FOR MOST OF MY LIFE I have been a foreigner in any country I've lived in. Although I was born in New York City, my father's diplomatic past on Argentina's delegation to the United Nations automatically excluded me from U.S. citizenship by birth. Technically, I was born in New York City, Argentina.

Legally a foreigner, born and bred between two countries, I spent years trying to separate my identities. I was bilingual and bicultural before I could even spell the words, much less realize their impact on defining my identity.

The ultimate irony, for me, is now being thought of, and thinking of myself as, "Hispanic." Only in America could I between a Mexican of rural origins, a Cuban of urban mercantile background, and a South American aristocrat might make it ludicrous to lump the three together. Similarly, we "Hispanics" come in every color -- black, white, brown, red. Some of us are even yoriental. We arrive in the United States fleeing everything from fascists in Spain to communists in Cuba, from earthquakes to floods to war.

So in the search for identity, I felt an immense relief last July 14 -- on which I celebrated Bastille Day by bellowing out the marsellaise in the shower. It was that day that I finally crossed the "t" for technicality by becoming a U.S. citizen.

Naturalization is a bit like conversion: it does not solve your problems, but it allows you a fresh new start. As I was dressing to go to the U.S. District Court to be sworn in, a sense that an inner prison was opening overtook me; an old self was being freed, along with its conflicts and painful memories.

It was the winter of 1972. I was crossing Pennsylvania Avenue at about 2 o'clock in the morning, coming home from an evening with a friend. There wasn't a car in sight so I crossed against the light. Bad move. Somehow I had overlooked a patrol car which was coming in my direction. I dashed out of its way, but was stopped. The policeman who emerged from the car flashed a light in my face and asked for an ID. All I had on me was an Eastern Airlines Youth Card. He read out my name with a Macon County sheriff's drawl -- long vowels instead of short. I compounded my crime by correcting his pronunciation.

"Do you have a green card?" he asked, assuming from my name that I was foreign.

I knew what he wanted. It was the Alien Registration Card issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to permanent residents. It's a small plastic ID with a photo, which in this day and age comes in almost every color but green, and which residents must carry at all times. It so happened that I was not a resident then; I had an official visa as the dependent of an international official, my father. You don't get a green card for that.

"Where were you born?" he asked.

"New York."

"O.K., show me your draft card."

I was trapped in a classic bureaucratic double-bind.

"I don't have a draft card," I replied. Then, to avoid the problem of being held as a suspected draft-evader, I continued, "I'm not a U.S. citizen, and I'm not a resident."

The officer called for a paddy wagon in which I was taken to the 23rd and L Streets Station, where -- I presumed -- they locked up dangerous foreign jaywalkers. Once there, I recalled that I had the right to make one phone call. They led me to a room where, since an officer remained beside me, I called my Cuban friend Julio and told him the story in Spanish. The whole thing was ridiculous, not worth going to court. But I was incensed. I had had to prove my right to be in the country where I was born simply because I had crossed a deserted street against the light. Then I had been dragged into a police station in a paddy wagon, as if I were a dangerous criminal. (It was an added touch of irony that an ID card had undone someone with an identity as confused as mine.) Just who did these people think they were to treat me like that? Still, I decided to forfeit the court appearance and pay the man the five dollars. When I finally indicated my decision to the officer, he wouldn't let it go at that.

"Hey, Morales," he said. "You speak Italian?"

The cop's remark brought out that self-doubt which had nagged me since early childhood: You are not one of us . It evoked in me the crosscurrent of contradictory experiences involved in becoming "American" in order to become "Hispanic."

When I was a kid there weren't any "Hispanics." In New York and in Washington, where my parents lived within the comfortable society of embassy friends, I was the heavy-set brown-skinned kid who could not convince the second grade bully at Our Lady of Lourdes school that I was not Italian. I was also the child whose parents corrected him every time he concocted a new word of "Spanglish." Back and forth I went, from weekends of backyard "asados" -- barbecues where Spanish mingled freely in the air with the aroma of sizzling meat -- to the school cafeteria where Sister Regis insisted I gobble up a horrible dish called coleslaw.

In the tension and quiet competition between two cultures in my life, the Anglo-American Disneyland had an edge, whatever glories my heritage could offer. No child of the '50s could have resisted Superman, Donald Duck, Clark bars and cotton candy, nor the heroes and history sold with them by teachers and television. By the time I was 7 I insisted on being called by the anglicized version of my first and middle names, "Cecil Joe."

With the benefit of an awareness I could not have had at that age, the irrationality of my budding Americanism is almost embarrassing. Our "culture" is a mixture of borrowings, covered with a gloss of aggressive mercantilism. Yet undeniably, this country has exerted a pull on the global imagination for two centuries; I was not exempt from it, but rather contended with it because of my particular situation.

