Click on the images below to see and hear what each person had to say.
Bridget Manulele Dudoit Clarke, 67, of Anahola, Hawaii, is a wedding officiant and Native Hawaiian singer who still remembers waking up to sirens — and learning Hawaii had become a state. When she traveled abroad, “boy, was I happy to have that blue passport,” although she worries over a loss of Native Hawaiian culture and identity.
“I really dislike the borders. We’re divided even in our own country and in so many small and large ways. I wish for everyone to be so empty of all of the stuff that we carry.”
We are united by a capacity for empathy and flourish when we come together to help each other. Fifty-nine of those interviewed, pictured above, brought up this idea. They value a sense of togetherness built from compassion for others and believe most Americans share that notion. Seventeen discussed community and empathy as the traits most essential to the American character; meet them by clicking the next button. Many recalled a sense of unity in the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and pointed to an outpouring of aid after recent hurricanes. In all parts of the country — from rural towns to big cities — people described a yearning to feel connected. Who was included in their concept of community, however, varied widely.
Pearl Fryar, 78, of Bishopville, S.C., heard the stereotype that blacks don’t keep up their yards and created a remarkable topiary garden in response. It draws visitors from around the world. “It’s designed so that the last thing you see before leaving my garden is love, peace and goodwill. And to me that’s what makes the world go around.”
“Keep it simple,” he says. “The more you complex it, I don’t care who you are, you going to have a problem. If you work anything with a passion, you can pretty well be successful.”
Tina Smith, 41, of Brown County, Ind., is a graphic designer who says “it’s easy to be isolated” living in a place surrounded by state forests. “I love some parts about that, but it’s also made me realize that you do have to be intentional about community … being aware of what’s going on in the world around you and just plugging in where you're at.
“I think you need to stay connected to be united.”
Rashelle Flores, 28, of Whitsett, N.C., came here from Jamaica as a teen. She has an 11-month-old daughter, works the front desk at a Marriott, loves both jobs. “I think the very thing that unites us is what separates us: Freedom. Rights. Everybody have the right to do whatever they want to do. The thing is, you have to respect that.”
Latina Robinson, 31, of North Little Rock, Ark., is a single mother of an 11-year-old son and a pharmacy technician at a family-owned drugstore operating since the 1880s. “Never shut down, never closed and that’s what makes it so unique.”
She sees the country the same way: “We're here to support and help one another because we're all from this great nation, and we all should be reaching for the same goal, which is making this place great for everyone that lives in it.”
Kevin Hollatz, 52, of Bismarck, N.D., is a horticulturalist and avid reader who has “gone insane in my yard.” Married, with two sons, he likes the solitude where he lives. “We're one of the most charitable nations … but let’s just admit, if we did something wrong, that we did it.”
People are instinctively compassionate, he says, “but we all get too caught up in ‘my worldview is correct.’”
Antoinette Ellis, 33, of Savannah, Ga., was born and raised here and teaches English for non-native speakers and social studies at a high school there. “I feel connected through meeting different people,” she says, and “I’m getting to find out that they are not that much different than I am.”
She has advantages that her ancestors did not, “so I’m standing on their shoulders and hopefully making them proud.”
Kendall Osier, 17, of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, is a volunteer at Midwest Central Railroad, a nonprofit organization that preserves and restores steam locomotives and runs a small route. After high school, he plans to study drafting or engineering in college.
“Obviously no matter what, wherever you go, there’s going to be some division that you can kind of see. But I feel like we're pretty close here and there’s not any major divisions, really. Everybody knows who we are here at the railroad, and just in general, so we're all kind of connected.”
Tim Davis, 59, of Devils Tower, Wyo., is the owner of Devils Tower Trading Post, near the national monument that protrudes from the prairie near the Black Hills. “It’s amazing. It’s something you never get tired of. It may be a different color, might be a different sunset, it might be covered in fog, where you can only see the top or the bottom. It does change a person.”
“I think it’s very important to look at different people through different eyes,” he says. “When I see somebody old, I relate to how they feel. I see somebody young, I can see how they feel just because a lot of things they don’t know yet.”
Sunny Hegwood, 34, of Woodward, Okla., teaches college and has a doctorate in American Indian studies from the University of Arizona. “I think of the connection to the land as a Comanche person. The super cool relationship that I have being out here is home to me.”
“I've lived in many states and got to meet a lot of different people. It’s always struck me how much we have in common as American people,” she says. “We can share our differences. We want to hear from you.”
Erma Perry, 73, of Dallas, Tex., is retired after a career in accounting. After college, going to work at Texaco corporate offices, with 42 floors and six African Americans, “was definitely a culture shock.”
Being an American “is going into a place and being able to acclimate so that you are comfortable and the people that you're around are comfortable also. Have respect for each other’s differences, but look at each other in turn. Because we're alike in so many ways, begin to unite ourselves together in that likeness.”
Nancy Miller, 53, of Bismarck, N.D., is one of eight siblings and part of a larger family as a Benedictine sister living at Annunciation Monastery. She went to the order’s college, University of Mary, and found herself drawn back to the community. The group prayer and singing “opened up something within my heart.” That was 27 years ago.
“I think goodness unites us. I think kindness unites us. It is about all of us together and coming together. I think we’re all wired with a spirituality. There is something that we long for that we can’t explain.”
Marquett Milton, 26, of Washington, D.C., is a docent at the African American Civil War Museum in the capital. “To be an American is to have an understanding of our culture because we're connected with the world.”
“America is a country that we have all nations come together as one to be united,” he says. “So we must tell the story of the past so we can look forward to have a better future.”
Andrew Castro, 31, of Hot Springs, Ark., grew up in Los Angeles and moved here to take care of a sick grandmother. A culinary school graduate, he’s a chef and a new father. Family is key, he says, and “just putting in everyday work and becoming a part of the community, just everybody thriving on each other.”
