By Kaitlyn Velazquez
Upon immigrating to the United States, one of Yerinelsi Benin’s earliest observations of her new homeland was the heavy emphasis placed on race and color, a stark contrast from the culture she was born in.
Benin, a first generation senior at Harvest Collegiate, was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. She recalls for the first time feelings of ostracism in her community because of the negative associations she believed people reflected onto her dark skin.
“I felt very insecure,” says Benin. ”I would cry because I didn’t fit in and I thought people didn’t like me because of my skin color. I thought people weren’t friends with me because of [it].”
At Harvest, students, families, and faculty hail from all over the world, weaving in their heritage, language, and values into the school community. Each person, however, brings with them a different interpretation of what it means to be American.
The politics of othering, or alienation from a greater society, has been an area of interest for researchers, especially in first generation students like Benin. Correspondingly, othering is strongly reported in preceding second but less in third generations to which many would describe the feeling as being “citizens but not Americans”.
In her groundbreaking sociology series, “Citizens but Not Americans”, Nilda Flores-González’s, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois, argues that in the eyes of many Latino millennials, the American identity doesn’t include them. Through a series of one-hundred interviews of young Latina/o’s, she uncovers that “ancestry, skin color and phenotype, social class, education, gender, language, and aspects of culture” shape how the youths understand their place in U.S society and “how they make sense of themselves as Americans”.
“I don’t think I fit the stereotypical American image,” says Jeronimo Gomez, a first-generation senior. Gomez says, “I’m a form of an American, but I am American.”
Jeronimo Gomez (first-generation, senior)
“I do like to consider myself American. When someone meets me they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s Mexican’…I guess they don’t associate American like that but I feel like that’s because everyone knows everyone here’s American so it’s not really something we have to, like, say or show…at least not here.”
Today, the United States has more immigrants than any other nation in the world. In New York alone, one in six native-born U.S. citizens had at least one immigrant parent and according to the American Immigration Council, one in five New Yorkers is an immigrant. At Harvest, students and teachers hail from over 40 countries and speak over 25 languages.
In an anonymous survey emailed to students here at Harvest Collegiate High School, 24.5% of Harvesters reported being first generation, 35.8% second generation, and 39.6% third generation. The survey aimed to capture the varying degree of national belonging and alignment with the American identity felt by Harvesters by asked respondents to answer one of three questions, exploring how they situate themselves in the American community.
1) Have your family’s heritage and cultural values shaped how you see yourself? Have they shaped how you see your future? If so, how?
2) Would you consider yourself American? If yes, why? If not, explain why not.
3) Have you ever had to justify your “Americaness”?
Of the 53 respondents, 29 students chose to answer one or all of the prompts above. One respondent, who identified as second generation, wrote “I consider myself American, but it is not the first identity that comes to mind…The reason is that from what I’ve seen, America isn’t going to have my back when something happens, but I know my family will. I am American but my first identities are Moroccan, Black, and Jewish.”
Eight respondents, however, chose to identify as principally American by aligning their identity with being born in the U.S.
Laura Mourino, a teacher at Harvest who hails from Uruguay, extends that definition to “anyone being born in the Western Hemisphere.” To Mourino, there is no question about it: she’s American.
“I’m totally American,” says Mourino, “I’m from the Americas, so I definitely consider myself an American.”
On the survey, the general responses from first and second generations affirmed their American roots, but many respondents noted with qualifiers.
Djibril Soulama, a first generation senior with Malinese roots, concurs with Laura’s definition, proclaiming that to be American is something one can fractionally be a part of: “Half American, yeah. But I’m African, too.”
However not everyone here shares eye to eye with the American identity. To Benin, being American is a bit more complex.
“I am not going to say that I am an American,” Benin says, “But I would say that I am like a lot of people who live in America, which is people from different cultures and how all of them mix into one pot.”
Echoing Benin’s definition of the American identity, third generation Harvesters, who acknowledge their multicultural background, noted that they were generally less rooted with their culture.
“My families cultural values haven’t really shaped my life,” one respondent wrote, “because they are pretty assimilated into American culture.”
Ideas about the American identity shift the ways in which students at Harvest feel about their national belonging. For Benin, it was the color of her skin that limited her sense of belongingness into an American community. Though many Harvesters cited race, culture, and color as a main entry barrier to the American identity, no respondents recorded gender, class, or sexuality as obstacle.
To Benin, the American identity itself is an aspect largely unquestioned.
“That’s quite an interesting thing,” she says, “because what exactly IS an American?”