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Becoming American

I got here as fast as I could, but I wasn’t born in the United States.  Despite what many people assume – and has been published in some of my author-bios – I was also not born of American parents, stationed or otherwise sojourning in Europe.

I was born in Portugal, of Portuguese parents, and so far as I know (it’s hard to stand on the marital faithfulness of people you never met even if they were your ancestresses) have no American ancestor, ever.  I probably have British blood, somewhere.  Being from the north of Portugal it is virtually impossible I don’t, when you consider trade going back to the 4th century B.C. and a tendency for well-to-do British families to send their remittance men to the area before there was an Empire.

What does this have to do with being American?

Despite the genetic ignorance of people who claim that America is a nation like old Europe of “blood and soil”? (Even there it’s honored more in the breach).  Clear nothing.

I’ve been known to say I was born American, it just took me a few years to make it official.

Is this strictly true?  Kind of.  If you squint and shake the magic 8-Ball.

Of course, I didn’t know the name for what I was or what I wanted.  I had not read that “immortal poetry” of the Declaration of Independence.  All I knew is that I wasn’t precisely right where I was, and while I loved my family and the village in which I grew up, all my impulses -- indeed, my way of being -- were at odds with the local culture and the local beliefs.

I could pass.  Well, sort of.  The truth is that looking back at my pictures I don’t see it, but total strangers started identifying me as “not from around here” as soon as I left the village to go to middle school.  And it got worse the older I got.

People didn’t identify me as American.  They didn’t get enough American tourists to make that particular guess.  German and English were the most often ventured guesses.

I will confess that at eight I decided I was going to be a writer and live in Denver.  But at the time I really had no clue what country Denver was in, and I had a vague idea it was by the sea.  No, I don’t know where I came across the city name, or why it appealed to me so much.  Could very well have been an article about the Natural History Museum.  I always liked dinosaurs.

Years later, at fourteen, I fell in love with English.  It wasn’t my second language – that was French, started at 11 and I did well in it – but English  clicked with my brain in a weird way, so that I studied it disproportionately and within a year was reading books published in English for people from Great Britain and America.  (They were unholy expensive in Portugal, so those of us in languages often went to hotel lobbies, looking for paperbacks that tourists had read and discarded to save luggage room.  Yes, I did read the most unholy “Summer Blockbuster” tripe.)