“I believe that we all can help each other out and that we're all here for the bigger picture,” he says. “One person’s dream helps the other.”
Annie Tran, 30, of Haiku, Hawaii, works in an organic deli and surfs whenever she can. Her parents are Vietnamese; her father fought for South Vietnam in the war. “I think that it’s important to try to understand one another. You know it’s easy to let all those other things get in the way — those things that we don’t agree on — to divide us.
“We're all ultimately trying to fight for the same things. You know I think we all want to be happy. We all want to feel safe and protected. And feel loved. All of those things that make us human.”
Bradley Hiatt, 37, of Oxford, Miss., is a plaintiff attorney for occupational injuries. He says what sets Americans apart is “that we look over our shoulder at those around us and hope better for them as well.
“Hundreds of years people have been coming here to build a better life, not just for themselves but for their children … at the core is to want everybody to have their greatest life possible.”
Tori Brown, 24, of Baker City, Ore., works in the family business, Barley Brown’s Beer. “It started in my dad’s garage kind of thing, and it’s become well-known in the country.” She went away to school, lived in Australia, then realized “I had this like perfect opportunity in front of me at home.”
“America should be home for anybody,” she says. “I think it’s so welcoming, there are so many opportunities and so many different aspects that I think anybody could call America home.”
We are a nation of immigrants and are united by our pride in that fact. Fifty people, pictured above, talked about the concept of America as a melting pot and beacon of hope. They embrace people’s disparate backgrounds and experiences and believe most Americans value that variety. Eleven said the country’s diversity is the most important bond between its people — and its chief source of strength; meet them by clicking next. Immigrants, many said, bring an economic and cultural vitality to America that keeps it strong.
James Davis, 33, of Las Vegas, Nev., grew up with no indoor plumbing in rural Maine and moved to Vegas at 16. He has toured the world as a Chippendales dancer and as a competitor in “The Amazing Race.” His travels to other countries have underscored this country’s diversity.
“We have so many different cultures kind of melting together, and it’s just inspiring that we function as well as we do. We trip, we fall down, but we always are striving … always to be, you know, hey, we can do this better.”
Jennifer Gomez-Chavez, 50, of Albuquerque, N.M., is special assistant to the vice president for equity and inclusion at the University of New Mexico. Her grandmother came from Mexico for opportunity and worked as a maid. Her mother became a bilingual teacher. Her own first language was Spanish. “Now I stand on those struggles and journeys to have greater access.”
“To be an American is to be fully accepting of different beliefs, different cultures, different experiences that individuals bring to this country,” she says. “It is the spirit of helping those who are voiceless, helping those who need that extra hand and championing those who are succeeding.”
Andrew Hanebutt, 30, of Boise, Idaho, is the marketing director of Boise Fry Company, a regional restaurant chain. “America is a pretty confusing place right now,” he says. He’s still struggling to pay his student loans and make ends meet.
People in his town are connected through a love of the outdoors, and he finds it easy to establish relationships anywhere. “The sharing culture wants you to leave your comfort within your own sanctuary," wherever that is.
Pam Hodgson, 55, of Plymouth, Wis., is one of two female master cheesemakers in the country. At Sartori, she gets to be creative in making new cheeses, and she mentors others learning the craft. She lives on a dairy farm that has been in her family since 1888.
"Because of our geographical and cultural differences, we have a great opportunity to be stronger. It’s what we do with it.” To her, that means building community, on her own team and “with people we may never meet" around a cheese board.
Rocio Martínez Lopez, 28, of Seattle, Wash., works in advocacy and is trying to fight tobacco marketing to Latinos. Now a citizen, she was born in Mexico and smuggled into the States “under a quilt in a car.” Americans are “loud and proud of who they are and yet have difficulties.”
She has a college degree but lives “direct deposit to direct deposit.” And, she says, when she hears this president say “ ‘my fellow Americans,’ he’s not talking to me.”
Camille Walker, 33, of Farmington, Utah, is a former mortgage broker who now blogs for moms. She has four children under 10. “One of the best things about our country is the diversity. I love being part of that … meeting people of different backgrounds and cultures and faiths.”
Many summers, her grandfather took all 21 grandkids on tours of the country in a bus. “He was a big proponent of experiencing different things. We learned a lot about our pioneer history, of LDS Mormon pioneers coming from the Mississippi Eastern America and settling Utah.”
John Chan, 66, of Woonsocket, R.I., owns Chan’s Fine Oriental Dining. “We added music to the menu back in 1977. We call it, ‘Eggroll Jazz and Blues Live at Chan’s.’ I’d like America to be an open country. This country was founded by immigrants, so I think it should stay that way. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“Providing employment to my workers, to musicians, keeping alive the great American art form, jazz and blues. That’s important to me. I feel safe here. You can be as unique as you want to be, being American, and then be as creative as you want to be.”
Will Green, 40, of Columbia, S.C., is a bartender at the Whig, a hip dive bar near the Statehouse. He hopes the country can fulfill the promise of a true meritocracy. He fears his biracial son, now 2, will be seen as “another black teenager and a threat" when he’s older.
"Everyone’s got the same struggles day to day," he says. “Anybody can be an American — you can be in the middle of Africa or the middle of Asia and you want to be American, so you come here and all of a sudden, you are.”
Sandee Bonita, 28, of Washington, D.C., is a radio personality on El Zol, one of the top Latino stations in the country. “We just include everyone. We pretty much take the best out of each and every single race that we have in here. And we enjoy it, and we celebrate the diversity that we have.
“That is one of the biggest reasons why a lot of people [in other countries] are like, ‘Oh, they’re American.’ The way we dress, the way we speak and just simply the way that we open our minds to anything and everything that is different.”
