Issue IV: Patriotism
We surveyed 36 people and interviewed six about what it means to be an American and a North Carolinian.
National polls show a downward trend in the percentage of people who say they are proud to be Americans. We saw many responses reflect this trend, saying that recent politics had negatively influenced their view of the country. (caption)
Common themes in responses:
“I believe we are headed toward a better America and I’m proud to be a part of it. I expect the Trump Administration to continue to embarrass my American identity, but one man can’t undo the cultural progress we’ve made.”
—Carolyn, a 27-year-old from Raleigh N.C.
“Like every country we’ve had our dark moments but I believe that, more often than not, we’ve been a symbol and destination of hope, a shelter for the oppressed and a canvas for the dreamers. I think the U.S. is a beacon of freedom unlike any other nation in the world.”
—Jared, a 25-year-old from Raleigh N.C.
“North Carolina is a wonderful state for so many reasons. I’ve never lived in another state, so my perspective is limited, but I think N.C. has the perfect mixture of culture, climate, beauty, cities and people.”
—Alexandra, a 29-year-old from Raleigh N.C.
“Even with all that’s going on now I still think this country offers a ton of opportunity and is a place to be proud of. The election of a new president doesn’t change the fundamentals of the inherent identity of the country.”
—Austin, a 22-year-old from Raleigh N.C.
“I’m not proud, because pride suggests that I, in someway, ‘deserve’ to be here. I am aware that being born in the U.S. is an enormous privilege, and that our country allows a level of freedom many hope for. I am also aware of the levels of freedom in this country, and that as a white person in America, I have many more freedoms and privileges than black and brown Americans.
—Abby, a 23-year-old from Durham N.C.
Angela Salamanca, who owns downtown Raleigh’s Centro, considers herself a “heart North Carolinian.” At 17 years old, she moved to North Carolina from Colombia.
“It has taken me years to internalize that I have lived in the states longer than in Colombia, and by default, I still call Colombia home,” Salamanca said. “But I know that in my heart the US is my home.”
When she came to the U.S., her initial plan was to stay with her uncle and learn English for six months. She didn’t go back to Colombia until 10 years later.
Becoming a citizen
Salamanca gained her citizenship in May 2012 and casted her first vote to reelect Barack Obama. She said voting made her feel patriotic.
“I work hard for the benefit of my community and that extends to my country,” Salamanca said. “I am so grateful for all the opportunities I have been granted living in the states, and I casted my first vote the year I became a U.S. citizen.”
She said people often don’t understand what it takes to become a citizen.
“It is a privilege to be an citizen of the USA,” Salamanca said. “Many of the rights we have in this country are more than many other people on the world. That becoming a citizen requires money, and effort and that there is a big sense of pride and gratefulness for many of the people going thru this process.”
Giving back to the community
North Carolina is the only state Salamanca has lived in. She explained she is proud of North Carolina but knows the state can become much more.
“I am proud of many things about NC, but I believe that our state has much more to offer and that our elected officials are shorting all of us,” Salamanca said.
The striving for a better North Carolina has influenced her to be more politically active.
“The needs of my community — to know that I am contribution and that I want to be the best contribution I can be not just for the sake of my kids, but for the sake of my neighbors, employees, friends, etc,” Salamanca said.
Salamanca explained the term ‘American’ to her isn’t limited to just the United States.
“It is a matter of interpretation,” Salamanca said. “An American is some born in America. We have a whole continent called America, so everyone born in this continent should be considered an American.”
Ryan Cooper doesn’t feel proud to be an American but is happy he is.
“I don’t know where that pride is suppose to come from,” Cooper said. “I feel happy, because I could have been born in Syria where, who even is the bad guy, all I know is my friends and family are being gassed. I’m very happy to not have been born in that situation. I also recognize that there are people who’ve died to create this nation in all its faults into a place that for someone like me, a white male born in the middle class where I can thrive or I can absorb a setback my situation. I’m happy about it. I don’t want my situation to be worse. I don’t want to trade positions with someone in a worser situation out of guilt. I just feel happy that I was born here. Pride I feel like has to be earned, and I don’t know if I’ve earned the right to feel proud.”
White, Christian, straight
Cooper said no one will question if he’s an American on their first impression. He fits the mold of what is considered to be a true American in his opinion.
“It comes down to being a white person generally, but also straight, Christian,” Cooper said. “Those are kind of the three hallmarks of what it means to be a true American. Patriotism is a celebration of that ideal, so anyone who is a person of color, or does not conform to gender binary, even politically someone who doesn’t fit into the Republican–Democrat spectrum, if they’re a Marxist or anarchist, that doesn’t fit into what a myth of America is.”
