What is a Yankee?
To most of the world, a Yankee is an American, anybody who lives in the United States. It is not always a pleasant connotation; in fact, "Yankee, go home!" calls up images of angry Latin American mobs protesting the oppression of American imperialist policies.
To most Americans, though, the word Yankee means either the pin-striped New York baseball team or the Northern forces in the American Civil War, the soldiers from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. In time, though, the idea that the word Yankee suggests has shrunk geographically until it is on the verge of extinction.
Perhaps the most famous Yankee of all (no offense to the musical Damn Yankees! intended) has star billing in Mark Twain's novel Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I have lived most of my life, now, in that southern New England state, and I can assure you there are precious few real Yankees around. Real Yankees might have lived in Connecticut at one time, but now they are from another place and perhaps another time. As television and other forms of mass media invade our homes and tend to diminish regional differences, to make Americans more and more homogeneous, the Yankee might be one of the first genuine American characters to disappear.
A neighbor of mine claims he knows what a real Yankee is all about. Years ago, he says, he lived next door to one. It seems his plumbing was acting up and he'd actually removed the toilet from the floor and taken it out into the backyard to do some surgery on it. Now he knew that his neighbor, who happened to be a professional plumber as well as the putative Yankee, was well aware of the fact that he was struggling to fix his toilet and he knew that his neighbor was home, doing nothing in particular that day, probably watching from the kitchen window. But would he come over and offer to help? No way. But when my friend finally gave up and went over and asked for assistance, the plumber-neighbor not only agreed to help, he did so gleefully. He spent the entire afternoon finding and fixing the problem and helping to return the toilet to its proper place. And wouldn't accept a dime, of course.
According to my friend, that's the first tenet of Yankee-ness. You must never offer help because that makes the person to whom you have proferred assistance "beholden" to you. And a Yankee must never be "beholden" to anyone. (That's how the word for this concept is said, and so we must spell it that way, too.) To be beholden means that you owe something to someone else. Now everyone in the world can owe something to the Yankee, but the Yankee must never owe anyone else anything, and he can't really understand someone who would be willing to be beholden. Thus he will not offer help oh, maybe in a real emergency, he would be as good a Samaritan as anyone else until asked. When asked, it's another story. You will get more help than you can imagine, help in great abundance, more than you could ever deserve or pay back. So it's not that Yankees are stingy; on the contrary, a Yankee is generous to a fault. But there is a sense of reserve that prohibits the true Yankee from offering help before being asked. The sense of inviolate space is paramount: "Good fences make good neighbors," says the neighbor in Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall," and the Yankee will not cross the fence until asked.
Another friend of mine knows someone, a Yankee, a chap born so far north in Vermont that he's nearly Canadian, who comes over to help with his taxes ever year. To re-pay him, my friend must resort to trickery, leaving something on the doorstep in the middle of the night. To offer anything else, up front, might tip the beholden scales in his favor and that would be risky.
That's what I think defines this dying breed of the American Yankee: an extraordinary sense of balance and reserve, a holding off and yet, behind all that reserve, a reservoir of generosity and friendliness that can be nearly overwhelming.
Today's Fourth of July holiday, our country's birthday, marks a new beginning for undocumented Americans like me.
Last month, TIME magazine featured an unprecedented photograph of 36 undocumented young people, myself included, on the cover of its U.S. and international editions. "We are Americans," the headline declared. "Just not legally." Shortly after, President Obama, in the most significant step in the fight for immigrant rights since President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, issued a directive to stop the deportation of an estimated 1 million DREAM Act-eligible undocumented youth and welcome them to our workforce. America, in turn, embraced 1 million dreams. And in last week's Supreme Court decision on Arizona's immigration law, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion for the highest court in the land: "As a general rule, it is not a crime for a movable alien to remain in the United States."
As we celebrate America's Independence Day -- as we explore what it means to be American on the most American of all days -- I also celebrate my independence from the word "illegal."
Academics and lawyers will be quick to point out that I, in fact, was never a "criminal." Being in the U.S. without authorization is not a crime, but rather a civil offense for the country's estimated 12 million undocumented residents. Yet for too long, the rhetoric around immigration has been shrouded in and synonymous with criminality. As a cable news producer on Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" tells a colleague in the show's most recent episode, we've grown accustomed to talking about human beings as if "we're talking about scraping gum off our shoes."
"These people chose to take a huge risk to become Americans," the producer notes, "and they deserve a better descriptor than 'illegals.'"
To me, what it means to be an American goes beyond your place of birth or the documents you have, back to when throngs of Irish, Italian and Eastern Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of a better life, no papers asked. What it means to be an American is less about who you are than what you are about-- how you live your life, how you contribute to this country, how you pledge allegiance to a flag hoping and praying it will make room for you. What it means to be an American is in the hearts of the people who, in their struggles and heartaches, in their joys and triumphs, fight for America and fight to be American every day.
A few weeks after I "came out" in June 2011 about my undocumented status in an essay in the New York Times Magazine, Washington state revoked my driver's license. Among the first people to reach out to me was Aaron Sorkin. I've interviewed Sorkin before. He told me he was working on a new show about a cable news program, and that the second episode is set on the day Gov. Jan Brewer signed the Arizona immigration bill into law. He asked for my thoughts on immigration. In an email later, I told him about the first time I watched one of his films. It was 1997, not too long after I discovered that I didn't have the proper documents to live in America. I was watching "The American President," a movie starring Michael Douglas, and toward the end of the film, Douglas, as the president, says: "America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight." I was 16, lost and disoriented, and I told Sorkin that hearing those words helped me realize that I had to fight -- that America was a fight and that America had to be earned.
Undocumented Americans, aspiring citizens like me, have been fighting and will continue to fight for this country we call home. And, as more and more undocumented Americans and the people who support us -- the Good Samaritans in our lives, the teachers, pastors, neighbors and friends who make up our underground railroad -- "come out" and tell our stories, America's view of immigration and the nature of citizenship itself grows increasingly more complex and nuanced. It becomes about human beings.
Together with a small group of friends, I founded a campaign called Define American, which seeks to elevate conversation on immigration. And elevating and broadening the conversation means engaging different types of audiences from all walks of life. After appearing on "The O'Reilly Factor" last month, I received an email from Dennis Murphy of Omaha, Nebraska. The email reads:
Thank you, Mr. Murphy, for considering me one of your fellow Americans. Let's keep the conversation going. Let's keep exploring what it means to be an American.
As founder and former state chairman of the Nebraska Minutemen, now merged with the Nebraska Tea Party, I was positively impressed by your interview with Bill O'Reilly. If I understand your situation correctly, you [were] brought into the United States by your parents when you were a young child, and they chose for whatever reason to do so in a fashion that avoided our immigration law. You now refer to yourself in your blog as "an undocumented American," which I believe is a fair and accurate assessment."
What Does 'American' Mean To You?
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