Coming home to a new America

Tobar is a Times staff writer.

Two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, I packed up my L.A. home and moved to Latin America with my wife and family.

In the years that followed, I watched the United States from afar. My country went to war and elected George W. Bush to a second term. We built new walls on our southern border and started deporting people by the hundreds.

In Argentina, Mexico and other places I lived and visited as a foreign correspondent, people asked me if my country had gone crazy.

I listened to taxi drivers in Buenos Aires rail against “the imperialist Bush.” In Mexican villages, farmers asked me: “Why does everyone over there hate us so much?”

And yet, from thousands of miles away, I pined for the U.S.

When you write about young democracies, as I did, you learn to appreciate the comforts of old ones. I covered historic votes in Brazil, Nicaragua and other places but cast my own ballot by mail in every Los Angeles County election. I collected U.S. quarters and used them to teach my children some basic American history and geography. Illinois: Land of Lincoln; North Carolina: First Flight.


After suffering through an economic collapse in Argentina, and the chaos of overcrowded Mexico City, I came to think of the United States as an orderly place where people obeyed the traffic laws and the banks never lost your money. When I visited California on family vacations, everything looked bigger than I remembered. The size of a “large” soft drink kept booming, along with the price of real estate. All my old friends seemed to be flush with cash.

Then I moved back home, permanently, this summer. I discovered a country different from the one I had left behind.

For one thing, a sizable chunk of Latin America had followed me home, bringing more of their customs and their language with them. I saw Angelenos proudly wearing the jerseys of obscure Honduran soccer teams. At the Glendale Galleria, I wandered into a boutique that sold T-shirts emblazoned with the word “cipote,” which is Salvadoran slang for “kid.”

Another unmistakable sign of change was all the signs that cried out “Change.” My old neighborhood, on a hillside overlooking the Arroyo Seco near downtown Los Angeles, filled up with posters for a man with an African name who was running for president.

I knew, of course, about Barack Obama but was unprepared for the full impact of Obamania. People were registering to vote in record numbers. Even my own young children were swept up by the spreading democracy fever.

At the same time, Wall Street was collapsing and banks were crashing. My country seemed embarrassed by its fall. For a moment, being an American bore some resemblance to being a Guatemalan.

“We’ve become a banana republic with nukes,” the columnist Paul Krugman wrote, just a few days before he won the Nobel Prize in economics.

As the son of Guatemalan immigrants, I have some experience with banana republics. My grandfather worked on a Guatemalan banana plantation. Until recently, my reporting duties took me to countries that some people still call banana republics.

We are not yet living in a banana republic. Here, there are no generals or death squads waiting in the wings to take over should the elected president fail at his task.

But the new United States I’ve encountered does resemble a country like Guatemala or El Salvador in at least one important respect.

“Papa, why were so many people at that party speaking Spanish?” my 9-year-old son asked the other day, after a birthday celebration in Eagle Rock that climaxed with mariachis singing the birthday song “Las Mananitas.”

One of the Spanish-speaking people at that party was a top aide to the mayor of Los Angeles. And the mayor, I informed my children, is a guy named Antonio whose father was born in Mexico City.

In the new United States, we are more comfortable with the Latin American, Asian and African roots of our multitudes. Thus, the president-elect with the funny name, and the proliferation of languages around us.

The United States I returned to is a more colorful place than the one I left. And we Americans seem mellowed and slightly more humble.

If I could meet those Buenos Aires taxi driver drivers again, those Mexican farmers, I would say:

“The United States is a lot like your country. We’re going through a rough time. We speak a lot of Spanish. And we’re wondering how safe it is to keep our money in the bank.”

When I lived in Argentina, I watched the middle class disappear in a whirlpool of bank failures. People rioted and attacked bankers in the Buenos Aires financial district.

I interviewed a 59-year-old woman who had poured alcohol over her head and set fire to herself in the lobby of her bank. Her failed suicide -- “a moment of madness,” she called it -- came after she lost most of her life savings.

This October, three blocks from my daughter’s new preschool in Pasadena, a 53-year-old woman set fire to a foreclosed home from which she was about to be evicted. Then she shot and killed herself.

Today, in our suffering United States, too many of us know someone who’s been laid off, someone in danger of losing their home.

On a plane trip last month, I sat next to a Texas bank executive, a man in his 50s whose job consisted of visiting “clusters” of foreclosed properties around the country.

“You see the things people leave behind in their houses,” he told me. “Like the overdue bills for their kid’s dance class in the mailbox.” He grew quiet, with a faraway look that suggested the toll that came with seeing so much loss.

One week later, federal regulators closed the executive’s bank.

How much deeper will the recession sink us? Can the new regime in Washington rescue us? No one can say.

Residents of Latin America, generally speaking, have more experience living with that kind of uncertainty.