Cooper explained nationalism can come in two forms — civic and ethnic. Civic nationalism is having faith in the institutions and anyone can start a better life for themselves. Ethnic nationalism is believing that people have claim to a land based on their bloodline.
“If we failed at being a melting pot, we’ve a least strived in many ways to try to do that, even if we’ve not done it perfectly,” Cooper said. “I’m more interested in that idea and not saying this belongs to white people and anyone else who is different either needs to act white or needs to be subservient to the whims of a white European descent.”
The United States has credited itself for being a melting pot, but Cooper said it’s not as simple as that.
“The country that we have — America — branded ourselves on this melting pot, but we are also founded on pushing a large group of people out of this land who we apparently didn’t feel fit into that pot,” Cooper said. “We have to be careful patting ourselves on the back about being so open to newcomers when we couldn’t compromise with the people who were here first. Patriotism to me is a unself-conscious nationalism where you don’t really critique your past, you don’t critique the current situation that your country is in. The idea of the melting pot is nice story, and it’s worked for some, but if we’re not quite reflective about it and then a little critical of that idea, then it gets accepted as truth when it’s much more complicated than that. There’s things that have been melted. Then there are things that have been splashing out onto the stovetop as well.”
Cooper currently works for the City of Raleigh, and recently came from local government in Lexington, Kentucky. He said he’s felt a call to public service.
“I don’t have this broad sense of American patriotism, but at the local level have a stronger sense of belonging to city, neighborhood,” Cooper said. “Those are scales that I could potentially have a greater impact, and I can go see my neighbor and hear about what they’re thinking about things.”
Payton Alexander was crushed on Election Day when Donald Trump became president. She felt as if she could not trust her fellow Americans, but the loss made her realize she has to keep fighting for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“Since we have seen a President Trump, it has been more and more important to me to just stick by those tendencies of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness for everyone,” Alexander said. “There is no American who is too old, too poor, too gay, too black for it to not apply to.”
My country is my child
Despite the disappointment of the election results, Alexander said she is still patriotic.
“It’s hard to say I’m currently proud of the United States, but I feel like it’s being patriotic to say so,” Alexander said. “It’s like being a parent. Like I still love you, I’m disappointed. You’re what I got, and I love you and got to work on it.”
Make America great
Coming together to improve the United States is a way to show your patriotism, according to Alexander. She said she was frustrated with Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” because we should be focusing on making the country better as one.
“We all want to make America great, but there’s no making America great again,” Alexander said. “We all want to work for that and that’s what being patriotic is too. We didn’t need to make it great again.”
She is hopeful that her pridefulness of the United States will increase in four years, but she is worried that if Trump is reelected, the country would lose its identity.
“If it was a swell of just so much support for this style of government, then that would be really hard,” she said. “If more and more people were just like yeah he’s great, and having a Republican-controlled Congress is great. It would be like ‘Wow, we’re in for a rough ride.’ We would continue to go further and further to the right, and then we lose more and more freedoms in doing that, and then we’re not our country anymore.”
Alexander is making an emphasis on the smaller elections to make the United States and North Carolina feel more like home. Originally from Chicago, Alexander moved to Raleigh 10 years ago. She has seen downtown be transformed into a destination, which she credits to city council elections.
“I feel like with Chicago, you fit into it, “ Alexander said. “It’s an established city. You got to figure yourself out, like how you fit there, and in Raleigh, we’ve been making it what we want it to be. It’s just continuing to grow and change in that way and that’s amazing.”
Mohammad Dorgham was born in raised in Raleigh. When he goes to the Middle East, people tell him his Arabic is good and it seems like he was born there, but he responds by saying he’s a red-blooded American who shoots off fireworks for the Fourth of July and goes hunting.
This is home.
“I’ve been to 15 different countries, and I can’t see myself calling those places home,” Dorgham said. “Even with all its flaws, at least in my experience, why I consider this home is that not only am I welcome, but I can be who I want to be. It’s like when you’re with your family you can be your true self. I’ve been to other countries and even cities in the U.S., but I feel like North Carolina is where I can be myself and that’s why I consider it home.”
Where else would be home?
Dorgham said there are people who immigrated to the United States with his parents who don’t consider the United States home and have plans to move back to Kuwait. His parents instilled in him and his siblings that the United States is their home and they should vote and express their opinions.
Dorgham said he remembers the father of Razan and Yusor Abu-Salha, who were killed in Chapel Hill in 2015, speaking at their funeral about the idea of the United States as home.
