Opinion: American patriotism through the eyes of a noncitizen

I didn’t really know how strongly some Americans feel they are God’s gift to humanity until I attended a few of my American Heritage classes as a freshman at BYU. (Unsplash)

I didn’t really know how strongly some Americans feel they are God’s gift to humanity until I had attended a few of my American Heritage classes at BYU during my freshman year.

To give some context, I am not American, and I had to do quite the move to study at BYU. Before starting university, I lived in Spain for 17 years and had only visited the United States and Utah once. Deciding to do my whole college career abroad meant a change of language, culture, educational system, getting used to different social norms and being introduced to many other new concepts. Those included going grocery shopping once a week or every two weeks instead of every day, having dinner at 7 p.m. and not at 9:30 p.m. and prioritizing comfort over style when it comes to fashion. Yes, many Europeans can be spotted wearing a blazer and Oxford shoes at the grocery store. Sorry, not everyone fits in the bad girl genre.

Just like any other freshman starting at BYU, I thought I could juggle everything I had in high school, and fit volunteering, a church calling, a part time job and 17 credits into my already-loaded schedule. Maybe it was because I am an international student and hadn’t been told about this, or maybe it was because I didn’t even bother to ask, but I decided to take American Heritage during my first semester, knowing Alexander Hamilton was a “founding father without a father” and that there was a rather funny hand signs trick to memorize The Bill of Rights.

Even though many of Professor Kelly Patterson’s lectures were memorable (cheerleading with the cheer team and auctioning a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts for more than $100 are definitely up there), there was one moment which impacted me the most, as a freshman student offered to say the prayer before the lecture. “And we thank Thee for having blessed us with being born in the United States,” the student said. “We are proud and thankful for this country.” By the time the student finished his prayer, I was already calling my dad to tell him he wouldn’t believe how true the stereotype was and that indeed, Americans are obsessed with their country.

Another example of my culture and American patriotism shock was the time I was scrolling on my Instagram feed and saw an American friend of mine had posted about her vacation in Europe. She visited my hometown of Madrid for two months and the post included pictures of her visit to the Royal Palace, the Museo del Prado, the Plaza de Toros de las Ventas and other iconic landmarks.

As I went on the comment section to compliment her pictures —as you do— one comment caught my eye: “The best country in the world welcomes you back,” it read. I was devastated to find her response to the comment was, “Amen.”

Why can’t Americans stop bringing up their country and reminding everyone that they believe there is no better place on earth? It took me a couple more years after that first semester at BYU to understand the reason American patriotism is so fascinating to me and why it drives me crazy at the same time: I wasn’t raised to love my own country.

Spain has a history of nationalist conflicts and during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from 1939 to 1975, the fascist movement adopted and made of our flag and national anthem symbols of unity and national fanaticism. As a result, most national symbols and sentiments were rejected during the transition period from a dictatorship back to a monarchy in the late 70s.

Ultimately, the shield on our flag and the dictatorship worshipping lyrics to the national anthem were eliminated after this period to erase the fascist tone. Yet, many people now don’t feel pride or any ties to these symbols as they are still strongly connected to the conservative and national parties in Spain.

All of this means as a Spaniard, I can’t really display the flag, wear it on clothes, bracelets or stickers like Americans do, without making a statement about my political affiliation and consciously or unconsciously labeling myself as pro monarchy and as a nationalist.

Even now, after 50 years, Spain pays the consequences of having been under Franco’s nationalist regime as autonomous communities such as País Vasco and Cataluña continue their separatist movement and spread a feeling of lack of unity in the country. Spaniards tend to be critical toward our history and try so hard not to go back to the dictatorship ages that we also fail to show national pride from time to time and recognize when our country is doing things right. The exception involves fútbol and the World or Europe Cup: then it’s okay to display your flag on your balcony and proudly say you’re a Spaniard.

Having grown up in a place where national pride and symbols are stigmatized made it harder for me to understand how a country could ever preach so much unity, pride and respect for itself, without it being a bad thing. I remember feeling somewhat uneasy when I first heard the American Pledge of Allegiance. The part where it says, “One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” inevitably reminded me of Spain’s fascist saying, “España, Una, Grande, Libre,” which means, “Spain, One, Great, Free.”

I am not by any means trying to say America’s patriotism gets close to or resembles Spain’s nationalist movement at all. It doesn’t. However, I was raised in Europe, where we learn that national pride is wrong and shameful and has always led to disaster and totalitarian regimes such as the ones in Germany, Italy and Spain. It is difficult for me to assimilate that one can be critical toward the history of their country, and still love it and be thankful for the things it did right.

I have learned Americans love their country. But recently, I have also realized patriotism in America seems to be in decline, and many Americans from my generation also feel let down, hopeless and critical about the United States’ past history and its challenges in the present. Some feel embarrassed about U.S. presidents starring in scandals such as the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and most recently, the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Some Americans are also showing their skepticism as Independence Day gets closer. For some, especially the Black community, America’s true “Independence Day” is on Freedom Day or Juneteenth on June 19, which commemorates the day when all Americans were actually freed.

Those who know me won’t be surprised that one of the American patriotic songs I love the least is “God Bless the U.S.A” by Lee Greenwood. If you really listen closely to it, you may be able to see how it could come across as somewhat conceited to people from other countries. “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free, and I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me,” the song goes. “And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend Her still today, ’cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land, God bless the U.S.A.”

Yet, in a way, I wish in Spain we were a little bit more like America. I am not sure whether our history really allows it, but we could definitely learn from how the United States tries to look forward and fix those mistakes from the past, and how it continues to strive to unify its people even during times of political, race and class divisions.

— Andrea Zapata

Editor in Chief

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