It’s happened again. I got into this heated argument on social media that turned vitriolic, in response to my defense of this simple meme going around. You may have seen it. It shows two maps, side by side: On the left– a map of all the Americas that says, “This is America,” and on the right, a map of the United States that says, “This is the USA.” And at the bottom of the meme, it says, “Learn the Difference.”
I’ve seen this meme posted several times by various friends, and I’m always shocked by the large number of self-identified leftists who viciously defend the use of the word “America” to refer exclusively to the United States, and who refuse to consider that this dominant popular nomenclature could possibly be offensive to anyone, let alone large numbers of people throughout the Americas.
When some of us who have spent time in Central and South America start pointing out how bothered some of our Latin American friends are by this usage, I’m often met with fierce denial, heated anger and ridicule, the likes of which I would expect from the far right-wing, but not from self-proclaimed leftists who pride themselves on being sensitive to the identity politics of the most marginalized and oppressed.
Their defense of using “America” to refer to the USA is usually pretty weak. The arguments range from accusing me of being too politically correct to insisting that this usage is merely colloquial, saying “There is nothing wrong with using colloquial terminology.”
The fact that the ubiquitous usage of “America” to refer to the United States has been institutionalized by US historians, US textbook writers, the US news media, US Presidents, the US government at large, the US military, and every other major institution of US capital is not merely a coincidence. And its dominance is anything but colloquial. It comes from the highest echelons of power, and its unquestioned insidiousness in the vocabulary of US residents is a phenomenon I can only think to describe as “internalized empire.”
In questioning the way “The Discovery of America by Columbus” is labeled historically, Haitian academic and anthropologist Michel-Prolph Trouillot writes:
Names set up a field of power… ‘Discovery’ and analogues terms ensure that by just mentioning the event one enters a predetermined lexical field of clichés and predictable categories that foreclose a redefinition of the political and intellectual stakes.
Similarly, the ubiquitous and unquestioned use of the word “America” to refer to the United States has been psychologically internalized by most US residents from the richest and most powerful oligarchs to the poorest and most disenfranchised. If you think about it, it truly is a propaganda feat of epic proportions—convincing the poorest of the poor that they somehow belong in the same club as US billionaires, plutocrats and oligarchs, who just so happen to live within the same nation-state boundaries.
Meanwhile, the use of “America” to exclusively refer to the United States has been protested for centuries by other people of the Americas, who have expressed righteous indignation for being made invisible, using the co-optation of their entire continent’s name to refer to one single country, which happens to also be a center of global capital and hegemony. The erasure of Latin America in this case is economic, political and cultural.
From the writings of acclaimed Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano (author of Open Veins of Latin America) to the Mexican band Los Tigres del Norte, the struggle to reclaim the name “America” against the backdrop of US empire is a struggle that seems to be as old as colonialism itself, on this continent.
In their song, “Somos Más Americanos,” Los Tigres del Norte sing (translated):
“I want to remind the gringo: I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me.
America was born free, but men divided it.
They marked a line, so that I jump it.
And they call me “invader.”
And that’s a very frequent mistake
Because they took from us eight states.
Who’s the invader?
I’m a foreigner in my own land.
I don’t come to wage war.
I’m a hardworking man.
And if history isn’t lying
The powerful nation settled here, in its glory.
Among brave warriors,
Indians of two continents, mixed with Spanish.
And if we take centuries into account,
We are more American.
We are more American than the children of the Anglo-Saxons.”
Even the way continental geography is taught in the United States has made our education system an outlier from much of the world. Here in the USA (and a few other English-speaking countries), we are taught that there are seven continents, two of which are called North America and South America. Meanwhile, in all Latin American countries, as well as in France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain, it is taught that there are six continents, with North and South America connected, and simply called “America.”
While loosely defined based on the geography of continental plates, what constitutes a continent is different around the world, and these boundaries have changed over time in response to geopolitical interests. For example, up until WWII, the United States subscribed to the six-continent theory, with America (North and South) as one continent. It is not a coincidence that this changed after WWII, at a time when US geopolitical interests sought Western and Northern hemispheric domination. The United States and parts of Western Europe sought to separate North America from its southern neighbors. Meanwhile, the rest of America still sees itself as one united continent– north and south, and still teaches the six-continental theory.
Edward Said, Palestinian professor and a founder of the academic field of Postcolonial Studies, wrote in relation to Palestine:
In the history of colonial invasion, maps are always first drawn by the victors, since maps are instruments of conquest. Geography is therefore the art of war, but can also be the art of resistance if there is a counter-map and a counter strategy.
