A tale of two Latino immigrants is the story of all of us

He who has emigrated once will be an immigrant for his entire life.

He who has emigrated once will be an immigrant for life. He comes from Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, or Guatemala. The country doesn’t matter; the blow to his soul, the crack in his existence, is the same.

He will eventually become a citizen; it is still possible. His children will be born here. They will therefore be citizens and will speak English even though he insists that they speak the original language at home. His wife was also born here, although in addition to English she speaks his language because it was taught to her by her parents, who are also immigrants for life.

Our character also speaks English, and for some time now, only English when he is with strangers. If they speak to him in his language, he acts like he doesn’t understand and asks to be spoken to in English. Or, he just does’nt answer.

He behaves almost, almost behaves like the Anglos in a Mexican restaurant that shout “Speak English!”, with a red face and burning hatred.

Ah, but when she gets home she says hello in his language and watches his community channel on television. A new Pew Research Center survey shows that 68% of Latinos speak Spanish at home. It is a high percentage. But in 2000, it was 78%.

He learned the language as an adult, not very well; his children still teach him. Afterwards, he speaks to them in Spanish even though he could do it in English, and they answer in English, even though they understand Spanish. In the long run Spanish will be Spanglish and then English and it will disappear from their daily lives and they will retain some key phrases that will cause them nostalgia.

He loves the country and feels like a patriot, an “American.” If he is a citizen, he may vote for Republicans, Trump seems like a strong figure to him, and he thinks that immigration should be legal and that it is necessary to restrict illegal immigration. “We have no choice,” he repeats.

Sometimes he thinks that those who are here without papers should be deported, because they spoil his good name. He thinks of the undocumented as certain freedmen thought of fugitive slaves. There’s a reason they call them “the illegals,” he thinks.

He views the possibility of immigration reform with sympathy, because supporting reform is a de rigueur idea in his community.

Is he a Latino? He doesn’t know it, and sometimes resents the term. What is a Latino, anyway?

Years go by, he retires from his job. He is not in very good health and his children put him in assisted living with folks from his country so that he feels at home.

There, he once again speaks the language of his homeland. After all these years. .

Every day of his life has been difficult. As long as he lives, he grits his teeth and moves on.

Another immigrant also advances in life. He may come from the same town, city or country.

He had paid the coyote $3,500 to cross him. They stopped him many times, including once when he was already north of San Diego, and La Migra took him back. In the end, he ran out of money and crossed without a coyote.

That trip started in Mexico City and passed through Tijuana, Agua Prieta, Las Vegas and Bakersfield, and one day he knocked tiredly on the door of a house in Chino, California where someone opened the door and hugged him.

He came with one hand forward and one hand back. With nothing more than the desire to work and help his wife and children that he left there.

He is undocumented and has no way to legalize himself, although his new children he had with his new wife were born here and are citizens. He endures as best he can the ignominy of hiding, of not having rights. He is a very hard worker, but what they pay him is only enough for one bedroom and a kitchen. He, his wife, his two children, a sister and sometimes guests sleep there.

Sometimes he loses his job. His wife cleans other people’s houses, and he stays watching television or venting frustrations with friends. When she returns, he tells her to continue fulfilling her duties at home and demands dinner.

There, in the not so old country, he was Don Cesar, Don Alejandro, Don Gabriel. But here he became Don Nobody and cleans dishes at midnight

Without papeles, he can only work in a temporary, fragmented way, in the midst of anxiety, in places belonging to countrymen or friends of friends. Each economic crisis shakes him in an especially vile way.

He drives without a license or insurance, at the mercy of chance.

He drinks. Sometimes, too much. Depression, anxiety, sadness and pressure to acculturate to a strange environment are added to alcoholism, together with the absence of a support group, lack of knowledge of help options,

In order to move forward he needs time, energy, knowledge. He has to save every dollar but there isn’t any left, the children have nowhere to do their homework and they also ask for help in homework. He cannot help because he doesn’t understand what they do in school.

So, she takes English classes; He works two jobs or works as a day laborer. Or maybe he did have a job, but he lost it before she did.

He clings to the original language, to their own country, to their national identity. And he looks for what links him to a past where there was still dignity.

Still, every day is difficult. He grits his teeth and moves on.

Anyway he can. .

In all the cases

In all cases we atomize ourselves, separate ourselves from what is ours and gather it again here a new identity: suddenly we are no longer Mexicans or Argentineans but Latinos, we are Hispanics, maybe we are Americans. Something, better than nothing. Although being Latino is an abstraction.

Yes, language unites us, but the past divides us.

Like many, they came here because where they lived before they thought they had everything even though they had almost nothing and then suddenly their world fell apart and they were really left with nothing. With the life off a thread. In he terror of violence and drugs.

By coming they stay alive, but they lose the rest: their dignity and that of their partners.

And here, in dollars, they suddenly think that they are missing something and that they have to buy more. Vamos a agarrar algo. That’s being “American,” they say.

Our protagonists have names, but I omitted them because their lives are characteristic of millions of emigrants.

They live here, in Los Angeles, which disputes with New York City for the dubious title of national capital of the  undocumented immigrants, with more than a million each. One of them, lives still in the shadows. The other is neither here nor there, but his children will be Americans without quotes.

They are part of a city whose character that is or should be totally diverse. They have their own version of “diversity.” In diversity, what unites us is what separates us. And it is what strengthens us, that which allows us an interesting life. Even if it costs so, so much.

This article was supported in whole, or in part, by funds provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library and the Latino Media Collaborative


  • Gabriel Lerner

    Founder and co-editor of Latino Los Angeles. Editor Emeritus of La Opinion, former Editor-in-Chief. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a journalist, columnist, blogger, poet, novelist, and short story writer. Was the editorial director of Huffington Post Voces. Editor-in-chief of the weekly Tiempo in Israel. Is the father of three grown children and lives with Celia and with Rosie, Almendra and Yinyit in Los Angeles.

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