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Why just Americans?

“So why just Americans?”

It’s a question I’ve gotten a number of times. Living in Washington, DC means that I am constantly surrounded by folks from other parts of the world. At least half of my closest friends are foreigners, and more than half of CWU’s earliest supporters were not born here. Without browsing census statistics, it’s probably safe to say that tens of millions of non-citizens live in the United States, both legally and illegally. The vast majority of these visitors make positive contributions to the nation as a whole by working, teaching, offering alternative viewpoints and experiences, etc. Most of them have stories that are at least as interesting as the average American story. So why should I, in my quest to understand the people who make up the U.S., leave them out? I think it a fair question, and one that deserves an explanation.

First, to complicate matters slightly, some of my Latin American friends take issue with the use of the term ‘American’ to describe specifically a citizen of the United States. Everyone from North, Central and South America, they would argue, should rightly be called an American. I’ve tussled a bit with this issue, especially when thinking about the usage of the term in the CWU project. Having lived in Latin America for over four years, I can say that the term sometimes sounds a little bit awkward now when used around folks from that region, and that, when speaking in Spanish about folks from my country, I tend to prefer the term Estado Unidense (United Statesian) over the old Americano. All of that said, everyone in the world knows that when we say American, we mean a person from the United States. Indeed, most of the world and, more importatly, most Americans use the term in that way without equivocation. Thus, I am sticking with the traditional demonym purposes of the project.

Getting back to the original question, I offer a succinct answer: in focusing on Americans, I will not overlook our foreign friends. On a personal level, my experience has been that folks who came here from abroad often have a unique and deeply thought-out insight regarding what it means to be American, because most of them came to this country with a dream, an American dream, and have probably considered that question more than many of us who were born here. I imagine that during my 17,000-mile tour of the U.S., I will come across foreigners whose stories are so riveting that I need to share them with you. So don’t be surprised if you see a Mexican or two pop up in my interviews through the Southwest, an Ethiopian immigrant speaking with me as I ride through southern Maryland or a visitor from the Middle East sharing his or her story one day in Michigan.

Nevertheless, CWU is a project focused on Americans: those whose parents and grandparents built this country and fought to protect it; those whose ancestors came here in search of freedom, or upon having their freedom stripped away, or because they wanted a second chance; those who came themselves and are now proud citizens; those who will vote; those who have a long-term interest in our direction; and those who have roots so deep in a given region or town that they could never think of living anywhere else. These are the people who can tell us where we’ve come from, how things are changing and what these changes might mean for us all.

I suppose the most important consideration is this: no matter what you call us or how deep our patriotic roots run, I’d like to believe that most Americans realize that we are privileged to live in a country that many people in the world view as one of the few places where one’s potential is limited almost entirely by one’s dreams. Why is this so? The borders that shape the U.S. are mere lines on a map, the thousands of American flags fluttering in the wind at this moment are just pieces of cloth, the term ‘American’ is but a word. None of these symbols and terms would mean anything if not representative of a real idea, a coherent set of values. And while most of us at our core understand that value-as do our neighbors across the globe-we might not fully grasp the depth and detail of its significance. Those details are what I seek. Mile by mile, I aspire to add texture to our broad understanding of this country as I speak with hundreds of Americans-and surely a few visitors-during my 2-year journey. As you follow along, I hope I can bring you stories that enrich your understanding and appreciation of the USA- whether you’re a local, a visitor or just a fan.

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