Somewhere in childhood's midstream an imaginary solution dawned on me: The Kingdom of Sylvania, founded in Greenland by American and Argentine "Pilgrim Fathers" in 1959. I was king, later president, general and foreign minister. It was my secret realm to which I could retreat and be certain of beloning and ruling in it. With time, it vanished as quietly as it had appeared.

Among my childhood friends I suppose there must have been any number of alternative responses. One, the son of an Eastern European father and a South American mother, simply ceased speaking at the age of 5, when the confusion among the three languages he confronted became unbearable. With the help of a specialist he recovered; today he is monolingually English-speaking, though he understands a random phrase here and there in his parents' languages.

The second factor which assisted my flight from my heritage was the ubiquitous English-speaking community, composed of third- and fourth-generation Anglo-Argentines, Irish-Argentines and the new blood and money of U.S. diplomats and business expatriates. At almost every street corner downtown I could buy a copy of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, and absorb from it the ethos of a community that saw itself as the "colonial" elite much in the Victorian mold.

After school I would stop by the U.S. Information Service's Lincoln Library (long since obliterated by a bomb), where I could read up on the U.S. history and popular culture which my Irish-and English-born teachers did not pass on to me; it was on these afternoons that I discovered yjohn Cheever, Aaron Copland and Whistler's Mother. I briefly joined the U.S. scout troop at the American Community School, which I did not attend, where I could hear the twangs and ansal English of all over the United States, eat hot dogs, talk about Mad magazine, and pick up all the expressions which my British textbooks lacked. I also picked up what I was then too naive to discribe as propaganda. In 1967, in my high school there was a debate on the Vietnam war (national Agentine issues were verboten under the military regime at the time), and I debated with sincere belief in favor of U.S. involvement.

At the end of its 12-hour nonstop flight from Buenos Aires on a cold February morning in 1970, an Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing 707 circled over Manhattan and Queens to set down uneventfully on the tarmac of John F. Kennedy Airport. The passengers reached the terminal, then split up into two lines for immigration inspection: one for U.S. citizens and residents, the other for all the rest. Because of my New York birth certificate, U.S. consular officials in Buenos Aires had insisted on issuing me a U.S. passport, rather than a visa, so I ended up in the citizens' line.

"How long have you been away?" droned the inspector at the booth. I swallowed hard and replied with the line I had rehearsed all night.

"Too long. I've been away eight years, seven months and eleven days," I said. The inspector smiled at me benignly.

"Welcome home."

Welcome home. I had imagined this over and over again through the years. In my fantasies I would stride right out of the airport, hail a cb, and find myself zipping over to Manhattan as a movie theme, the mood music of a Mancini or a Goldsmith, would come wafting in the air. That morning I had tried that reverie once again, but it didn't quite fit. As I stood outside the customs area deciding what to do, my name was paged; at the Aerolineas booth I was informed that my father had called saying he would be late. Not at all surprised by his tardiness, I stashed my luggage in a locker and went off to enjoy my first little while back.

That was when I began to realize that the "home" I had been welcomed to was not quite what I remembered. Both I and the country had changed over the years I had been hoping to return to the place of my birth and the harmony of early childhood. I began to suspect, to my horror, that I had not returned to paradise; even worse, I had never been in paradise in the first place.

It was New York, 1970. From the time I had last seen it there had been one of the stormiest decades in the century. The baby face of America in the '50s had worry lines, graying hair, perhaps even a beard; its illusion of innocence was gone, as was its apparently simple beauty. It had character. As I took in the ever so noticeable new reticence I discovered among shopkeepers and busdrivers, and the looks of distrust and disillusion in the young and the oppressed, I felt a new hardness, a new starkness. I had to stop and rethink where I fit, if I fit, and how and why.

The conclusion of my search should have been obvious from the start. I could not become a fake Anglo-American. My place was with others like me, others whom it took time to find and build bridges to, others who might still have to carry on the American tradition and fight for a place under the sun, maybe even change the place altogether. Those others I discovered, not to late I hope, were my fellow "Hispanic-Americans."

Hispanics, Latinos, Spanish-Americans, spics, greasers, wetbacks--those others like me form a broad conglomerate of nationalities, classes, races and colors. Here in Washington, where I have lived almost continuously now since 1975 and where I can begin to find myself at home, the "Hispanic" community is a cultural Tower of Babel. Here, the three major Spanish-speaking groups in the United States -- Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and Cubans -- are only slivers of the Hispanic pie. We bring with us the marked social and racial contrasts of Latin America. Only a few blocks from the regal home of jet-settingOAS Secretary General Alejandro Orfila, for example, is Mackin High School on California Street, where on Sundays Fr. Sean OMalley runs the Spanish Catholic Centerhs vocational training and English classes for Latin laborers and domestics -- many of whom work for Orfila's high-powered friends.