“He said ‘we have put our blood, sweat and tears into this land, and we have buried our children on this land. If you can’t call that place home, then what can you call home?’” Dorgham said. “I’ve never lived outside of the U.S. I know the language overseas, and I know the culture to an extent, but I’ve never lived there. This is my home and that’s the same way my parents feel.”
Dorgham considers himself to be patriotic if it’s his own definition.
“If we define it as the general idea of putting America first and doing what’s best for the American people, then no because I have friends who aren’t American citizens, and for me, to say that I’m going to put someone I’ve never met before these people who care for me and welcome me into their homes, I can’t do that,” Dorgham said. “Now if we define patriotism as being the best America we can be, then yes I am a patriot.”
American is American
The idea of a typical American is shifting — although the stereotype still focuses on someone who is white, American ideals can be for everybody, according to Dorgham.
“I’ve met Americans with accents,” Dorgham said. “I’ve met Americans who are biracial and to me that’s a typical American. It’s always shifting, it’s always changing, but an American is an American.”
Elliot Strunk was visiting Montreal when H.B. 2 passed. He was asked instantly by someone about the controversial bathroom bill.
“The first thing out of his mouth was what’s up with H.B. 2 in North Carolina,” Strunk said. “You guys just lost the NBA All-Star game. It’s fascinating to me. I would love to see the people who passed these laws how often they travel outside the country. I think for a reason, a lot of times, they’re in a vacuum and they think the other 190 whatever countries aren’t paying attention to what’s going on. This guy didn’t ask about living in the United States. He didn’t ask about the beaches in North Carolina. He was just like what the hell is up with your bathroom thing.”
Strunk said the world’s idea of the United States is sometimes muddied.
“I have a brother who lives in Tokyo,” Strunk said “I asked him, ‘Do people in Japan think the United States is basically, with all the guns and everything, Grand Theft Auto?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah a lot of people do.’ If you think about our culture that’s what’s romanticized in hip hop and action movies and all the things we export to other parts of the world. Other parts of the world sometimes have a skewed perspective of what the United States is.”
Considering himself an optimist, he said the U.S. is still a place anyone can do anything they want if they work hard enough — a land of opportunity.
Strunk will admit when he moved to North Carolina he had his own stereotypes, but he soon learned to love the southern hospitality and the warm weather.
“For me, growing up in the midwest, the South was the Dukes of Hazzard and Hee Haw,” Strunk said. “It probably took me 12 to 18 months to decode rural North Carolina accents. I remember going to a pig pickin’ a couple months after I moved and I was like ‘What is this, what is going on?’ It was definitely a culture shock.”
He is proud to call North Carolina home and owns his own business, Fifth Letter, in Winston-Salem. He said he would consider moving if the political climate of North Carolina hurt his business or his son’s outlook on society.
“If I started to see limited thinking that was encroaching on him as a result of the environment he was in, meaning school or his friends, that would be a big problem for me,” Strunk said. “We’ve tried very hard to help him understand, even though there are people who may look different than him or sound different than him, they have a lot of the same wants, needs, desires.”
David Baeza has lived in the U.S. his whole life. His parents immigrated from Mexico to the “land of opportunity.”
“My mom essentially told my dad she was not going to go back to Mexico just because there’s more opportunity to have better education and more work in the United States, so they decided to establish their roots here,” Baeza said.
‘Am I an American?’
Although Baeza has spent his whole life in the U.S., he said sometimes he feels like he’s an outsider.
“I see people don’t view me as an American, getting asked, ‘Where are you from?’” Baeza said. “I’m proud of my heritage from my ancestors, but also [the term] Mexican American is for my parents. They’re nationally Mexican who then transferred to American. Being asked what am I, if I say I’m American, it comes with confusion.
“It makes me feel like I myself am an immigrant, even though I was born and raised here. Am I not American?”
His parents’ opinions about the election helped him decide that no matter what, the United States is home and can overcome anything.
“Their belief is that this country has always made it out of things and there’s always time because of the way our system was built,” Baeza said. “There’s always people out there fighting for the best of this country. There’s always going to be hope no matter what. There’s always going to be a downtime for something and we can always fight on.”
Fighting for the U.S. and its values is what makes someone a patriot, according to Baeza.
“Patriotism is more than just soldiers and politicians,” Baeza said. “A lot of people have mixed that up recently. It’s more than just a symbol of a flag. It’s an individual thing — what you can do to help improve it. As soon as you give up, I feel like you’re no longer patriotic. Everyone has their problems, even individually so imagine what a group of people are. Just a group of problems.”