Ferial Pearson, 39, of Ralston, Neb., a professor and doctoral candidate in educational leadership, came to the United States at 19 from Kenya and is now a citizen. “In Islam, we believe that we have to donate a certain percentage of our income to people who need it. … America should be a place where everybody has their basic needs met so they can create the [needed] change in their communities without putting their lives in danger.
“America could be that way if people were willing to put their egos aside and think about other folks as a part of their family, as opposed to this us vs. them rhetoric.”
Brett LeSueur, 56, of Memphis, Tenn., says he is “honored and blessed” to live in America. Completely blind since 1998, he stays connected to his fellow Americans by following the news and “hearing the whole country.
“I really enjoy all the great stories, the human interest stories, but also follow the real news … in California, Hawaii, Alaska. I enjoy listening to different people and how they talk.”
We are united by our faith that American democracy is sturdy enough to see us through social and political disruption. Twenty-seven people, pictured above, expressed confidence in our system of checks and balances on governmental power and said they trust that the founding principles of our government and the rule of law will hold fast. Thirteen of them said that it was the central conviction that Americans share; meet them by clicking next. They ranged in age from young adults whose faith has not yet been tested to those who have lived through other eras of upheaval, such as the Vietnam War and the fight against segregation. And people born outside the country pointed out that Americans live relatively safe lives, free of war, displacement and famine.
Blake Smith, 21, of Sykesville, Md., is a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. “I can tell you right now in some countries some females don’t get to go to school. I love America and there are people out there that love America as well, and that’s what is ultimately going to unite us in the end.”
“Maybe if we go back to our roots, where there wasn’t that much technology and TV and this obsession with ‘let me get the new gadget’ and sort of go hang outside with neighbors … things will get better.”
Ginny Oliver, 97, of Rockland, Maine, still goes lobstering three times a week with her son Maxwell. “We sell them at the Spruce Head Co-op because that is where we get our fuel and our bait to put on the traps. Rockland was always a good place to grow up in, you know. There weren’t no gangsters.
“I had three boys and one daughter, and they all turned out wonderful. They’re all good to me and live near.”
Nancy Cowan, 70, of Deering, N.H., is a master falconer and best-selling author, and “I teach — wildlife, nature, where you are in the cosmos that you’re living on. I would have never expected that I was going to write books, or to have driven a sled dog team, or to have 11 raptors that have to be fed and cared for every day.”
“I don’t think I’d have the ambition to do the things I’ve done, except that I know that these opportunities are there.”
Kaelin Nelson, 18, of Hannibal, Mo., is a high school student. He worked over the summer as a deckhand. “I think what unites Americans together is the history and the pride of being an American and what it means to be an American. To push the boundaries of everything, making everybody equals, having equal opportunities and being able to live the American Dream. We are a melting pot.”
Darrio Melton, 38, of Selma, Ala., is the city’s mayor. He is a former state legislator with a masters of divinity degree from Emory University. His grandmother marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge at 19, and “now her grandson is the mayor of this historic city.” He opposed changing the bridge’s name.
America is “the Disney World of other worlds,” he says. “It’s that place where dreams come true. Yes, you will have struggles. At the same time when it comes to deep issues that would change the fabric of our country regardless of our differences, we have always come together as a country.”
Nancy Watson, 58, of Greenwich, Conn., is married to Don, an executive at a financial planning firm. She’s progressive, “if you hadn’t guessed.” He’s more conservative. She talks about the country being “a work in progress, with painful moments.” He talks about opportunity and the rewards of working hard.
Both say in marriage, and in America, it would be best to focus not on difference but on “what we share and what we both enjoy.” Says Nancy: “We are our best selves, our better selves, when we are trying to move toward meeting the sort of standard the Declaration of Independence and Constitution have set for us.”
Bill Nalu, 52, of Madison Heights, Mich., left Iraq when he was 8, became a citizen in 1980 and owns an auto repair shop. He “proudly paid my way through college myself working on cars. And that is part of my pride and what I believe makes America so incredibly unique in the landscape that is this world.”
He thinks open immigration is problematic, finds the “hyper-sensitive landscape outrageous” and says native-born Americans should “drop the guilt trip. … We are in fact the last best hope on Earth. Without us, man, the world looks a lot different.”
Rena Soller, 22, of Manhattan, Kan., is a personal trainer who says “right now, as a college graduate, I feel very low class.” But as a “white female, by default I think I got it easier than some people.” America is “a very colorful place, a giant place full of random people, as far as how we look and what we believe in our opinions. And a lot of fast food.”
It’s also safe; she feels she can walk into any place and express any opinion without “feeling like I’m going to be in trouble for it.”
Henry “Gip” Gipson, 98, of Bessemer, Ala., is a retired gravedigger who owns a cemetery and is the proprietor of Gip’s Place. He started picking a guitar when he was 12 and got beat up over it a few times in the segregated South. His response was to create his juke joint in the ’50s, a refuge from the divide, still full of all kinds of folks.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with this country, as we can see it now. Those who gots sights that look beyond the distance have already seen these things. Don’t care what happened back then, I always acted with God to forgive.”
Retha Fay Goff, 96, of Ocala, Fla., misses working. “I sit here mostly by myself. I used to be a very busy person. I always had jobs where I worked with people,” she says, “because I rose during the Depression. And you have no idea what that was like.” Her family lost their home, her husband went to war, she went to work in a factory even though she had a little girl.
She has toured nearly every state in a motor home. “I see a lot of hope for America and people that are discouraged. If you can’t make it, it’s your own fault. You got to work harder.”
Ivan De La Torre, 26, of Los Angeles, Calif., was born in San Diego and moved with his Mexican-born mother and stepfather to Phoenix, “where the problems started. I believe in expressing yourself. I do it with my tattoos. I do it with my speech. It seems like for that state, my way of being was just not the right way of being. Especially if, well, I’m homosexual.”