They are all "Hispanic' like me.

Columbia Road. Take away the Safeway sign, the C&P phone booth and the passing Metrobus and it could be Mexico City, Caracas or Bogota. Proud Latin women show off their loose multicolored India-print dresses as they stroll leisurely to the supermarket. A few of them are followed by three or four children playing circling games in their path. Others, alone, let the breeze play with their long and shiny blue-black hair. The men, huddled in threes and fours, sport their four-pocket guayabera shirts as they follow the ladies with their eyes; in Latin America they might burst into poetry at the sight of the most beautiful of the woemn. The noise of the bustling street mingles with the cries of children, a heated argument over a crucial penalty during a recent soccer game, and the loud call of someone summoning a friend on the opposite sidewalk.

Jose Gutierrez, D.C. Director of Personnel, strides out of the supermarket in a swagger. His beard does not quite manage to hide his dimples as he carries two bags full of groceries. He does not notice a late model Ford idling by the curb. He fits right into the picture -- a man of medium height, muscular, with a slight hint of a beer belly stretching his guayabera. Just another brown face, one with a tough and earnest expression Gutierrez learned on the streets of the Bronx.

Two men in neatly pressed suits emerge from the Ford sedan. They could be clones. Nothing about them would look irregular in any street but Columbia Road. They approach Gutierrez, flash their identification and attempt to question him. The men are agents of la migra to the Hispanics on the street -- the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Gutierrez responds with the foulest English he can think of. The men back off. As they return to their car the scene before them has changed. A chill has frozen the faces of the strollers and the soccer fans. Only the children go on playing.

The incident replayed in my memory like a worn piece of celluloid etched forever in my brain as I watched the scene where it took place two months later from Maria Stella Squella's office window. Maria Stella, a Chilean expatriate who set up the first Washington office of SIN, the Spanish International television network (Channel 56) in Adams Morgan a year ago, had just been telling me the INS cars go by Columbia Road 20 times a day. Noticing them, she said, is part of being Hispanic.

"Cecilio," she explained. "I am a woman who grew up sheltered in Santiago. My parents always taught me I was supposed to grow up like all our women, to say 'yes' to my husband and mind my own business. I had to come to Washington to learn about struggling on my own."

Something in what she said clicked. You have to be in this country, out of wherever it is you were born or your parents were born, to be simply a Hispanic, perhaps even a Hispanic-American. Here, all those silly borders lose their sense, however much we may get angry at each other during the international soccer championships. Here we are a people. We will never quite be able to find a "home" elsewhere as easily.

Here we are all one undistinguishable mass, at least in the eyes of the majority. As I followed up Gutierrez' story I asked an INS spokesman, Vernon Jervis, what the INS instructs its agents to consider "reasonable cause" to suspect someone might be an "illegal alien." He cited characteristics such as mannerisms, mode of dress and language.

"Would a dark-skinned man wearing a guayabera and speaking Spanish amount to reasonable cause?" I asked.

"Yes," Jervis replied.

Jervis, who was speaking to me over the telephone, did not realize that I was describing what I might have looked like on the street that day.

Now I am a U.S. citizen, an American by any criteria; at the same time and for similar reasons, I have also become a Hispanic, a proud and conscious member of the community I belong to, also by any standard. My identity may be technically and emotionally resolved; but the struggle never quite ends. I can cite two reasons why.

The first goes back to naturalization as a conversion of sorts. My wife Lucy, a convert to Catholicism, is often more papist than the Pope; she converted well after the Second Vatican Council and occasionally wonders why anyone bothered to drop all the wonderful pomp and grace of the old Latin liturgy. Inevitably I often envy her capacity to see the ancient traditions through innocent eyes, without the sometimes difficult experiences of a Catholic childhood.

Similarly, my new citizenship has brought out in Anglo friends a sense of awe I confess I relish. Unlike those who were born U.S. citizens, I had to earn my way. As a former citizen of a nation whose military government has been rated as "the worst violator of human rights in Latin America" for three recent years in a row by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, I am astounded at the possibility that this November I shall be able to vote for the first time in my life. Because that right is so hard won, I will work and continue to hope for the completion of the democratic experiment. My home has to have room for others like myself, and others quite unlike myself as well.

The second point is, appropriately, technical. On July 14th I thought that Judge Oberdorfer's words -- "You are now an American citizen" -- ended a long technical nightmare. Ironically, when I went to apply for a U.S. passport the first strains of an old song came to the clerk's mouth all too easily. I showed my proof of citizenship -- my certificate of naturalization -- and he congratulated me. Then the man read my form.

"Now, wait a minute," he said with a puzzled tone. "You're naturalized and you were born in New York . . . ?"

It never does quite end.