Dear America, The World is Watching

Dear America, the world is watching. 

Since I was little, I’ve been raised to know what it means to be an American. I vote and I canvas and I make an effort to learn as much as I can. As an American, I feel like I try my best to view our country with a critical perspective from multiple angles. It wasn’t until I started living in another country that I really started to understand what it means to be an American from the eyes of someone who isn’t. This is the story of a not-so-pleasant take on that.

I’ve been living in Bogotá, Colombia for a little over two months. Among many other things, Bogotá is also the street art capital of the world. On my ten minute walk to class I see around 15-20 different murals, from cats to commentary on the armed conflict. Last week, I noticed a particularly large one (about 40 feet wide) had been painted over. The next day, I was greeted with political and social commentary that rivaled the work of Banksy. 

Staring at me was a series of 6 different murals, each with a different message relating to the United States of America. One featured a woman struggling to carry a flag that said “We The People”, almost crumbling to her knees from the weight of trying to hold up the old, idealistic visions of the United States. Next, the silhouette of Donald Trump stood, looking down upon a same-sex couple, a working woman, and a person of color. Uncle Sam made an appearance, holding a sign that said “I Love America But I Do Not Like It”. Painted above in cryptic red letters was “YANKEE GO HOME”. However, the piece of the mural that struck me the most was the painting of Paris Hilton, with her arms raised above her head wearing a shirt that says “STOP BEING POOR”. 

The photo of Paris Hilton has circulated as a meme in pop culture; I have seen it bouncing around for years (some rumors say it’s photoshopped, but who really knows?). I guess I just assumed that the only ones who saw it were teenagers on Twitter or people that watched Keeping Up With the Kardashians. It wasn’t until this mural that it really hit me: millions of people all over the world have watched American media and pop culture use this gross declaration of wealth and negligence as a joke. As if the solution to centuries of imperialism and exploitative trade relations is the easiest thing in the world to figure out. Just stop being poor… duh. 

It’s like when you’re thirteen and your mom sees the dumb thing you put on Facebook– that feeling of sheer embarrassment. The excuse, “but I didn’t mean for you to see it, Mom… just my friends!” couldn’t save you then, and it can’t save you now. I stared at Paris Hilton, so carefree and unbothered, and a wave of shame filled my whole body. I’m used to bracing for impact when I say that I’m American. I’m very proud to be from the U.S., but I can’t deny that our history and our present are muddled with the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. 

Two days later, the mural was painted over again, with only the faint traces of the original work. It was replaced with shrewd commentary, almost like it was meant to be performance art. 

This article isn’t meant to be another anti or pro-American thought piece– everyone knows we have a surplus of those. It’s just meant to remind us that the world is watching, even the parts of society we dismiss as irrelevant and vapid. How could I expect to be walking down the street in South America and suddenly see an artist painting an American socialite right before my eyes? Donald Trump I could expect, but Paris Hilton? She’s the inspiration behind London Tipton on Zack & Cody and a washed-up MTV star. Yet here she is, flaunting her platinum blonde hair in my face, a symbol of material excess, self-absorption, and in a way… America.