From above, at a distance, we are but just one group; a loose association. Latinos, Hispanics or Chicano. Mexican Americans or 'sudacas'. This is how they see us from far away.
But if one comes closer, we change from tiny dots in the sky into individuals, and differences between us can be noticed; differences of national origin, skin color, culture, religion, political beliefs and more.
As immigrants, after we arrive, we are forged into one unified concept; we suddenly understand each other and we all become "Latinos" or "Hispanos". We are united by language and cultural characteristics and a common history and, once here, a common destiny and the similar way people view us.
A person I met worked a teacher in an elementary rural school in Mexico before he came to the United States. In his pueblo, families didn't have enough to eat. Nevertheless, the parents brought their children to him to learn the basics. But at the end of seventh grade, they would wait for their children at the school gate, he said, and send them to North to work.
Many of us came believing that as soon as we saved some money we would go back home.
A woman and her husband from Monterrey owned a lot not far away from the university where she studied. They came to Los Angeles with the idea of saving some money in order to build a house on that lot so their children could live close to this school and graduate from there. The boy was 10; the girl only six years old.
But they spent the money they saved on their needs here.
Today their children have grown up and are engaged and are staying here.
If they ever go back it will be alone. When? Probably Never.
Two parents from Uruguay came to Los Angeles during the political conflict of the 1970's, politically and ideologically militant. Here they wrapped themselves in the silence of remembrance and caution. Many years later their kids know nothing about what happened there. If they knew, they would consider it a good screenplay.
Another one arrived from Israel because he was required to spend two out of every twelve months in the military reserves. He miraculously survived two wars until his wife made him swear they would seek a better life in 'America.' Doing whatever, but alive.
An ex co-worker was a private school administrator in Guatemala. When the school went under she lost her house, her car, money and her job. She came here.
'But why to the US?'
'Where else, then?'
People come for many reasons: the economy, politics, to have an adventure. To get away from their parents. Or from a dictatorship. Some--like the one who previously was my best friend--because of the return of democracy.
I came - one said - because they offered me a job with a diplomatic visa. The visa expired but he stayed.
- And I came because my land was taken from me.
- I came because of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
- I came because I fall in love with a gringo.
- I came because I was a marielito in Cuba.
- I came because in Mexico I was assaulted and robbed four times in one year.
- I came, because I had no other choice; food was scarce.
- I came - all said - because what we had there wasn't enough.
I came because of this, for this, or to get away from that. To risk it all.
One hand forward, one hand behind, this is how we arrived.
For those who came without papers and in hiding and those who arrived openly, to immigrate to the USA wasn't a means but an end. In Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, on the other side of the border from Douglas, Arizona, I talked with a man who tried to cross ten times. Ten times he was arrested on the border and returned home. The first time he paid a coyote, a smuggler, to help him cross, with money he obtained from selling his cow in the pueblo. After that, he said, he already knew the path.
- I'll try one more time and if they stop me, I'll go back home.
Those who immigrate as adults collapse here, their sense of belonging erased; their identity confused. The images of life here are foreign to them. They don't recognize the smells. The food, the faces, the habits; everything is new and foreign. Twenty years later they are still strangers. They could be fluent in the new language but inside they still speak the old one. At times in secret. Or they lose one language without quite acquiring the new one.
To survive they must be born again. They have to decode inches, miles and degrees Fahrenheit. They make this town our own. They gather and accept a generic name: Latinos, Hispanos.
From the time they arrive they make the name theirs. It becomes part of them, what they read, their areas of interest, demands, lacks.
We are not a race. Membership to our group is totally voluntary. It is a makeshift identity.
We will never be again who we were.
The man who was Don Alejandro in Buenos Aires - known and respected by everyone - washes dishes in midnight at a restaurant and is Don Nobody.
Those who really wanted to go back already have. But some of them are strangers in their own countries. They go back but never quite arrive.
The streets of their childhood are too narrow; the buildings, too old. They are not understood. They are not happy, nor here neither there. They exist in circles.
And so, at the end, moving in circles, they continue looking for home. And they are lost, forever.
Follow Gabriel Lerner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hispanicla