The history of the Americas is also a history of colonial lines drawn on indigenous lands. And it is from this Said quote that I see a deep inspiration and a lesson-in-waiting for the US Left. Looking to our southern neighbors in the rest of America, leftist movements of the South have found great strength and leadership from indigenous movements whose refusal to recognize state boundaries constitutes a fundamental threat to state-sponsored capitalism and violent settler colonialism. From Bolivia to Venezuela to Ecuador to Chile, today’s Latin American social movements (and some governments in response) are addressing indigenous rights as central and foundational in their countries’ legal and political systems, rather than peripheral and historic, as is most often been the case in the United States.
Indigenous, land-based struggles are fundamentally anti-capitalist in their refusal to submit to colonial, imperialist and state-drawn boundaries, and any international leftist movement should support indigenous nations in their ongoing struggles for their land rights, if we are to be working in solidarity with the most frontline leaders in the climate struggle, in anti-capitalism, in anti-imperialism and in the creation of its political alternatives.
Nick Estes, revolutionary Lakota activist, New Mexico-based author and professor writes in his article, The Way Forward: “We organize according to a principle of unity to unite Native peoples and all oppressed peoples in a common struggle beyond national borders and racial and gender identities… It is time to name the systems that kill us — capitalism and colonialism — and call for their destruction so that our people may live. We will not apologize for this, relatives. It is the only right thing left to do. The Red Nation is a movement for life, not death. And for us to live, capitalism and colonialism must die.”
Similarly, the most revolutionary movements throughout Latin America are also led by indigenous peoples, who recognize that state and country boundaries dividing up their ancestral homelands are a form of capitalist and colonial violence. These militarily-enforced boundaries separate people, families and cultures who have lived together for a millennia. Borders are one of the oldest and most colonial forms of state violence. It is the reason we still have thousands of children in cages in the United States.
The US/Mexico border region is just one of these regions where the colonial, capitalist settler state divided tribes of people who had been living together for centuries, long before the United States drew a line in the sand to separate the “legal” from the “illegal.” Many Mexican-Americans and Chicanos of the US Southwest remember, for example, when 55 percent of Mexico was usurped by the US government at the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), taking some portion of what are now ten US states, which forced many Mexicans to become residents of the United States, against their will. And still, their descendants remember, “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.”
All of these US colonial borders are arbitrary lines forced onto the lands of indigenous peoples. From the northernmost tip of Greenland to the southernmost tip of Chile, indigenous peoples refer to this continent, America, as the “red quadrant of Mother Earth.”
I find it highly ironic that a majority of leftists living in the United States, who speak out against capitalism on the daily, still haven’t collectively grappled with the fact that their country’s borders were created by the Christian “Doctrine of Discovery” and “Manifest Destiny”– doctrines whose sole purpose was to justify genocide and the complete pillaging of a continent that Christian settler colonists arbitrarily claimed for their Anglo Christian god.
And still today, many white descendants of these settler imperialists still assume the right to defend US borders and call certain people “illegal,” when they are living on lands that were stolen from these same people. And they still exercise the right to forget about all the other inhabitants of “America,” when they continue using that name in an act of self-referential myopia, referring to their own northern colonial settlement as it was defined after WWII. It is the epitome of linguistic imperialism.
If the US Left ever wants to become part of the broader International Left, if it wants to become globally relevant and not remain self-referential and insular, it is going to have to re-situate itself linguistically, ideologically, and geopolitically, in solidarity with the rest of continent and the world.
As Bolivia’s indigenous majority reclaims its government from US-backed Christian fascists and oligarchs, and as Chile drafts its new Constitution following a year’s worth of protests led by the indigenous Mapuche, where does the US Left find itself in terms of its own decolonization– upholding indigenous land rights, empowering indigenous-led movements, and respecting all the people of America in their rights to self-determination?
It is time for the US Left to retire the use of “America” as a backwards-looking, self-referential mirror for this continent’s most brutal, myopic empire and instead, reclaim the name to put us back on the global map and into connection with the rest of the people of this continent.
Perhaps someday in the not-too-distant future, “America” (named after an Italian explorer) will give way to the names of all the indigenous nations who have been here for a millennia, who are still leading the struggle and plotting the path forward for our collective survival on this planet. But in the meantime, America belongs to the People—all the people.