What Does America Mean in Cuzco?

Tourists Enjoying Cuzco's Plaza de Armas

Tourists throng Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas and nearby zones. This morning it was almost impossible to walk down the street by the Archbishop’s Palace, almost the only way between the neighborhood of San Blas and the Main Square, because of a large and solid group of French-speaking tourists and guide that choked all movement. Although for the most part, cultural and social conflicts are little more than irritants, still some concerns do separate tourists and locals.

One such issue has to do with the name of the powerful, English speaking country to the north sometimes called the United States.

This morning in a cafe, I overheard a university aged woman in t-shirt and jeans ask her friends “where do you want to eat when we get home.”

“I want to go to Taco Bell,” another similarly attired woman said.

In response to a slight snicker she said exasperatedly ”What’s wrong with Taco Bell!”

No one answered and silence reigned for a few strikes of the drum before she said “oh well, we can just decide when we get back to America.”

Taking a Picture and Blocking Traffic by the Archbishop's Palace
Taking a Picture and Blocking Traffic by the Archbishop’s Palace

At the same time I was looking at a drawing in Spanish making the rounds on Facebook that said “America has 35 countries. America is not just the United States.”

Feeling impish, I half way wanted to butt into the young woman’s conversation and say “but you are already in America. Peru is America too.”

How many times have people done that to me in the past, when I have slipped and called my country America, instead of the United States?

People who work in tourism are used to Americans–United States citizens–taking the name of the continents of America for their own as are people who have frequent relations with the United States, either through business or politics. Nevertheless, the issue continues to bother many people in Peru and elsewhere in Latin America.

At the same time Americans are, like, “why are you upset? It is just my country’s name!”

This issue will continue, no matter what I write here. It involves two very different and strong view points on the word “America” as to whether it is the name of a region with 35 countries or simply the name of a country easily distinguished from the rest because they are parts of an America that takes a modifier, such as North or South, or Latin.

Watching Tourists go by in Cuzco
Watching Tourists go by in Cuzco

There are many historical reasons why both views are strongly taken by the different peoples who come together in the mix of languages and cultures that is Cuzco. Perhaps most importantly here, the United States took its name because it was a key part of English-speaking America, with the other part being Canada, mostly.

Those thirteen colonies that came together in rebellion against the British monarch were naturally described as the American colonies, and then the United States of America after independence. America was their most important descriptor, with the other being the separation between independent and royalist America, or the US and Canada.

In Spanish, the colonies of Spain in the New World were similarly found in América, though it was not easy to divide that America into two–north and south. They were Mexico and all the lands down to Tierra del Fuego and the cold, stormy waters of the south. Like the American colonies they had administrative separations, but almost all all were under Spain or Portugal, and all became independent from the mother country.

Thus they comprised, together, América, when one speaks Spanish or Portuguese.

Cuzco's Colonial Plaza de Armas (Main Square)
Cuzco’s Colonial Plaza de Armas (Main Square)

The different political and linguistic histories of English speaking and Luso-Spanish speaking America mean that when English speaking tourists from the New World use the taken for granted way of referring to the powerful English-speaking country of the New World, without meaning to, they challenge the implicit understandings of locals with their language rooted in the Spanish world.

There are two Americas, as a result, America and América, and they do not mean the same thing even if the word is the same. It is almost impossible to make them the same without one side or the other feeling wronged.

Fortunately, most people who work in tourism try hard to make travelers feel comfortable as guests in their country, so the issue seldom arises as part of the tourist experience, although there can be grumbling back stage. But it is useful to be aware that such as simple word, America, can create such difference of meaning and misunderstanding when English speakers and Spanish speakers come together.

Residential Cuzco at Sunset
Residential Cuzco at Sunset

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