As I sat in the balcony, nestled between my mother, brother, sister-in-law, and Brian, an electricity filled the air. Over six-hundred people were gathered below, ready to pledge their allegiance to the United States of America. My family and I were present for my Peruvian husband.
So many emotions shot through my body, so many thoughts filled my mind. In June of 2011, I read a Time cover story by a Washington Post journalist, a man born in the Philippines, who came out as an “undocumented immigrant.” It was a powerful article that stuck with me, so much so that when I saw it anthologized in The Best American Essays 2012, I ordered the text for class and now fascinating discussions take place in my college classroom when we read this piece. I also follow Jose Antonio Vargas on Facebook as I am concerned about his as well as the 11 million undocumented individuals’ path to citizenship, people who have made this great country their home, yet struggle to become legal citizens.
Then I thought about several good friends, one a German who became naturalized several years ago; she was thrilled, honored, and wears her new nationality with great pride. Another friend, an Italian, who has lived here for more than twenty years, just felt like it was time. Then, last week, I met a man from Norway, and when I told him about my husband’s upcoming oath ceremony, he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say “it’s really no big deal.” But when I saw the solitary man from Syria stand, I wondered what he would say if I asked him how he felt to be a United States Citizen. I am sure to him it is a big deal.
The presiding judge, a blonde woman in her fifties, asked attendees to stand when they heard the name of their country. She began alphabetically, “Afghanistan, Albania, Belgium, Belize, Congo . . .” only one or two people stood from each of these countries. “Estonia, Guatemala . . . ” then she said: “Iran . . . Iraq” at least fifty from each country stood. Next to Mexico and India, Iran and Iraq had the largest number of immigrants. When Peru was called, my husband stood and looked up at us; my mama, Amy, and I jumped up as we hooted and hollered while waving little American flags that I had bought the day before. My husband has gotten used to my loud, warm Greek-American family and smirked from his seat below.
I remember a time when I was coming back to the U.S. from Greece, and a man behind the immigration counter asked me when I was naturalized. At nineteen, young and impressionable, authority figures made me tremble while my palms became cesspools. “I don’t know what you mean,” I responded politely. I had never heard the word “naturalized” before. This word choice was not part of my reality. “WHEN were you naturalized?!” he bellowed. I repeated, “I am sorry, sir, I don’t know what you mean.” I had tears in my eyes as everyone around me started staring. “You were born in Venezuela. WHEN did you become an American?” “Yes, I was born in Venezuela. My dad is a civil engineer. He was working there. I happened to be born there. Both my parents are American.” I rattled facts, hoping one of them would give him the answer he wanted. “PASS!” He threw my passport back to me. If this had happened to me today, it would have been another story. Maybe not. People in uniforms still make my pulse race. So I meekly walked away, and when my loving Greek mother held me as I shared what happened, I finally learned what “naturalized” meant. My mother was, in fact, naturalized.
I am a third-culture kid, having lived exactly half my life overseas in more than five different countries. As a teenager, I was sometimes confused, displaced, and didn’t know the location of “home.” In my twenties, I began appreciating my peripatetic life; in my thirties, my appreciation turned into a deep sense of gratitude to have lived in such colorful countries. And, now, in my forties, I am finally home. The physical place is Los Angeles, and I have, indeed, become a proud American, but I have also come to understand “home” is where one feels at peace. I love this country, a country where we open our arms to others every day who want to come here for a multitude of reasons—one of which, I am certain, is to be at peace.
608 people present, 234 requesting name changes, 26 individuals absent, and 1 man who has my heart. That afternoon as we lunched with my family, ate Mongolian Beef and chicken fried rice, I looked at my smiling husband and reflected on the joyous day. At one point, my mind turned to the endless paperwork, the proofs of love—Hallmark cards, wedding photos, private e-mails—the interviews, the hurdles, and, thankfully, the final invitation. I also reflected upon those 11 million individuals and hope our government agrees on a solution for them. For today, though, I am happy for one individual. A man who has loved me for ten years, a best friend who makes me laugh, my husband who can now call this country his home, too. Proud to be an American. “One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”