Now he lives in a homeless shelter in Los Angeles and works at Whole Foods. “I’m just trying to better myself. You have to work to have what you want, to live a good lifestyle. You can go out without fear.”
Grace Miller, 34, of Boston, Mass., is a second-grade teacher who prefers city living and public transit. “America has a lot of variety. There’s packed cities with lots of different people and there’s large expanses of land in other areas, a lot of different cultures and religions represented.”
The fundamentals of democracy hold it all together, she says. “We share ideas that we all have a say in our government and that we all have opportunities and safety.”
Ken Irwin, 71, of Custer, S.D., is a veteran service officer. “I think America is in a good place, but I think that the division that we have between the political parties and the ideals of the people, I think we should think about how the other people think. It’s one of these deals where you have your own thoughts about things but unless you listen to someone else and hear their thoughts, do you really know what’s right?”
We are united by our misgivings about the current direction of America. Fifteen of those we interviewed, pictured above, raised concerns about their own futures and those of their fellow Americans and said they believed many people share their fears. For 12 of them, these worries were paramount in their reflections on the country; meet them by clicking next. They said they didn’t feel as financially secure as they had or as personally safe. They talked about intolerance and income inequality eroding the promise of the American Dream. Many said that the proliferation of social media has deepened acrimony in an already divided country, speeding up and intensifying often anonymous attacks on different groups of people.
Paul Seyfried, 62, of West Jordan, Utah, a father of four, got involved with self-help civil defense in the ’80s and has been building and selling multi-hazard shelters and underground bunkers since 1998. “If we ever lose the grid, it will be a monumental problem for most people.”
Being American is “having the choice to determine your own destiny. … The right to bear arms gives the average citizen the power to say no to a violent criminal or to a government.” Current protests and intolerance are coming from outside agitators, he says; “Americans hold certain core values that will survive this awful period that we’re going through right now.”
Ralph, 65, of St. Louis, Mo., is a retired registered nurse who didn’t want to give his last name. What has united Americans, he says, is “unfortunately tragedy” — 9/11 as a prime example, and “a child getting shot down by police.”
“It seems like now that Trump is here, freedom of speech is beginning to separate us, because some people now feel that they can say anything without repercussions. I’m still proud to be an American, but it’s hard to see such power being unleashed by this presidency.”
Nohemi Hernandez, 24, of San Diego, Calif., was born in Tijuana and moved to San Diego at 3. She didn’t know she was here illegally until she was 16, when her parents explained why she couldn’t accept a full college scholarship. She has her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals permit, for now, and three jobs.
“I had so many other dreams and so many other aspirations to follow. And the limitations weren’t anything that I could overcome. I could never like, say, ‘If I try hard enough I'll be American on paper.’ ” The dream is “definitely there,” but “you have to be ready for it not to be fair.”
Pat Thompson, 40, of Wright, Wyo., is assistant manager at the 55,000-acre Durham Ranch, home to a 5,000-head bison herd. “You see a meme floating around, ‘If you ate today, you better thank a farmer or a rancher.’ That kind of resonates pretty strongly with me.”
“Where do you find what is real right now?” he asks. A tweet can spread coast to coast in minutes, he says, and if media “have a bias that they want to push, it kind of makes it scary to dig into what’s out there. I'd like things to get to the truth — and the Constitution.”
Brent Wilson, 67, of Proctor, Vt., is renovating the Hearst Castle swimming pool in San Simeon, Calif. Successful “all his life” as a sculptor and stone carver, he says the “cross-section of all different people that live here, that work here, is as fascinating as any country that I’ve visited. The diversity here is really fulfilling.”
But he is dismayed by others’ deteriorating work ethic and scruples, in business and government. “When I run into people that have abandoned those ethics and those scruples, as much as I will say they’re my fellow Americans, I’m perplexed at how they got so far off course.”
Maryam Elarbi, 25, of Philadelphia, Pa., is a writer and recruiter for a nonprofit group. She had a “really fortunate” and “really complicated childhood in that I never felt American enough. … Should I be more Libyan or more American?”
Now, she sees being an American “as dealing with America for better and worse and owning the pain and suffering that this country is responsible for causing in so many parts of the world. But also acknowledging that I do have certain liberties and freedoms and taking those opportunities to challenge the current power structures in place.”
Jimmy Keane, 50, of Milton, Del., studied English literature in college and played guitar but decided “carpentry kind of was a practical medium.”
“I would like to be a democracy. I don’t think we’ve realized it yet. We’ve had a kind of double standard going the whole time. People don’t feel like opportunity is there so much. We’re starting to decline and then it’s breaking up the cohesiveness, and you have all these groups that are kind of bickering and blaming each other for the decline.”
Jim Wolff, 60, of Keokuk, Iowa, is a retired teacher who now works on the George Verity Riverboat Museum along the Mississippi. He says the country is still strong but is in “a precarious position.” He worries about North Korea’s nuclear missiles.
What all Americans do share is “an appreciation for hard work,” which his father passed down to him. “Whether people are able to do the hard work, they still appreciate the fact that it’s hard work that kind of gets us the things that we want and the things that we need here.”
Melissa Carpenter, 43, of Matunuck, R.I., owns a farm that raises produce, livestock and a nursery. “We’re known for our corn,” she says about the family farm, where she stands with Justin, her son. She says the country is one of “freedom, unity and hard-working people that just want to live a simple life of being able to feed their families and have a nice home.
“I grew up basically being surrounded by family and having cookouts and surviving the winter of boredom. Clam bakes by the ocean, the ability to see Block Island. And a handshake goes far. I consider a fellow American to accept me as I would accept them. And to have trust in my fellow neighbor.” But the barrage of violent images available on the Internet will result in “our downfall of society.”
John Kaplow, 64, of Asbury Park, N.J., a self-employed videographer, father and widower, says: “America is a very complicated place. A place where great things can happen, and a place where occasionally bad things can happen. But very interesting and full of opportunity.”
