Cuban American writer and author Dania Ferro recounts how just recently she become her family’s first American citizen.
The Family’s First American Citizen
After twenty years, I finally became a citizen of the country where my grandmother longed for me to be raised. I became a citizen of the United States of America on Tuesday, August 13, 2013, the same day as Fidel Castro’s birthday (purely coincidence). The ceremony took place in Tampa, the city where national Cuban hero José Martí (one of my favorite writers) made his first historic speech with the memorable line: “With everyone, and for the good of everyone.”
The day before the swearing in, I was in Miami, the often referred to sun capital where I have been living since June. Therefore, we had to drive more than 250 miles, and I say “we” because I was not alone: Mr. Lopez accompanied me the entire time. Of course, we stopped in Fort Myers. That is the city where my family lives and where I had chosen to live since I arrived from Cuba in 2004. That night I decided to sleep with my grandmother; we both conspired to leave behind our men and share some time together. We did not fall asleep until 3 am, spending hours sharing stories and memories. We spoke in hushed tones and laughed together recalling when I was nine years old and we traveled together on a boat that left the fishing port of Coloma on its way to the Isle of Youth. It was there where a speedboat was to pick us up to we could escape the country. But our fear of both the sea and the dictatorship stopped us from leaving on that occasion. We later laughed at our other attempts to leave the island and come to the land of liberty as my grandmother kept repeating, “My dear, you are only a few hours away from becoming the first American citizen in the family.” That night I dreamed of a respectable American passport that would allow me to enter and leave any country in the world, which made me feel both lucky and grateful.
We awoke early that morning, grateful that the alarm clock went off and on time. I got dressed enthusiastically, putting on what I thought to be appropriate attire for the occasion. I just drank a glass of milk for breakfast, feeling a knot in my stomach that comes from nerves. Everyone lined up at the door to say goodbye: my mother, my grandmother, and my son, who for some reason did not cry because I was leaving without him. Gabriel, who is not yet three and does not speak much, said with a smile: “Goodbye, mami.” I should be honest and admit that I felt fortunate.
The drive from Fort Myers to Tampa did not go by in silence. To the contrary, I sang along with every single song that played on the radio. I am sure I must have tortured the ears of my driver, Mr. Lopez. Unfortunately, my rejoicing was too selfish and did not take into consideration such details. I felt like an orphan girl who had just been adopted by rich and generous parents. This was my moment, and my day had arrived.
I can say that not only were we punctual, we were too punctual. We arrived two hours early. I took advantage of one of those hours to put on my makeup in the car. This time, however, I did not complain about how small the mirrors are in car sun visors. The truth is that I have always believed the men who design these cars should put a little more thought into the needs of a modern woman. The second hour was spent inside the building, waiting patiently for the event to begin.
The event began at exactly one o’clock without any delay (the first lesson for those who want to become American citizens is that in this culture, you are better off respecting appointment times in a precise and formal manner) and lasted for approximately one hour. The hall where it took place was spacious and impeccably organized. The seats set up in the center were for those who were there that day to receive their certificate of citizenship. Other seats were set up on either side of the ones in the center for friends and family members. The ceremony began with a video presentation showing important figures in American history. We then sang the national anthem. Afterwards, they began to announce all the countries of the candidates who were becoming citizens, with each person standing when they heard their country mentioned. I would be lying if I said I did not feel emotional when I heard my beloved Cuba announced. It was a moment where I felt angst instead of patriotism. It was as if they were asking a biological daughter of Cuba, who has been adopted and is now the legitimate daughter of the U.S.A., to please stand up. I stood up with tears in my eyes, my emotions colliding as I felt both the joy of appreciation and the pain of realizing that I would never be that little girl who rode in limousines to the mansion belonging to my adoptive parents. I now recognized the troubling reality that my “mother” never protected me like she should have, that she held me back, that she neglected me, that she never defended my rights, that she gave me a life of hunger and misery, that she never allowed me to express myself freely, that she underestimated me so often, that she never knew my real needs, and that she left me to fend for myself. Nevertheless, a mother that I inexplicably still loved.
The video message from President Barack Obama was an emotional moment and pulled me out of my trance. The song God Bless America made me cry in front of everyone. We swore allegiance to the flag, which represents a nation under God, with liberty and justice for all. Then we swore allegiance to the America, which is nothing less than absolutely and eternally renouncing any other country, principality, state, or sovereignty where we were citizens before. We swore to support and defend the constitution and the laws of the United States against any enemies, either foreign or domestic, and to have faith and loyalty to the constitution. We promised to defend the United States and to obey the orders of the government when the law requires.
We all ended our pledges in unison with a “so help us God,” and then they handed us a yellow envelope. It was like winning the visa lottery all over again. Inside the envelope was a small American flag and two books; a small one with 27 amendments and another one titled “We the People” where we can read the founding documents, the hymns, and see the symbols of the United States of America. They also give us important information on our rights and responsibilities. From what I could surmise from skimming the information, my rights totaled seven while my responsibilities totaled 10. We also received a guide for voter registration in national elections and other information on applying for a passport and social security among other things.
Finally, they gave us our certificate of citizenship. Once I had it in my hands, I looked over at Mr. Lopez who had his eyes fixed on me, trying to capture the moment with photo after photo. I could tell he was moved by the occasion as he stood in the crowd of observers and made a sign for me to check my cell phone, which I had silenced and stored in my purse. I had a text message that said: “Don’t worry, this is a great country, you are going to be fine here, I promise.”
The tears began to flow and I remembered how much I had studied to pass the citizenship exam with more than 100 questions on civics and American history. I remembered the interview conducted in English with the African American woman, who I miraculously understood perfectly. At that moment, a proud smile spread across my lips. I felt a strange happiness that pushed any regret that could exist right out of me.