L.A. Times reporter Hector Tobar visits Sortata, Bolivia, in 2004 to report… (Tobar family )
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.