“Anybody that’s next to me, even if we disagree vehemently — this is a fellow American. And while we owe it to each other to reach out, I can’t expect that of anybody else. I can hope that. But I can only expect that from me, to properly reach out, not put up any walls, and be able to immediately recognize and talk to anybody that’s near me who’s a fellow American.”
Billy Clifton, 65, of Tupelo, Miss., paints “so I can stay sane, because a lot of stuff that is going on in this world today, you can lose your mind.”
“The artwork really deals with fantasy. I’m remembering how it used to be growing up here, and the older people had the idea and mind that it took a whole village to raise a child. Things look pretty bleak right now, sad to say. You have so many people that are suffering. Sitting in a car, walking on a sidewalk, setting on they front porch — you might lose your life just going about your daily business.”
Tom “Tommy” Patterson, 35, of Howell, Mich., is recently married and currently unemployed. “In the news today, everybody is hiring, but that hasn’t been the case for me or my wife.” To be an American means “that you believe in the rule of law, which I do.”
But he says certain laws are “a little bit ridiculous,” including one that led to him being convicted “for manufacture of an imitation drug. And I would hope that Congress, instead of making a hundred thousand new laws and regulations, that they would fix the ones that are maybe not benefiting ever so much.”
Note: Patterson died of a suspected drug overdose on Dec. 7
We are equals, united by our freedom to say what we want and go where we please. Sixty-four people, pictured above, pointed to the United States as the land of the free and said they believe most Americans hold dear the individual freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That fundamental principle of democracy was cited more than any other as a value that unites Americans. Nineteen people expressed it as the foundational value of the country; meet them by clicking next. Many people in this group brought up freedom of religion and freedom of speech, which, several noted, includes the right to disagree with each other.
Judith Heilman, 65, of Bozeman, Mont., is a former police detective from Palo Alto, Calif., who moved here 12 years ago and founded the Montana Racial Equity Project. “We have 50 states in this country and territories,” she says, “But we’re all part of this country.”
Montana, with barely 1 million people, one congressional district and one area code, is “as important as California or New York City because all of us as Americans have equal value, or we’re supposed to.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that Montana has one Zip code. It has one area code.
Matthew de la Cruz, 35, of Kotzebue, Alaska, is a mechanic for Bering Air, which connects 32 remote villages to the rest of the state. He has lived in the lower 48 and is “definitely” an Alaskan now.
He loves watching his kids grow up and “fishing, hunting, flying, boating, snow machine, motorcycle riding,” building experimental planes. “There is a lot of differences today,” he says, but what “unites us is just trust. Trust in your neighbors, your family, your friends.”
Amanda Jo Chiotos, 35, of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., a mother of three, comes from “a regular poor West Virginia background.” Her family has been mining coal for generations; she now works for a solar installer and for an electricity storage start-up.
“Free speech is important. Our Bill of Rights is important. Even when I disagree with them, I believe most Americans anywhere are trying to do better for our country. And proud of it.”
Jimmitriv “Jimmi” Roberson, 21, of Arcadia, La., is the third generation in her family to attend Grambling State University, where she is a senior biology major and Miss Grambling. She wants to be a family physician and says her Baptist faith is central to her life.
“The common value that we all have is freedom, ultimately. Because with religious values, they're not all the same. Love and hate, division. We don’t all believe in the same thing. We have our right to do whatever we want to do in the NFL, with kneeling and everything.”
Lobsang Kunga, 55, of Bloomington, Ind., is a Buddhist monk. Of Hmong heritage, he was born in Tibet but fled to India by walking for weeks through the Himalayan mountains. He is now a teacher at the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center.
He had heard that the United States was “one of the best, the nicest countries because we have a very good law which was created by the elder presidents,” and “when I came here, I feel it. How different to now be in a country where there’s so much freedom when it comes to religion.”
Matt Bradford, 31, of Nicholasville, Ky., earned his history degree last year at the University of Kentucky and works with veterans. He’s married and a father of three. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps; he reenlisted as a blind double amputee to work with other wounded warriors and does Sparta competitions.
“I feel like you know — forget if you’re Republican or Democrat, we’re all Americans and we all live underneath the red, white and blue flag. And, to me, I think that should unite us all.”
Edith Stillsmoking, 45, of Lawton, Okla., a math instructor at Comanche Nation College, stands with Esther, her daughter. “Sometimes these freedoms can be abused, taken for granted or threatened. So they must be protected.”
Kelly McDaniel, 39, of Osceola, Wis., lives in a group home setting on a dairy farm. Everyone shares in farm chores, and she likes working best in the bakery. She used to live alone in an apartment, but that was isolating. As an intellectually disabled adult, she thinks she should have a choice of how she wants to live.
“It’s about being here and everyone being an individual and everyone flourishing and everyone looking out for everybody else. People should have choices. It’s there in the Constitution.”
Linda Lewis, 70, of Effingham, Ill., says she values the freedom to worship as she wishes and a community of caring that connects her to other Americans. “You see that even little communities are gathering things to help people who are food insecure or need a place to stay, and that just warms my heart. Fire departments work with other fire departments. Strangers helping strangers.”
She is a volunteer with a foundation that erected a 198-foot-high cross along Interstates 57 and 70.
Jane Hovington, 67, of Georgetown, Del., runs a community resource center and raised her children — her own four and the 15 she fostered — to be “upstanding citizens. They should help their fellow man. … Because there for the grace of God, there you'd be.”
She values the diversity and loves her freedoms. “I do believe that there will come a time when America can unite. If we get rid of some of the hatreds and the biases, we can.”
Peggy Meyer, left, and Patty Sermersheim, 63, of Twinsburg, Ohio, are regulars at the annual Twins Days Festival. Representing their home state of Indiana, they've won a number of contests. Twin-ness is a centerpiece of their life; they're prone to finishing each other's sentences.
