It's three o'clock in the morning. I am standing next to my friend in a pizzeria in the heart of Valencia, Spain. Our hair is covered in cherry vodka, our makeup half-sweated off; we are cold, drunk, and desperate for some cheesy goodness. Whilst deciding aloud which pizza to buy, a guy next to us asks if we're English. My friend is Welsh and I am American, so we both say no. He's obviously English and asks where we're from.
"I'm from Texas," I slur.
He looks at me incredulously as if a unicorn just walked in and asked for a slice of veggie pizza.
The unicorn is now doing some flamenco dancing.
"Yep," I warble.
Suddenly, the man behind the counter asks us what we want and I recite our order in Spanish, we’re in Spain after all.
"What? You're not from Texas!" yells the Englishman out of nowhere.
"Uh, yeah, I am." I say, confused to be arguing about this with a stranger in a pizzeria at the wee hours of the morning.
His friends start to chime in as we get our slices and I try to respond, but one guy huffs:
"Go talk to your pizza."
"Slag!" yells the first Englishman.
(For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term 'slag', it is essentially the British equivalent of 'slut'.)
We quickly leave the pizzeria. My friend tells me to pay them no mind. I try to shake the icky feeling I have, but it lingers. It's not the first time I've been insulted by an Englishman (whatever happened to them being charming? maybe that’s a myth, as well?) and it's also not the first time people refused to believe I was American. Still this was different, a nerve was hit. I felt persecuted. Why did they attack me? Was it because I didn’t have a Southern drawl and sound like Matthew McConaughey? Was it because I spoke Spanish and they couldn’t believe Americans could be anything but monolingual? Or maybe because I didn’t pull out a gun and shoot a beer can off the counter during casual conversation? Not like anyone I know does that anyway… But, I was stumped.
Some people might be happy to not be identified as American, considering the reputation for being uneducated, boring, and obese (and of course Trump.) A few years ago I, too, might have been smitten to have been mistaken for another nationality. Having been lucky enough to travel to Europe at a young age, I've always been aware of the stigma that being American carries. At any major museum or monument in any big city in the world, the most obnoxious and dopey looking tourists are often expected to be American. Though they could easily be German, Polish, even English. Bad taste is universal! As a kid and even as a teenager abroad, I avoided speaking English in public because I didn't want to get the "ugh, they're American" eye roll and sigh combo.
Being an American abroad means a lot of things. Before Trump, unfortunately, made it into the oval office, it meant being accused of being a rich, bigot and racist who supports gun violence… now it’s that plus sexual harassment and a love of building walls. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to defend myself at a club or party to some jerk who’s had one too many cubatas and thinks it’s charming to start up a political debate with me. As if being from Syria means you love Assad or being from Cuba means you loved Castro, people think where you’re from dictates who you are but for me that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’d eventually reached a point where I stopped telling people I was American, because it was absolutely exhausting to be forced to serve as an unofficial ambassador for a country I was no longer a resident of. The world made me feel ashamed to be something I had no control over. I didn't choose to be American, I was born that way.
Why are we always persecuted for things we are born with? Why are we always persecuted for the color of our skin, the shape or capabilities of our bodies or even the sexuality and gender we identify with? It’s not something we chose, it is simply who and what we are.
It’s important to mention that people have this distorted and fractured image of the states: half holy land, half hellhole. You either live in New York or you live in L.A. Your life is either something straight out of a music video, cut to a blonde driving down a desert highway in a drop-top with the wind blowing in her hair. OR it’s a crime scene with another young black boy mercilessly shot down in the street, camera crews swarming to get the best shots for the evening news. If you don’t fit into either of these categories then you’re suddenly bizarre and incomprehensible. Saying you’re from Texas means that everyone assumes your life is made-for-television western where you compete in rodeos, live on a ranch, thrive off beef jerky and ride a horse to school.
Not only are these very out-of-date stereotypes but there’s so much more you don’t see on TV. There are the poor honor students who will be the first person in their family to study at university. There are the immigrant grandparents who are getting to hold their grandchild for the first time. There are teens who spend their free time doing community service because they want to be a part of something that isn’t drugs or violence. There are the reformed gang members whose tattooed hands lay calmly in their laps as they counsel troubled youths in a community center. There are the tired mothers who work nights at Wal-Mart because their kids deserve more than they give them. There are the local shop owners who give back to the community that first gave them hope for a better life.
The United States is a giant, in more than one way, and diversity abounds. There are people from all over the world living down the street from one another. All shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds, because that’s what being American is about… in case anyone forgot. At least, that’s what we were taught in school. And there is so much love and acceptance that radiates from one American to another. The news glosses over the good bits, because the world loves a bloodbath. Somehow it’s more interesting to show that Americans are terrible, violent, and asinine people because that’s what gets retweets (#harambe). Yes, there are some silly people and some baddies… in fact quite a few… looking at you Texan republicans. Still, there are plenty of good, decent, loving people in the US of A and they don’t deserve to be dragged through the mud; not by people who don’t know or understand them. Not by anyone.
So, if you are eager to understand, it’s only natural that you would be, ask an American about themselves the next time you meet one. You might be surprised by how eloquent and kind they are. After all, this isn't reality TV. It's real life. There's no script, lights or camera. Just action. Here the actions we take affect people. What action will you take?
WRITTEN BY ASHUNI LUCÍA PÉREZ
COLLAGE BY ASHUNI LUCÍA PÉREZ