What does it mean to be an American?

We are finding, coaching and training public media’s next generation. This #nprnextgenradio project is created in Reno, Nevada, where five talented reporters are participating in a week-long state-of-the-art training program.

In this project we are speaking to people from various walks of life—whether they are indigenous; natural born; a naturalized citizen; a refugee or an immigrant without legal status—to ask what it means to be an American.

Andrew Mendez reports for Next Generation Radio, University of Nevada; May 2021. Mendez speaks with Ricardo Salazar, a first-generation Mexican American musician and faculty member at the University of Nevada, Reno. For Salazar, what it means to be an American is a pull between freedom and struggle.

Illustration by Lauren Ibañez

‘I always knew that I was Mexicano because of the music’


Growing up, Ricardo Salazar would unapologetically blast traditional Mexican music from the back of his parents’ car. For Salazar, music became the way he was able to express himself and connect to his identity as an American and Mexican.

For Salazar, his identity wouldn’t be the same without recognizing he is both a United States citizen and Latinx.

“What it means to be an American for me means…  to be free, but also means to struggle,” Salazar said. “And maybe not my personal struggle immediately, but my family struggled to get here. So we are a family of immigrants… I’m proud to say that out loud.”

Salazar questioned his identity growing up, but realized there is more to what it means to be an American.

'To be American is to be free, but also means to struggle'

by Andrew Mendez | Next Generation Radio | University of Nevada Newsroom | May 2021

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the twin towers, Salazar said he could remember hearing the news and not being able to fully grasp what had happened. However, he did have an understanding that everyone was united despite questioning where he fits in American society.
Daniel Marks standing next to gym equipment.

Ricardo Salazar poses in his home studio next to a wall decked out with vinyl records. Salazar formed a band with his family, which helped him further understand his identity and culture. (Photo by Andrew Mendez) 

“‘Am I really an American, because my family is not from here, and we still practice a lot of our customs and cultures?’” he said. “But then catastrophe hits. We’re all banded together. I’m an American.”

Despite grappling with his identity, music always helped him grow.

Salazar remembers walking to his parents room, crawling into their bed and asking his mom to play music. They would sing songs from Juan Gabriel together, and it ultimately made him pursue music.

“I always knew that I was Mexicano because of the music. Because it’s all around us, at get-togethers, and parties, and quinceañeras, and bodas, and weddings, family gatherings…” he said. “You hear that music, and it’s really distinctive. So my connection with that is a connection to my roots.”

His parents and grandparents were musicians, which inspired Salazar to join the middle and high school’s bands. Around his junior year, he decided to form a family band.

They would load up their beat up truck and play at parties, quinceañeras, weddings and local gigs. It was a way for them to grow as a family, but for Salazar, it became a passion.

Weighted plates on a rack at a gym

Ricardo’s mom, Angelina Salazar (left), gives her son, Ricardo Salazar (right), a kiss on the cheek as they stand outfront of his home in Reno, Nevada. Ricardo remembers the times he would crawl into her bed and they would sing Juan Gabriel songs together. (Photo by Andrew Mendez) 

His passion connects him to his culture, but also allows him to be free. His culture and identity is interchangeable with music.

“It’s American to write about and express about who you want to be with, and who you want to love; regardless of what society thinks about you, regardless of what your culture says about you … ,” he said. “So pushing that envelope in what it means to be an American is important to me. And I do that through music.”

Gym owner disinfects workout bench

Ricardo Salazar performs with his mom, Angelina Salazar, at Millennium Night Club located in Sparks, Nevada, in May 2018. Ricardo said music is synonymous with his Mexican culture. (Photo courtesy of Ricardo Salazar)