Says Patty: “America is freedom of opportunity, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to who you want to be who you truly are.” Says Peggy: “If everyone would have the love that twins share and experience we can all live in this country as one big love and peace.”
Berel Levertov, 48, of Santa Fe, N.M., a rabbi, is the leader of the Santa Fe Jewish Center Chabad. “When a person tells me ‘my fellow Americans,’ I usually stop listening to the rest of the conversation. I feel we are all part of the same country and it’s a land of opportunity for everybody.”
“America has so many different colors and so many different flavors. It’s all part of the same fabric. I think all Americans have a fundamental feeling that things should be right.”
Bonnie Baird, 62, of North Chittenden, Vt., produces maple syrup on a farm that has been in the family for four generations. “Even though there were hardships at times, I learned lessons from them. From milking cows, raising kids, gardening, haying, taking care of our landscape, helping to feed the country.”
“You can sit next to somebody at an airport,” she says, “and they’re your fellow Americans. When you have a disaster, like Katrina or Irma, in this day, people who you just don’t even think are on your side, they come together.”
Yoyo Ferro, 31, of Atlanta, Ga., moved to the city about six years ago from Brazil, “a place full of corruption. It was hard to be proud of where I was from.” Here, “you can live life the way you want to be. Nobody is imposing anything toward you. But at the same time, everybody should have equal rights for everything.”
“I feel like there’s something that’s missing right now that would unite us eventually, and it’s patience … also [being] open-minded. Really listen to the other side.”
Raina Escobedo, 17, of West Monroe, La., is pregnant and studying for her General Equivalency Diploma. She no longer lives at home. Her father is in jail. Her mother has a new husband. The father of her baby is taking care of her. “After everything I am grateful because I was taught how to be strong and how to survive in this life.”
She fought to study dance and music and won the support of her Pentecostal mother. “Being an American brings a lot of benefits.” The country “forces you to go to school, and that is actually good.”
Michele Shultz, 50, of Charles Town, W.Va., is married and has two sons, 9 and 21. Last year, after being a stay-at-home mom, she returned to work, at a vintage furniture store. “What’s important to me is family. And trying to keep everybody together. You know I’m trying to raise my boys in a Christian household … to grow up to be respectful men and polite … to understand that it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, green, blue.”
But, she says, “Football players not standing for the pledge, that’s disgraceful to me.”
Yvette White, 50, of Scottsdale, Ariz., is a body spray painter. “We all want to live a life in peace. A life in comfort, to have opportunities that other countries aren’t blessed with. And we want to all be treated with respect.”
“There are differences that you know you face as an African American in America. But overall it has been absolutely free for me.”
Paul Amash, 35, of Hillsdale, N.Y., manages a general store and is a father and husband. His fellow Americans? “My peers, my colleagues, my co-workers, the mailman, people that I see every day. It’s everybody I say hi to in the morning, all my customers.”
“That’s my version of Americans, is people together.” Immigrants should feel welcome here and not treated like second-class citizens. They should want to be here, and we should want them here.”
Alexis Brown, 23, of Chicago, Ill., is a softball coach for these players and others who take part in a sports mentoring program, Lost Boyz Inc. She wants to be a social worker. She grew up in a rough neighborhood, and her parents pushed her to play sports as a way to keep up her grades.
Attending a mostly white college and now “dealing with whites, Asians, different cultures and races" in downtown Chicago, “I've been able to see a lot of things differently. We don’t all have to agree. In the end you have to just blow your emotions aside and deal with the patient or the customer that’s in front of you.”
We all have a shot at making the life we want, and that unites us. That ideal of the American Dream still has a powerful hold on the imagination. Fifty-eight people, pictured above, voiced a conviction that gumption and persistence can bring success, as it did for the founding fathers. Seventeen of them talked about opportunity as the most important value that they believe Americans share; meet them by clicking next. You can go a lot farther, farther, by working a lot harder. And by being a lot smarter; education was named by people from all backgrounds and ages as the path to prosperity. But many people noted that opportunity is not equal for all and talked about a need to recognize the barriers that exist and to remove them.
Yanko Maceda, 39, of Tampa, Fla., is the founder of Tabanero Cigars and a married father of three. He came from Havana at 15 and now makes what he says are the best handmade cigars in the United States.
“If you are a dreamer, if you believe in your desires, this is the country to come and succeed if you have what it takes. … We are by nature independent … not to be expecting anything from anybody.”
Sahidur Mir, 55, of Cave City, Ky., was an accountant and attorney in India. His wife was a literature teacher. But his dream from boyhood was to come to the United States. Even though “I didn’t have any idea about this sort of thing,” the family now owns the iconic Wigwam Village roadside motel. “Sometimes some people raise all kind of … they don’t like me to be here. They’re all kind of dirty talk to me. But most are very good.”
“Everybody in this country belongs to Native American. And after that people come over from Europe and everywhere from the world and they started to live here, and they love this country, right? After a long time you got America. So I like to be a part of America. I’ve been proud to be here.”
Hacibey Catalbasoglu, 20, of New Haven, Conn., is a junior at Yale University and running for New Haven City Council. The son of Turkish Muslim immigrants, he saw his dad work “every single day from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m.” at his pizza restaurant.
He worked there, too. “It made me the person I am today. And showed me that if you want you can go from being an immigrant who has all but $20 in his pocket to owning a small business and having his son go to such an elite institution.”
Farzad Farr, 54, of Duluth, Minn., came from Iran at 20 and worked as an engineer for IBM and Intel. “There’s no barrier to get where you want to go.” He and his ex-wife found an injured pigeon, then started a wildlife refuge, which he now runs.
“I’m not going to be able to solve the world’s problem [or] the injured animals’ problem, either. Dealing with a fraction of it means something to the animal, something to the community. So, we do our best.”
