“I’m more American than you are,” Luis, the Argentine exile was saying over dessert at a local Los Angeles eatery nearly twenty years ago.
I’d dodged Luis’ phone calls for at least two months and this was our first date. We’d met at the downtown Los Angeles Biltmore where party faithfuls were celebrating Bill Clinton’s first Presidential victory. An hour earlier, I’d been standing on a balcony at the Century Plaza hotel listening to the dim depressed and increasingly drunken hum of conversation in the room behind me. My friend and former associate had just sustained a predictably certain loss to the durable Rep. Henry Waxman. Mark was a Republican sacrifice. But still. It’s hard to lose.
The somber tone at the Century Plaza was not limited to the room in which Mark’s supporters had so glumly gathered. It inhabited the entire hotel as George H.W. Bush’s first term failed to morph into his second. In retrospect, only a Harry Potter reference could have done justice to that election night mood. It felt as if a coven of dementors was circling overhead, glorying in the Grand Old Party’s despair and draining peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said to one friend or another.
“We can take a cab.”
This was more like it. Balloons. A band. Dancing. It was late – after midnight but not yet 3 a.m. Only the die-hard Democratic partiers were still on the floor, gyrating to whatever tune was popular in 1992. This is L.A., not New York City. Nothing really happens after 2 a.m. when the bars close.
Still, a young Latino man was circling me. I smiled. He asked. We danced. I gave him my phone number.
“Why were you at the Biltmore that night?” I was asking Luis over drinks. “And why are you so deeply involved in Democratic Party politics?”
“Jimmy Carter saved my life,” he replied.
Why had I avoided this man’s phone calls for so long? I knew the answer but I didn’t like it. It made me feel unworthy. Petty. Small. I didn’t return his telephone calls because he had such a heavy Latin accent. I was still, to my own shame, carrying prejudices about Mexicans from my border-town youth. Later, much later, we’d joke about this and about his decision to join a French conversation class rather than an American accent reduction clinic. He was Argentine and he was proud.
“Jimmy. Carter.” I said, blinking.
Luis was not smiling.
“Jimmy. Carter. Saved. Your Life.”
“I was an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience,” Luis said, dealing the trump card to what would prove to be a tumultuous year-long romance.
The story of Luis’ careless early adulthood, his imprisonment and his immigration to the United States rolled out from there – starting with our first drink and coming to an end now as the waiter served us coffee and dessert. I was transfixed. As personal stories go – when told honestly in all their fallibly human dimensionality – it was messy. Luis himself had not been particularly political during the Argentine “Dirty War.” (wikipedia entry here) He and his girlfriend were medical students at the time with the determined, hard working qualities a commitment to medicine implies. But his . . . lover . . . she was politically active. Inevitably, both Luis and his girlfriend were arrested and imprisoned. As, of course, was Luis’ other girlfriend.
“Carter sent in the Red Cross,” Luis said, toward the end of his harrowing prison story as the chill of a late February evening began to grip the outdoor patio on which we’d been sitting and talking and eating for hours. “Conditions in the prison improved. We were released but restricted to the towns in which we lived. My girlfriend finished medical school. I couldn’t. The University was outside my area of detention.”
I pulled my sweater tighter around my shoulders and shivered, only partly because of the cold.
“I’m more American than you are.”
“The Argentine government gave my girlfriend and me the option of immigrating to the United States or remaining in town detention. We chose the United States. A kind family in Texas agreed to be our sponsors. I spoke Spanish and Portuguese and French and Italian. But I didn’t speak a word of English. I learned English by ordering hamburgers at McDonalds; listening to the news on the radio and reading the New York Times.
That’s what makes me more American than you are. America is the land of immigrants. Not the land of natives. America is freedom. Choice, Opportunity. America is the escape from tyranny; a haven from grinding poverty; deliverance from gulags and other political prisons. We, the dispossessed, we are the true Americans.”
Despite his talk about freedom and choice, Luis never was able to choose America as his new country. The “accent reduction” story – a joke between us – ran deep. He could not return to Argentina despite its proffer of repatriation to a generation of young people whose friends’ lives were taken and whose own spirits were crushed. Luis – man without a country – simply couldn’t settle down. He had a small house in Echo Park and intermittent work as a software programmer. But he would always be unmoored, adrift and too profoundly sad to join in festive American celebrations like the Fourth of July.
My America – land of my birthright – is a place I take for granted. Public education, free libraries, timely mail service, and good roads, not to mention clean drinking water and a standard of living that used to be unmatched in the world. The right to be left alone and the opportunity to invent and reinvent one’s self. The freedom to speak one’s mind. The security that tomorrow will – whatever our current economic and political challenges – look pretty much the same as the day before.
“You Americans,” Luis used to say to me. “You believe the world is secure,” shaking his head with world-weariness and bearing, with dignity, the emotional scars of the stories he couldn’t tell me. The stories that ran even deeper than the one about a country willing to imprison a young man because he made love to a woman whose political views differed from those of the men in power.
Wherever Luis is today, I want to wish him a Happy Independence Day, a day on which I’m hoping he’s finally settled into his adopted country with a spirit nearly healed and an Argentine accent still firmly in place in honor of the country he loves but to which he can never return.
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