Commentary: What defines a 'true American?'

Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez
Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez MCT

My byline is an irritant.

Mary Sanchez is simply my given name. But it seems to rile some people. They believe that anyone with such a surname couldn’t possibly have a strong lineage in this country.

The charge is usually made when someone disagrees with my opinion-writing, launched to infer that I have no claim to being a “true American,” whatever that subjective term might mean.

Here is my reply: “We didn’t just get here.”

This is normally not relevant, but it’s interesting to note as the nation marks the 150th anniversary this week of the beginning of the Civil War.

So for those who insist upon the ill-advised game of reciting the role of relatives long gone to claim a higher level of patriotism — I’ll play, just this once.

The dossier on my mother’s side begins in the colonial era.

The Cutters in America date to 1640, and I’m a direct descendent of at least one, but probably two, men who fought in the Revolutionary War. I know of at least five relatives who fought in the Civil War (Union side).

Two fought locally, including in the Battle of Westport. And one of those, James Madison Harvey, went on to become the fifth governor of Kansas and later a U.S. senator. The other, Samuel Cutter, was also civilian scout for George Armstrong Custer and hunted the plains with Buffalo Bill Cody.

I’m also related to the wife of Charles Lindbergh. And to the man who discovered Pikes Peak, but not before he is believed to have raised the first Stars and Stripes in the territory of Kansas in 1806.

So there. So much for simplistic notions of who is more American and who is less.

References to mom’s side of the family can help coax more docile conversations on pertinent issues of the day. I invoke them from time to time when an errant caller shrieks that “Sanchez needs to go back to where she came from.”

“Do you mean Newcastle, England, or south Kansas City?” is my admittedly snarky reply.

But I’m no less proud of my father, who received his U.S. citizenship after serving in World War II. The eldest of my two brothers has a family keepsake, the U.S. flag that covered our dad’s coffin.

I suspect my mother, deceased more than a year now, would have scoffed at the distortions brewing as the country sets about commemorating the Civil War. She loved history — her family’s and the nation’s.

A recent survey by CNN found that 23 percent of Americans sympathize more with the Confederates.

Is that the penchant to side with the underdog? Is it genuine Southern pride, a touch point to relatives who were of the Confederacy? Or does it portend more?

Something closer, perhaps, to how the nation’s history of slavery has been twisted and turned, with people either denying or discounting its horrors and legacy, or its role in the Civil War and the lives of the Founding Fathers?

The next four years, during which many Civil War battles will be noted, offer a time for honest assessment, for broader understandings of this most significant portion of the nation’s past.

One thing that strikes me about my mother’s Civil War ancestors is how long ago their lives of hardship on the Kansas prairie feels. Yet, by the generations, they aren’t that distant.

My mother attended the funeral of Samuel Cutter. Granted, she was only about 5 years old. His younger sister was my mother’s grandmother.

In family history, Samuel Cutter also is referred to as the “Indian fighter.” Given what we know about the mistreatment of American Indians, it is hardly a matter of pride to hear those words. Yet I want to know more about his time, its motivations and struggles.

So seriously, do you want to discuss who is more American? I’d rather learn how U.S. history affected your family, and what you are adding today.

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