Jovan Smith, 38, of Cleveland, Ohio, is a stay-at-home mother of four. “All Americans share the hopes and dreams. Of having that house or that job or just being able to love who they want to love and marry who they please without them being a problem.”
“I think America’s good the way it is now, but it should be a little bit more better for women — the opportunities, the pay, the all-out treatment of women, the pay discrepancies. That’s what America needs to straighten out.”
Missy Jenkins, 43, of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a veterinary technician and owner of three vet businesses. She married into the military and says, “I do think honor is a big part of what unites me to a lot of the people I am around daily. We share a different kind of lifestyle. It’s a very small percent who are affected by deployments and being a part of a soldier’s life.” Being American is “the freedom of choice to make my life exactly what I want.”
Eric Beecher, 32, of Sanford, Maine, says “my life’s wonderful. I get to protect a small portion of this country right here … the people that live here all the time [and] the people that might be visiting here from other places.
“Being American means to be part of a great group of people in a great section of land that are just working together every day hopefully to keep this place going, to keep this country going in the right direction and do everything we can to take care of ourselves and to make sure that we succeed.”
Dashaun Jerkins, 18, of Woodbridge, Va., is a high school senior who has committed to play football at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He had 15 Division I scholarship offers from “just me putting in the hard work and doing what I do on the field and in the classroom.”
“The division is not good,” he says. “I would like to see America come together because we’re stronger together than we are apart.”
Toni Gerlach, 32, of Deadwood, S.D., says she would like to see “where more people can do what I am doing. To have the opportunity to create and follow your own dreams without such resistance and just go for it.”
"I feel united and connected to the rest of the country," she says. “It’s just great to meet so many random people that I know, or know somebody I know, in such a small little town here in the Black Hills.”
Glynn Jackson, 51, of Houston, Tex., has been producing his Glynn Jackson Golden Scissors Awards since 1991, when he was still in the Navy. It’s the Oscars of black hair, an extravaganza that showcases stylists and salons. “The core essence of America” is “turning nothing into something, where someone can take an idea and that idea can blossom into something that can be an amazing reality that you would never expect,” he says. “I mean, who would think you could create a show like Golden Scissors just off of scissors?”
Andy Williams, 49, of Denver, Colo., is chief executive of Medicine Man, which now employs 120. “I'm in the marijuana business. … What’s great about America is that you can succeed on your own … doing what you love and coming out on top in the end.”
“This is an industry that sprung on the backs of people who gave so much early in the legalization of this. They risked their lives, their fortunes, their freedom, their families, and a lot of them pay that price or in prison even today because they fought for the cannabis plant to be something that could be used by people.”
Chris Palames, 71, of Northampton, Mass., just marked his 50th anniversary in a wheelchair, after a wrestling bout paralyzed him. He advocates for the rights of disabled, built on the “rainbow activism” of women’s suffrage and the civil-rights movement. America is “big, beautiful, spacious, incredibly diverse — and deeply torn right now.”
“We've been given a lot, though we're not aware of it ... with that comes tremendous responsibility that for the most part right now we are profoundly failing.”
Patricia Rivera, 46, of Somerset, N.J., says what ties her to the rest of the country is “that I might be losing my health benefits that I haven’t had for 30 years. Like a lot of other Americans.” From growing up poor to owning her own home, from eating “welfare cheese" to buying the “good cheese,” America is “the land to do anything you want to do.” Limitations in the system hold people back, however, like a 20-year-old felony conviction.
Tony Lor, 28, of St. Paul, Minn., is married and a father of two children, 5 and 3. “I want to know my kids are successful, number one,” and not have the hardships that his parents did, as Hmong war refugees in the United States. Education is the key to that. He’s trying to hold on to his culture but says his children will be “even more Americanized” than him. “I guess that’s part of the American Dream.”
A big recreational bass fisherman, he teaches Hmong children to fish and also relishes meeting all kinds of people on the water.
Sylvester Wright, 53, of Pittsburgh, Pa., is a police officer in the city. “It has taught me a whole lot about social and racial issues in America. Never pictured it. But I should get a master’s degree, even a doctorate degree, based on experience. I'm able to share with children on what it takes to survive out here, because I've been through it.”
“Tough times build character. What you don’t like, change it. What you like, you enjoy it.”
Sergio Arellano, 34, of Tucson, Ariz., is a school board member and congressional candidate. A native of Mexico, he joined the Army at 17. His father was a sanitation worker who brought home bags of trash from rich neighborhoods, he said; the family sold the still-good toys at swap meets. “One of the biggest things my dad said as I was growing up ... ‘don’t ever depend on a government for any type of assistance.’”
“To be an American means that I can move forward in life. I can attempt things. There are ways to get back up get back on your feet ... reintegrate into life and continue pushing forward if that is your will.”
We are united by our obligation to create a more perfect union. America is a continuing experiment that requires civic engagement from everyone. Thirty people, pictured above, introduced a personal responsibility to participate and said that value guided the way they live. Most, including the 13 who spoke most forcefully about this trait, said the only way to secure freedom and opportunity for all is to fight for it. Meet them by clicking next. All of them talked about being part of something larger than themselves, whether it was military or volunteer service or political activity, including exercising their right to vote.
Tina Gregg, 45, of Caryville, Tenn., owns five pawnshops with her husband. She says everyone has the same opportunities; success “depends on your drive.” Divisiveness has to end.
“As an American, I have the ability to bring about my hopes and dreams. I’m allowed to open the doors of my business daily. I can walk my daughter into school. I can hold her hand and walk up the stairs to our church to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and enter without the worry of being killed.”
LaNada Peppers, 35, of Billings, Mont., is a mother of six, Northern Cheyenne and Crow and a tribal leader. “My family has resided in this region for thousands of generations … our language is even older than Latin,” she says. “So I've never really had to think about what it’s like to be an American, because to be an American for us is just to be.”
“But It’s being able to stand up” for yourself and others, she says. “And to be able to see progress when you're doing so.”
Eric Ramage, 54, of West Lebanon, N.H., is a pastor who “has a sense of my obligation … to try to be a good neighbor.” He “challenges the stereotypical model of the organized church in America. That we shouldn’t think, in the church, of our togetherness as with people who are also here [in church]. We should think of our togetherness as with the people we live with. Period.”
Megan Hunt, 31, of Omaha, Neb., is co-founder of a clothing company and a single mom. A sixth-generation Nebraskan, she’s running for state Senate. “We have the highest population of refugees in the entire country. I have to do everything in my power to make sure the state is a place where they can put down roots, where they can say, ‘I’m an American, I’m accepted by my community, I belong here. And I contribute here.’ ”
“It’s a country founded by dissenters and troublemakers and exiles and refugees, and as a new country, we’re still going through some growing pains.”
Rizvend Pecana, 48, of Overland, Kan., came to the United States. at 19 from Manila. He’s a retired Air Force major, active in the local Filipino association and recently moved to a health-care technology company after a career as a critical case nurse.
“To be an American is to be able to mix with other races and religions, coexistence with the rest of the world basically. What can you contribute to make America competitive? Also to make America a good place for everybody who wants to come here and live here.”
Jennifer M. Barge, 49, of Asheville, N.C., is a makeup artist who works with transgender women like herself to “become the best feminine version of themselves that they could be.”
The country, she says, “is a work in progress. … There’s a lot of rights, there’s a lot of liberties, there’s a lot of privilege. But with that ... comes responsibility. Being an American really does mean … not just patting yourself on the back every four years because you made it out to vote, but actually following up.”
Shea Flaherty Betin, 26, of Portland, Ore., stands with his friend and colleague, Gimena Olguin, 24. He grew up affluent in Colombia. When his family came to the United States, “that rapidly changed.” He worked three jobs while in school and now heads Portland Mercado, a partnership that helps launch Latino food businesses and is a cultural hub. “It’s where you bet you will you get the best tacos.”
“America should be a place where anybody in this world can come and not be intimidated ... to provide something better.”
Amanda Williams, 34, of Twin Falls, Idaho, moved because she made “pretty good money here” as a tattoo artist and it was a safer place to raise five children. She’s a single mom who grew up “in a sink or swim kind of world,” with a quadriplegic mom who is a drug addict.
“We all have to hold each other accountable," she says. “We're going to make sure our children are safe. We're going to work as a community, not as wolves, individually. … It’s a certain kind of love … a willing sacrificial giving of yourself without selfish thoughts of return.”
Tom Huntley, 41, of Kodiak, Alaska, is a Coast Guard helicopter pilot who rescues those stranded in treacherous seas. He quit his corporate job after 9/11, “drawn to a patriotic duty especially to help other people. I wanted a career that had more impact and import, I guess, to our country.” His wife urged him to do it and stays home with their two children to support his work.
“Helping each other is I really think what bonds us as Americans … desire and duty to assist one another when called upon.”
Colleen Layton Robbins, 63, of Woodstock, Md., runs a wildlife sanctuary for primates. “Every life deserves to live," people and animals, she says.
She was poor and hungry as a child but was taught to be a giver, and “most people are. Most of the people want to go out and help the underdog if they possibly can. Even the people that tend to be self-serving, they might want recognition for what they've done, but they'll do something for that recognition. … So that’s positive.”
Socia Love-Thurman, 31, of Seattle, Wash., is a primary-care physician at a Native American health clinic, a mother and a member of Cherokee Nation. “We're all working hard. We've all come here from somewhere. Some of us have just been here a lot longer.”
“What I love about my job is that I get every single day new people — and people I've known for a long time. And every situation I am put in this amazing position to be able to hear them. What an honor it is.”
Dominick Cosby, 22, of New York, N.Y., is a music producer. ”My fellow Americans are people who stick up for the rights of other people even if it’s not affecting them directly.”
He sees the nation as “definitely just the open field of options. There’s a lot of issues deep down from racism to sexism and that has to be dealt with before it can be the great nation that it tries to be.” That can happen if people come together “without negativity and drama.”
Danielle Runnion, 40, of Wells, Nev., grew up on Long Island, N.Y., going to the beach. Her two children are growing up on a 260,000-acre ranch, going about on horseback. She loves the close-knit nature of her small town and works with kids after school at the local Boys and Girls Club.
“I am putting everything I have into this, which I kind of went into it as a space filler. I really feel like it can make a huge difference. That’s my hope.” Those face-to-face relationships are also an antidote to “brazen" dialogue on social media, which “absolutely is tearing this country apart.”
Linda Landreth, 74, of Waterford, Va., is the longtime proprietor of Waterford Market, selling local produce, meats and handcrafted items. Born “in a free country with tremendous opportunities, it gives me a tremendous sense of responsibility,” she says, to contribute to the community and the country and to “share a sense of compassion and consideration.”
“I was raised in broken down Nebraska, smack in the center of the state, so I think I brought that sense of community with me to Northern Virginia.”
About this story
Photos and interviews by Ricky Carioti, Marvin Joseph, Toni L. Sandys, Matt McClain, Bonnie Jo Mount, Bill O’Leary, Jonathan Newton and Linda Davidson. Text and editing by Ann Gerhart. Photo production by Annaliese Nurnberg. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof and Wendy Galietta. Design and development by Danielle Rindler and Jake Crump. Copy-editing by Jordan Melendrez. Video animation by John Parks.
For this project, we used the most recent census data to assemble a group of Americans that closely resembles the overall U.S. population in terms of gender, race, age and class. We included the same mesh backdrop in each portrait to create a unifying element in 102 different locations.