While celebrating the Fourth of July this week, I remembered the first time I spent the holiday in the United States almost three decades ago. I grew up in Cuba, where the celebration of national holidays — as with almost any aspect of daily life — was run by the government. The day of Cuban independence, May 20, wasn’t celebrated. As a holiday, it had been replaced by the date Fidel Castro took power. Patriotic commemorations were state affairs — solemn and highly choreographed.
I was shocked to see that in my new country America’s birthday was celebrated with backyard barbecues. I never imagined that you could celebrate the independence of your country by cooking hamburgers
and hot dogs and then going out to see a fireworks show.
My first reaction wasn’t enthusiastic. I thought that Americans were trivializing the heroic act of the Founding Fathers. They had put their property, their liberty and their lives on the line when they signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. How could Americans honor that courageous act that changed the history of the world by grilling burgers with their families?
As years went by, I started to see the celebration in a different light. Curiously enough, it was a dialogue from the play “Life of Galileo” by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht that helped me change my mind about Fourth of July barbecues. In the play, after Galileo renounces his scientific theories under the threat of torture, Satri, one of his students, criticizes him for his cowardice. “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero,” Satri tells Galileo.
The old scientist replies: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” In the play, Galileo sees himself as a victim of the circumstances, but he tries to redirect Satri’s anger. He shouldn’t be upset at Galileo for not being courageous, Galileo is telling him and us, he should be upset because he lives in a country where injustice prevails and normal people are called to be heroes in order to confront injustice.
In that sense, Fourth of July celebrations are the best way to thank the Founding Fathers for their incredible courage and vision. Thanks to what they achieved, we are allowed to celebrate in our backyards what they created in Philadelphia in 1776 and what they conquered in the battlefields of the American Revolution.
Since then, the United States has needed many more heroes to fight external enemies and internal injustices. And we need heroes today, and we will need them in the future. But the country the Founding Fathers imagined was one in which government powers were limited and the citizens weren’t requested to be heroes in their everyday lives.
In that sense, the celebrations of the Fourth of July that many years ago puzzled me now make perfect sense. Americans celebrate with their families in their backyards a country where personal freedom and national interest can coexist harmoniously.
After private celebrations at home, millions of people go to parks to see fireworks. The conclusion of the celebration is a communal, public affair. I see it as an expression of our shared values. Americans celebrate in their houses with family and friends in the afternoon, and then come together at night to celebrate with their neighbors.
In times of division and infighting, the Fourth of July celebrations are a perfect reminder of the unique combination of personal freedom and shared values that gave birth to the United States.