There is a Spanish proverb that is resonating in my brain these days. It’s a favorite of my mother, who lives in Guatemala, where the people know a thing or two about hard times.

No hay mal que dure 100 anos, ni enfermo que lo aguante.

Translation: There is no illness that lasts 100 years, and no sick person who could survive it anyway.

I can see a new United States being born on my television, in the images of the first family-elect.

Change will be coming to the White House. Already, it sometimes comes directly into my home, or into my new, company-issued Blackberry, thanks to that bane of all owners of phones in the 213 and 323 area codes -- wrong numbers.

For a time, my Blackberry rang repeatedly for a Salvadoran laborer named Ramiro. Having run out of money to pay for his own cellphone, Ramiro graciously left his old number to me.

“No, Ramiro doesn’t have this number any more,” I’d tell the callers in Spanish. I talked to Ramiro’s relatives in El Salvador (who hadn’t heard from him in months) and to a guy downtown who told me: “Well, if you talk to him, tell him I need him. I got a job installing a floor this afternoon.”

Migration and urban sprawl have made Los Angeles and Mexico City, the last “Third World” metropolis I called home, the twin bad brothers of North American metropolises. The list of things the two cities share goes on and on: Spanish-language billboards, bad air, the soccer games in public places.

At my neighborhood barbershop in Highland Park, as in Mexico City, it’s possible to step inside and greet barbers and customers alike with a shout of "¡buenos dias!”

On the Santa Monica Freeway, as on the Viaducto Miguel Aleman, I’ve gotten stuck in traffic behind a guy with a Virgin of Guadalupe sticker on his rear window.

Still, they are dramatically different places to live. Like two siblings, you can look at Mexico City and Los Angeles and see similar features but discover that dramatically different personalities lie hidden underneath.

Once a week or so, I am reminded that I am not in Mexico City by a small, everyday miracle of life here. A siren sounds in the distance. As it gets closer, all the cars around me part ways, in a synchronized dance. An ambulance or a fire truck speeds past, and seconds later, all the cars dance back into traffic.

What happens when an ambulance hits crowded traffic in Mexico City? Few if any drivers move. The ambulance driver’s strategy is to pull up to the bumper of the vehicle blocking his path and emit an ear-shattering siren blast.

Every time I see an L.A. car stop for a pedestrian at a crosswalk, or when I see an L.A. commuter use her turn signal before switching lanes, I think: Ah, it’s good to be home.

When I lived in Mexico City, I told a Mexican friend the story of my family trip to Washington, D.C., in 2007, and the visit my sons and I made to Capitol Hill.

My older son, then 10, wrote and hand-delivered a letter about the Iraq war to the office of our California congressman. I wrote one too.

This Mexican friend, the owner of a dry-cleaning business, nearly fell on the floor laughing. “Yeah, like I would ever write a letter to my congressman,” he said. He considered “legislator” a synonym for “swindler.” Writing a serious letter to such a person was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard.

Call us naive, but in the United States we have an earnest faith in the idea that government must listen to us.

Not long after we settled in our Los Angeles home, a neighbor appeared at our front gate with a clipboard. She was circulating a petition addressed to our city councilman, Jose Huizar, who happens to be a native of Zacatecas, Mexico. The petition asked that our street be repaved. You see, I told my sons after I signed my John Hancock. That’s how American democracy works!

“We know, Papa,” my younger son said, unimpressed. He explained that one of the fifth-graders in his Pasadena school had been circulating a petition to overturn a ban on Halloween costumes.

The school wanted to celebrate Day of the Dead (a Latin American tradition) and didn’t think costumes would be appropriate.

“I signed it,” my son said. On Halloween, he and his fellow students were allowed to wear costumes.

On Nov. 4, my wife and I gathered our three children around the television, where were treated to another civics lesson, this one courtesy of John McCain.

“This is an American tradition,” I explained as McCain conceded. “The loser congratulates the winner. He asks the country to unite behind the new president.”

“Not like in Mexico,” my 12-year-old son said.

Two years ago, we watched the loser in Mexico’s presidential election declare himself the country’s “legitimate” ruler. He took the oath of office and donned the presidential sash -- even some of his supporters thought he looked silly.

In its long history, Mexico has had only one orderly transition of power between rival political parties.

We Americans are old pros at that sort of thing.

On Jan. 20, I’ll turn on the television again, and gather the family for another civics lesson. The president who annoyed all those farmers and taxi drivers I met in Latin America will hand over the White House keys to the son of an African immigrant and a white woman from Kansas. The new guy gets a big job: rescuing us from economic collapse.

This, I’ll tell my children, is what we call American History.



Tobar will write a column in the California section each Tuesday, starting next week.



Previous Column One articles are available online.