What Does It Mean to be American?

What does it mean to be American? Is being an American characterized by a sense of belonging characterized by rejoicing and mourning with this nation in times of celebration and crisis? Is it a seemingly endless pool of hope for the future of this nation and a sense of pride when identifying as a member? Or is it the words scribbled onto a birth certificate or green card? As our nation continues to struggle to define what it means to be an American, and to classify people as such, we become inclined to shift the focus from crafting a definition which encapsulates everyone to embracing those who, for a variety of reasons that cannot be compressed into one definition, identify as American.


This is the goal of Define American, a non-profit organization that encourages dialogue about what it means to identify as an American and seeks to expand the definition of what it means to be an American. November 29 through December 2, 12 members of Duke University’s chapter of Define American met with members of Congress to discuss DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), share their stories, and ask them to consider how the termination of this act can impact individuals who call this country their home. Damary Gutierrez, a member of Define American and a proud recipient of DACA (also known as a Dreamer), has described Define American as “a way to prove some misconceptions wrong and to use my voice to speak of issues that others might not be able to.” Another Dreamer, Salvador Chavez, expressed his gratefulness towards DACA by claiming, “DACA influenced my life in so many ways because it gave me a sense of belonging and acceptance by this country.”


However, not all students who participated in this trip were Dreamers. Leticia Flores became interested in this movement after viewing her parents’ journey through immigration and seeing the struggles that the friends she made at Duke were suddenly experiencing. She claims, “after coming to Duke, I’ve gotten to know and befriend students that are truly amazing and inspiring. Listening to their stories is truly amazing and powerful and it’s just moving to see how they continue to forge their future in darkness.”


The students who are Dreamers were able to sit with Senator Marco Rubio and share their stories in the hopes of paving a brighter future. As we move towards a more progressive society, it becomes essential that we all advocate for justice for all Americans, not just those whose stories fit into a standard definition. Regardless of nationality, politics, and race, the individuals here on DACA are Americans. Salavor has also shared that “Define American is an important organization to me and what inspired me to do it was the announcement back in September of 2017 where Trump officially rescinded the DACA program. I was heartbroken, I cried telling myself, ‘Why do they think I am a criminal!?’” His experience, along with that of Damary and every other Dreamer on Duke’s campus and beyond, has been one of fear. Define American has allowed them to overcome that fear by shining a glimmer of hope that they will be able to continue living in the country whose values, identity, and culture they share. As Damary said, “Define American is a way to prove some misconceptions wrong and to use my voice to speak of issues that others may not be able to.”


Dreamers are not an obscure issue discussed on the news, limited to a 20 minute conversation before moving on to the next great crisis. Dreamers surround us; they are an integral portion of the American foundation and the epitome of the American dream. But more importantly, they are our classmates, our friends, and our futures. They have been lurking in the shadows, but organizations such as Define American have been encouraging them to branch out and advocate for their rights. We can choose to listen to their stories and help them rise out of this dark era or we can be complacent and allow our fellow Americans to succumb to this darkness.


If you would like to become more involved with Define American, either on Duke’s campus or beyond, view their website for more information: