July 4 marks the day, in 1776, when representatives of 13 colonies in North America declared themselves independent and no longer part of the British Empire. The declaration was based on their grievances against Great Britain and the belief in “inalienable rights … among these, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I could dash off more information about the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the American constitution because I took American history even before I had Philippine history. I had left the Philippines after my first college year to study in the United States.
I remember life in San Francisco’s Bay Area with fondness. Although I did not want to leave the Philippines — my parents “exiled” me, fearing the rising student activism — I was excited about going to the US, not because of “Stateside” goods, which we had anyway in abundance in the Philippines, but because of the anticipation that America was presenting a radically different way of looking at the world, and at life.
Much of that spirit of America was enshrined in its early commitment to the principles of liberal democracy, which itself has evolved, and continues to evolve. Freedom, initially, was something for male white landowners. But it was extended through time and often through bloody struggle, so that, today, Americans remain the most militant in pushing for greater inclusivity, so well exemplified by the huge rainbow flag, representing the LGBT advocacy, hanging in front of the US Embassy on Roxas Boulevard last month.
I think of America, too, as a great idea, a dream, an aspiration. It isn’t surprising that its revolution, and constitution, inspired so many other revolutions and independence movements through the 18th and into the 20th centuries, from Latin America to Asia and Africa. Even the Vietnamese constitution, crafted under Ho Chi Minh, shows the American influence in its adoption of the pursuit of happiness as a constitutional right.
But let me get back to the personal. I was not to be disappointed about what I thought America would be, and America did leave its imprint on me. Let me just mention how that America continues to shape me today, particularly as an educator and as a university administrator.
What had struck me most, initially, was the way Americans listened to young people, training them early to speak their minds, to make decisions and to live by those decisions. Audacity comes to my mind, and I use the term in a positive sense — a boldness that drives, and is derived from, self-confidence and self-esteem.
My first stay in the US was marked by excitement about space exploration, the first man on the moon and other breakthroughs in science. I could see why their science was so vigorous, pushed by audacity, inquisitiveness … and imagination about what could be, rather than accepting what was already there.
Early on, I appreciated the fairness in schools. You knew how your grades were derived, and teachers’ evaluations were public. Fairness reduces mistrust, and engenders pride in what we do. It didn’t matter, when I became a working student, that I was on minimum wage, because there was a sense that you could move upwards if you were good at your work.
Sure, I was in California with a strong liberal tradition, but years later I was to live in Texas.
All said, though, Californians or Texans or New Yorkers, America’s spirit was one built on diversity. Even the most conservative people I knew had some curiosity and openness
toward people different from themselves.
I’ve used the past tense and admit that I write with nostalgia, feeling sadness that the American spirit is being eroded from within. The 9/11 bombings scarred the nation and created paranoia. Economic inequality also worsened in recent years. Instead of addressing these problems, politicians have capitalized on people’s fears to use foreigners as scapegoats and to divide the nation.
That fear, that anger, is not the America I want to share with my students and my children. They will “grow” into America, not as Filipinos becoming Americanized, but with a Filipinized spirit of 1776.
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