Define American?

There is a tendency to think that all words mean the same thing to each and every person… but they don’t. There is the dictionary definition, there are the emotions a word evokes based on a person’s priming, and then there is the actual meaning of the word in the context of a situation. No wonder things get lost in translation. There are many nuances to the labels and titles we use to define people. So, how would you define an American?

This past Monday evening I was invited to a discussion and preview of the film Documented at a friends apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was the perfect summer evening— city inspired murals encased us in a backyard space adorned with strings of lights as an eclectic group of us sat on wooden chairs with colored cushions facing the projection screen. Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker, may be considered an illegal immigrant to many people in this country, but in fact, he is an undocumented American.

He came over from the Philippines when he was 12 years old, leaving his mom behind for a chance at the American dream with his grandparents. What he didn’t know until the age of 16 was that he was given a fake green card. He attended college on scholarship, has been paying taxes since age 18, and has created a successful, impactful career in journalism— and he is undocumented. He hasn’t seen his mom since he was 12, and if he left the country he wouldn’t be able to return despite the life he has built here.

There are 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. Many of them mow our lawns, build and clean our homes, and work in kitchens. They opt for lower wages and essentially allow for many businesses to thrive because they are willing to work for so little. In a sense they have built this country. Most of them pay taxes in some way, even through purchases in stores, and yet they don’t receive the benefits of working hard and living in America because they are undocumented.

So what defines being American? I’m sure the Native Americans would have quite the response to this question. And I’m sure the WASPs of the North East who are descendants of the first settlers would have quite a different response, as would all of my immigrant grandparents who came with nothing and created a life here.  A European would give you a completely different answer too. And to be honest I have mixed feelings as to what an American is and sometimes I’m not even sure if I resonate with the word given some of the happenings in this country. 

So is being an American belonging to the melting pot of multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-everything, land of the free, home of the brave? Does being an American mean you pay taxes? Does being an American mean you are a “citizen” with a piece of paper to prove it? You could have been born in this country while your parents were on vacation and never have lived here a day in your life, and yet you would be considered an American citizen. Hmmm. And what about those people living in America, working their bums off, paying taxes, loving this country, choose to live here, but don’t have paper— are they not allowed to be considered American? Everyday 1000 undocumented Americans are deported— losing their security and everything they've worked so hard for. And so Jose has started the movement to raise awareness.

We are very fortunate to live in a safe country. That’s not the case around the world. People’s lives are threatened every day. It’s estimated that 70,000 children will cross the border without their parents due to violence and drug wars happening in Central and South America. We don’t have the resources or time to review the millions of applications for refuge. Yet, life happens and desperate measures may arise and if a person in need happens into America hoping for the chance at a better life do we say, “No, sorry you must to leave.” There is plenty of space in this country, maybe not in NYC or other major cities, but I’m sure Wyoming could spare some.

And guess what? No one is even talking about this issue affecting 11 million people. The news would rather report Kim Kardashian’s whereabouts. Jose was on the cover of TIME magazine with other undocumented Americans and still nothing has been done.

Jose gets personal in this film and shares his life with viewers while bringing awareness to this matter. I cried just watching the trailer. It airs this Sunday June 29, at 9pm EST on CNN and I’ll be watching. Check out for screening parties near you (CNN and Jose are hosting one together in NYC), or host one yourself.  Even if you’re not interested in politics it’s a great film and has already won five awards!