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Meet Sonoma’s newest citizens

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Pure joy. That was the look on the faces of the new United States citizens celebrating their hard-earned accomplishment at the La Luz Family Resource Center last week.

Almost just as joyful were the 22 volunteer teachers and tutors who conduct the free citizenship classes every Monday evening. They were thrilled for the 12 new citizens and for the four others who have completed their classes this year and are waiting for the date of their naturalization examination to arrive.

A red, white and blue American flag sheet cake with the words “Congratulations” and “Felicitaciones” capped the potluck feast that included tamales, pizza and fried chicken. Proud spouses and happy children celebrated with the new citizens and their teachers.

Everyone who passed the citizenship exam was presented an award certificate and a long-stem red rose by Betzy Chavez, the director of the family resource center. “The process is so difficult,” she said, but explained that if you study and prepare you will pass the test. She said the La Luz students go in nervous and come out having passed because they are so well prepared.

“Those of you who have not done it, continue to push forward, and get others to do it, too,” Chavez said.

Etelvina Rendon passed the exam on June 8, despite suffering severe headaches caused by being so nervous about learning all the necessary information. “I am so happy now,” she said. “It was mucho stress.” She has lived in Sonoma for 24 years and four of her five children were born here and attended El Verano Elementary where the evening citizenship classes are taught. She attended class with her teacher Dotty Abbot for a year and then spent another year being tutored by Dick Drew.

“My husband and my children encouraged me. They told me, ‘you can do it!’” she said.

Carmen Garcia was sworn in as a U.S. citizen on June 7, and she was extra-happy because her mother and her husband became citizens on the same day. She has lived in Sonoma for 18 years and her three children were born here. “I am so excited,” she said. Her tutor, Kathy Bloch, was smiling beside her at the party. “She is an excellent student. I had no doubt she would pass,” Bloch said.

La Luz founder Ligia Booker started the classes four years ago and is still one of the teachers. “We love it,” she said at the party, expressing the enthusiasm she and the other volunteers share. “They do it from the heart.”

To be eligible for the class you must be a legal permanent resident, which means you have a green card. If you have a green card you can apply for citizenship after you have been a U.S. resident for five years, or three years if you are married to a citizen.

The wait from application until the date of examination is currently about 18 months, and there is a $750 fee. The verbal exam is in English and consists of a potential 100 civics questions, 10 of which are asked and six must be answered correctly. You must also be able to read and write a sentence in English. (There is an exception for longtime legal residents over 55 who are allowed to take the test in Spanish.)

Mario Barrientos, 30, was the youngest of the new citizens from the class. He has lived here 12 years and said he decided to take the test “because I wanted to be a good citizen.” He is so thankful for the help he received through La Luz that he is now volunteering, tutoring others preparing for their test.

“Becoming a citizen is very important to do because of the president we have now,” said new citizen Maria Luisa Padilla. She encourages everyone who is eligible to move forward, study and take the exam. “I want everyone to know that it is possible.”

Volunteer teacher Vicki Handron said she decided to be a volunteer because of “the current political climate.” Handron, a Sonoma native and attorney who mainly practices estate law, said she is currently learning Spanish and studying immigration law because she wants to change the focus of her practice to immigration related cases.

Claudia Robbins has been teaching for three years and came up with the idea of adding tutors to the process so those waiting for their test date to arrive “can keep sharp and get a little extra help if they need it.”

“All these people are our angels,” new citizen Barrientos said about the volunteers, to a huge round of applause.

But the real credit goes to the new citizens, who now have the right to vote and the peace of mind that comes with knowing America is their forever home.