Being an American and becoming an American
There are aspects of who we are that often are taken for granted, never given much of a thought. Being an American is, for many, one of those things that comes to the surface only while traveling abroad, on national holidays or during international sports competitions. But becoming an American is a quest for citizenship in a place that has been home for years, or even decades.
The paths to citizenship are as varied as the millions of us who have traveled it. The process is often uncertain, long and expensive. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Guide to Naturalization is an extensive document with more than 50 pages of requirements and forms.
There is the five-year residency requirement, stress preparing for the test and the interview, the fear of failing blended with the hope of passing while anxiously waiting months for the results. If granted, the swearing-in ceremony, followed by your first Pledge of Allegiance, is a solemn and memorable day. For new Americans, the words that represent the commitment to America are said for the first time, the same words that those born here have been saying since kindergarten.
I was uniquely fortunate to come from Bogota, Colombia, 20 years ago, equipped with a bilingual education and a familiarity with the U.S. culture as a result of being educated by American nuns and then working for many years with American companies.
When I arrived in 1991, I thought I was ready to fit in, but there were unexpected surprises awaiting me.
On my first trip to the grocery store I stood perplexed at the dairy section, puzzled by 2 percent, 1 percent, skim, half and half. I moved to the butter – there was sweet, salted, margarine and “I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter.” At the cash register it continued – cash, charge, debit, paper or plastic.
Exhausted that night, I turned on the TV to Saturday Night Live. I understood every word but I still didn’t get it. That first day proved unsettling. Maybe the weekend, which was to include a Giants game, would be better. But then I was simply a confused bystander when everyone stood, stretched and started singing in the seventh inning. And then there was the Bobby McFerrin concert with the Sacramento Symphony, and an encore where the whole audience starting singing some letters: M,I,C…K,E,Y… everyone knew the words but me.
As the years went by, I learned the songs, I got the humor and I grew a stronger sense of belonging, of legitimately feeling as American as I am Colombian.
The process of becoming an American takes decades and has real hurdles for many, like Don Francisco, 69, who lives in the Springs. He arrived in Sonoma in the early 1980s to do field labor. He did not speak English and knew nothing of the culture.
Nevertheless, he learned and adapted. He gained his permanent residency in 1990 through the Reagan Administration’s Amnesty Program. He was able to visit his wife of nearly 50 years and their eight children, during his annual two-week vacation, but he could not bring them here. He has spent the past 30 years working hard to support his family in Michoacán, Mexico.
With the dream of obtaining his citizenship, Don Francisco walked into La Luz Center in 2009. Over the next year, La Luz helped him prepare. He had the required 20 years of permanent residency and was over 50, so he could take the citizenship interview and test in Spanish. While he scraped together the $680 government fee, La Luz helped him file the application. For many the process can cost $1,000, including classes and legal fees. Don Francisco passed the test and was sworn in as an American citizen on April 4, this year.
He retired last year from the Sonoma Valley Inn after more than 10 years as a groundskeeper. He plans to spend the rest of his days in the Springs, in his new country. Now his dream is to bring his wife and children to visit.
Adopting a new nationality is an important and lasting change and it requires very clear decisions about who and what you want to be going forward. I am proud to be a Colombian and an American. I am proud to be part of a community where Don Francisco got help to become an American, against the odds of age and language.
On this Fourth of July, I am grateful this country has embraced me, Don Francisco and millions like us, and allowed us to enrich the social, economic and cultural landscape of this great land.
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Claudia Mendoza-Carruth is president of the board of La Luz Center, as well as program director of the Sonoma International Film Festival.