing. We need to remind ourselves just how incredibly fortunate we are to be here today.
Our nation is clearly so far from perfect, but we’ve come a really long way, and in times of trouble, one of the most important things is for us to band together on the subjects we do agree upon. Do we appreciate our freedom? So why can’t we acknowledge our pride and assert ourselves as American? We’ve made mistakes as a country, and we’ll succeed as a country. That’s what a team does.
Okay, yes, I learned that on my middle-school volleyball team, but it does ring true. We lack a certain pride and national love today, and we could benefit from embracing it a bit more. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from the patriotism that was so prominent throughout my grandpa’s youth.
When asked about my ethnicity, I say that I’m mostly Puerto Rican and Irish. When asked my nationality, I tell people I’m American. I appreciate my opportunities in this country, and I’m not afraid to assert that. So I’ll just ask you to do this. Take a few minutes to think about the difference between nationality and ethnicity, because I think you owe that much to the country your ancestors brought you into. There must’ve been a reason why they did.