What Keeps Americans United?

My Thoughts After a Year of Traveling Across the U.S.

Constantino Diaz-Duran is a fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. He is chronicling his walk from New York to Los Angeles to celebrate his eligibility for American citizenship. Follow Constantino’s progress.

So here I am, in San Diego. Further south than I’d originally intended, but in California, and looking at the Pacific. It has been an unforgettable year. My life changed in ways I never expected. I met hundreds of people. Talking to them, I sought to figure out what it means to be an American. Of course, for any one person to define “American” is presumptuous. There are many ways of being American. But we are still one nation. Something keeps us together as a social unit. What is it?

Frankly, I don’t yet know. It is hard for me, fresh off the road, to remove myself and look at the big picture. I have a year’s worth of notes to sort through and much to process. I have a month of bus travel ahead of me to go back to New York, and then (most likely) I will move to Texas and start a new life.

To get a topic I find unsavory out of the way, I’ll start by writing about politics. Americans have become jaded-it has been said that politicians and the media are out of touch with the people, and it is true. Few people outside the Beltway and the various political hotbeds around the country believe that elections make a difference. Some people vote, and many hold that right dear, but in my conversations with Americans across the country I heard dejection. It’s true that Barack Obama has few fans in the South, but it’s also true that Mitt Romney is seen as just another pompous Yankee. Most I’ve talked to have said that, this Fall, they will choose “the lesser of two evils”

The longevity of the two-party system has always puzzled me, and now I find it even more artificial. I believe I will see the Democratic and Republican parties lose their stranglehold on governance within my lifetime. My talks with 20-somethings are the source of this belief. The young adults I met fell largely into two camps: those who were energized by President Obama’s 2008 campaign-and then let down by his first term-and those who have been inspired by Ron Paul. These two camps are less likely to see the political landscape in binary terms. They, I think, are the ones who will eventually produce needed change. Full disclosure: I more or less avoided “political junkies” (former D.C. interns and members of campus political associations); I wanted to hear from those who have less access to the press and airwaves.

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So what have I found keeps us united? A year after I left New York, I’m still most impressed by people’s kindness. I never set out to write a book about American hospitality or American generosity. I wanted to write simply about my experience. I expected both friendliness and hostility, light and dark. To my surprise, though, my encounters with fellow Americans were unfailingly positive.

Early on, I wrote about the notion of “radical hospitality,” which I first heard preached by an Episcopal priest in New Jersey. Reverend Cynthia Black asked a couple at her congregation to take me in for a night. They entertained me for an entire weekend, and they have kept in touch regularly since then. It seems hard to believe, but this has been the case with almost all of my hosts. And I have received this kind of hospitality across the nation. I suspect radical hospitality has always been a national trait.

Americans, I have learned, are exceptionally kind on an individual basis. People gripe about groups-immigrants, gays, “the religious right.” But, faced with an individual from one of those groups, people are different. They’re friendly. They do what they can to help. They get along. At some point, I hope, this will translate into the way we govern ourselves.

The kindness I have found has inspired me, and has made me even more eager to become a citizen. I will file the paperwork as soon as I get back to New York, and the ceremony should take place some four months later. I will declare, under oath, “that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.” I will also swear “that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and “that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” After this journey, I know I will mean every one of those words. And even though I am a pacifist, I can also say now, with my conscience at ease, “that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States.”

I am writing a book about this journey that will share what I have learned and present the stories of the people I have met. It is through their stories that we can discern the meaning of being American. You may not walk across the country yourself, but next time you’re sitting next to a stranger, strike up a conversation and ask him what he thinks about the country and our countrymen. Just listen. You might find you learn a lot about your country-and even more about yourself.

This is the final installment in Constantino Diaz-Duran’s Walk Like An American series.

*Photo by Constantino Diaz-Duran.


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