An American transition

Some say you can never go home again. While that has always seemed harsh, it can help when you're heading there to talk to someone who reminds you of the good points of the place you left.

The truth of that was proved to me recently. Ever since we learned we'd be coming back to the United States after 12 years away, my wife and I have been wrestling with what that means - for us and our children. It took a chance conversation with Edith Nuñez - Peruvian by birth, naturalized American by choice - to crystallize the portent of this change.

Ms. Nuñez was my seatmate on a recent flight from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth, part of an odyssey that is taking my family and me from Mexico City to a new assignment in Washington, D.C. Nuñez was returning to Peru for the first time since she left as a young woman in 1984. The mirror image of my and Nuñez's undertakings struck me, and served as the backbone of a two-hour conversation.

As a longtime Latin America correspondent who covered Peru's transition from strongman President Alberto Fujimori to this May's exemplary elections, I could help Nuñez prepare for the changes she would encounter in her homeland. And Nuñez - now a proud American citizen fluent in English - told a story of adapting to life in America that helped me see the benefits my foreign-born American children will reap from moving to a home where they've never lived.

We have three children - two born in France during an assignment in Paris that began in 1989, the youngest a blue-eyed, fair-haired 6-year-old who chatters in a lilting Spanish like the chilango (a Mexican of Mexico City birth) he is. Aside from annual visits to grandparents' homes, none has ever lived in the States.

American friends told us our children, used to the relative conservatism of Mexican family life, were in for a shock in 21st-century America. More today than that distant day in 1989 when we moved to Paris, they said, American commercialism robs children of childhood. Even elementary schools have to declare themselves "drug-free zones," and everyone remains haunted by one day at a school called Columbine.

But Nuñez put the emphasis elsewhere. I never said to her, "Tell me how my children will benefit from living in America," never asked, "How is your life better than what you knew before?" It just flowed naturally as part of her tale.

While I was becoming a journalist and learning about life as a foreign correspondent, Nuñez was busy adapting to a new country. What stood out in her story is what she found in the US - equal opportunity that took her by surprise, the high value placed on work, and less of the predeterminism that she had known in Peru.

Peru was a mess in 1984, she said. High inflation made life expensive and unpredictable. Terrorist acts by guerrillas frightened everyone in Lima. But what really suppressed Nuñez's prospects was the favoritism and corruption that she encountered when applying to college. "Getting into a university wasn't determined so much by your ability as by who you knew or how much you paid the right people," she said.

Then an older brother living in Modesto, Calif. invited Nuñez to come to the States. "My idea at first was to go for a time and go back [to Peru]," she recalled with a smile, "but here I am 17 years later, finally returning, but on an American passport."

Her transition from bewildered foreigner to an American successful in the medical field and active in her community wasn't always easy. Nuñez recalled a key date in her transformation. "My brother came home from work and found me feeling homesick and watching Spanish television. He said I had the opportunity in this country to do whatever I wanted, but I had to make the choice myself. And I had to learn English. I decided then to make my life here, and I decided to learn English."

Nuñez said she was quickly amazed by how things worked, and she said that amazement is just as strong today.

She entered college, taking an achievement test to get in. "It really impressed me, I didn't have to pay anyone off to get in." Later she got her driver's license. "I remembered how that kind of thing worked in Peru and thought, how many people will I have to pay? But it was a matter of following the same rules as everybody else."

Another pleasant surprise for Nuñez was her feeling that elected officials really do work for their constituents. She spoke approvingly of the mayor of Modesto, whom she has come to know through volunteer work, and even referred to her congressman by his first name. Interestingly, her congressman is Gary Condit, the California Democrat under a cloud of controversy for a reportedly admitted affair with a former federal intern who is missing.

"Gary has always been accessible when we needed him for something. He listens to people whether they have family picking in the fields or owning some big business." That kind of accessibility would never happen in Peru, she says.

I told Nuñez I thought she would be pleasantly surprised by some of the changes Peru has undergone as its democracy has matured. But Nuñez said that as curious, excited, and anxious as she felt about returning to Peru, she already anticipated the visit would make her all the more grateful for her American home.

Nuñez volunteers every Thanksgiving at a restaurant that serves meals to people who have less than she does. "It's my way of saying 'thank you' for my home," she said. A home where her elderly mother, she noted proudly, was able to enter college and make a splash with her college-age classmates, and where a nephew Nuñez helped raise is now a Marine.

Listening to her, I understood the anxiety she felt about returning to Peru. But I also smiled. Her American experience had made me less anxious about the experience that was going to be my family's and mine.

Howard LaFranchi is a Monitor correspondent.

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