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Passports, Political Rhetoric and Constructions of American-ness

09/10/2012 10:06 am ET | Updated Nov 10, 2012

As a NYC born and bred Latina (Colombian/Cuban) living in London for the past four years, I use my passport often. So much so, that recently I had to pay $82 to have extra pages added. My passport arrived two months ago with its new pages neatly pasted inside, but I never bothered to look at them until yesterday when I was at Heathrow. My old pages feature the different state seals. These new pages, however, are noticeably different. Images of Independence Hall, the Rocky Mountains, farmers, cowboys, the Statue of Liberty, wheat fields, a Native American totem pole, the railroad, cacti, a steamboat, bald eagles, buffalo and bears partner with quotes from Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ronald Reagan, Howard H. Lehman, Jessamyn West (the only woman unless you count the Statue of Liberty), and José Antonio Navarro (the only "brown" person) among others. The only bodies visible in these images are those of three men: a farmer plowing his wheat field and two cowboys herding cattle. There are no women (unless you make the logical assumption that inside his farmhouse, the farmer's wife labors domestically); there are no black people (even though the steamboat functions as a signifier of the American South and slavery); Asians are absent (despite their contribution to the railroad which functioned as "a big iron needle stitching the country together"... Jessamyn West's words on passport pages L and M); and last but not least there are no Native Americans (whose many skilled artisans surely carved the intricate totem pole). As a scholar of performance in its multiple forms, I find performances of American-ness (through images, discourse, politics and popular culture) often troubling and full of historical amnesia. These last weeks, the political conventions have emerged as literal stages where American-ness transpires in both frustrating yet inspiring ways. First, my frustrations:

As someone who aligns herself to the Howard Zinn school of American history, a history detailed in his A People's History of the United States, I question the constructions of a mythic America Dream where dreams materialize and infinite possibilities abound if you work hard. Sadly, today more than ever evidence points to the contrary. Please do not think me a cynic. I understand the need for political rhetoric to stir us up, to move us away from a political apathy that can be dangerous during an election year when so much is at stake (reproductive rights, access to education, health care, the economy, prison reform, corporate malfeasance to name a few). For those of us that lean "to the left, to the left" of the political spectrum we watch as conservatives produce a discourse about an American Dream based on a pre-civil rights United States where women, LGBTQ, and people of color maintained marginal, if not invisible roles in the social structure. How else can you explain vintage Americana Clint Eastwood's shenanigans? Can someone give him a copy of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, please? I also wonder if his Latina wife Dina Ruiz suggested to him that it might not be such a good idea to invisibilize and delegitimize a person of color, let alone "an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black" as Cornell Belcher states in Ta-Nehisi Coates recent and brilliant essay about President Obama in The Atlantic.

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama's speech highlighted access, opportunity and responsibility to our larger community as benchmarks of the ever-elusive, ever-imagined American Dream. She demonstrated why Barack Obama should be re-elected with stories of his personal and political triumphs thereby attesting to the success of that Dream. An effective speech in terms of its rhetoric, style and tone, it still relied heavily on tropes of an American Dream that have yet to materialize or may never do so for many. However, in the televised images and words of both Michelle Obama and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, I saw a reflection of a kind-of-sort-of American Dream, but in this dream we do not remain asleep lulled by the mythical rhetoric. In this one we actually wake up. This dream motivates us to become politically aware and engaged, where we question the constructions of such American Dream discourse to begin with, and where we demand honesty, integrity and accountability from our political leaders and the system some of them have repeatedly delegitimized in deference to "corporate robber barons and war mongers" (Howard Zinn, New York Times, 2007).

The machinations of politics remind me of that Shakespeare quote, "all the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players," in that too often the political stage treats us as docile, easily manipulated individuals who go about as Hegelian cogs in a machine... in popular culture terms, we are still on the blue pill. Well, if anything Michelle Obama's speech can serve to galvanize and wake us up from the "American Dream" to an American Reality where intelligent and talented Americans (whether Latino like Castro, or black and female like Obama), inspire us to materialize an America where respect for diversity, facts, tolerance and solidarity supersede those illusions put forth by out of touch politicians and printed on the pages of my passport.