Two life changing Decembers

By: Marco Rodriguez

The memories of that day come back to me in a blur.  I can vaguely remember the bright lights and the loud noise of people coming in and out of the airport. My father, who months earlier had left our native Costa Rica to find employment, greeted my mother and my siblings at the gate when we arrived that December day.  As any nervous four-year-old would do, I clung on to my mother’s side as we collected our bags and found the exit.  The sliding doors revealed snow and a bitter cold that I had never experienced before. I was now in America.  My life would never be the same.

The memories of that other December day are much clearer to me.  I sat patiently with my mother waiting for my name to be called in Newark’s Immigration offices.  Twenty years after having moved from Costa Rica to the United States, the time had come for me to become an American citizen.  The same nerves that my former four-year-old self felt at John F. Kennedy airport came over me as I sat in that waiting room that Thursday morning.  I had studied countless hours for the civics test and was convinced that I would pass it.  Nevertheless, the pre-exam nerves that we college students are accustomed to began to kick in as I looked around the crowded room.

American citizenship is an incredible privilege that I fear most people who have it, take for granted.  The rights and liberties we have been blessed with, which have come at the expense of our servicemen and women’s lives, are luxuries many people around the world wish they had.  A simple scan of daily newspapers and television news segments can confirm that.  While others suffer under cruel governments, we enjoy the riches of a democracy.  We are not muted in America, but have been given the opportunity to step up and make a difference.  We have a right to vote for our officials in elections locally and nationally.  Not only can we vote, but we can be voted for, as our citizenship allows us the opportunity to become elected officials.

While it is true that we have problems here at home, America gives people a hope that they may not have had in their native country.  As the time passed and I continued to scan the room, that reality set in.  There we were, people of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds all seeking the same thing: a chance to add our names to the list of people who call America “home.”  As people completed their interviews and exams, they would walk out of the offices with tears of joy running down their faces.  With great emotion, they embraced their loved ones who accompanied them on that special day.  What perhaps was once only a dream had become a reality that day.  They were Americans.  No outside leader, country, or extremist group could change that.  They were safe at home.

There we were, all different, but all the same.  While for twenty years I had lived in America and considered it as my home, this day would make it official and usher in a new season in my life.

After about an hour and a half wait my name was called and, with that, the big moment had arrived.  I was warmly greeted by an immigration officer who brought me into her office, where I swore an oath to tell the truth during my interview and exam.  I took a deep breath and looked out over Newark from her office window.  After successfully providing the officer my personal information I was asked ten civics questions as part of my exam.  The requirement for citizenship is to answer at least six of the ten correctly, which I was able to do with ease.  From there I was asked to read and write sentences in English, which I was able to do successfully as part of the exam.  After taking one last look at my paperwork and asking me several questions, the officer congratulated me and told me that I had successfully met all of the requirements for citizenship.

I was ready to be sworn in and from that day forward consider myself an American.  A great sense of pride and joy came over me at that moment when I heard the news.  I quickly made my way out of the office as my mother greeted me with a warm hug and a kiss.  Her son, who as a little boy clung on to her that one December day in the airport, now clung on to her as a proud new citizen of the United States twenty years later.

The swearing in ceremony, which took about 30 minutes, featured a congratulatory speech from the offices director, a presentation of our certificates, and a recorded speech from President Obama. I stood at the front after the ceremony so my mom could take a picture of me with my certificate in hand.  I walked out of the building that afternoon with a smile on my face and with my mom by my side.  I was now an American. My life would never be the same.

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