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First Person: How I Became a Citizen



A few weeks after I applied for citizenship, I received a letter telling me when I was supposed to take the test: October 22, 1987, at 10:30 AM in room 405 of the Dirksen Federal Building. The test would consist of questions about the way our government works and an English language examination.

I began to worry what they were going to ask me. I went to my friend's house to see if she knew anything about how the government works. I guess she didn't know either, because she gave me a thick book entitled Our Government and Its Power and told me to study it. It had 20 chapters; I read maybe two or three, then I gave up. There were too many details to memorize.

October 22 came, and still I knew very little about how the government works. I knew that every four years we elect a new president, and that he has only two terms. I knew the name of our government (Congress), and the name of the mayor of Chicago, and I knew my way to the Dirksen Building.

I arrived ten minutes early. Room 405 looked like a classroom, with chairs lined up and a desk in front. It was filled with no less than 100 persons, some with kids, some young, some old--Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, Mexicans, Cubans, all waiting for their call. As I was trying to find a seat, I imagined that all those people were looking at me. A man sitting in the row in front of me told me I was supposed to put my letter on the desk.

While I was waiting for them to call my name, I looked at the person next to me. He was a handsome young man in his mid-20s with a fair complexion and dark hair. He was attentively studying a pamphlet. Out of the corner of my eye I strained to see what it was. I read some questions: "How is Congress organized?" and "How many members does the House of Representatives have?" I said to myself, Hay caray! This is going to be harder than I thought.

As soon as the man closed the pamphlet, I asked to borrow it. The pamphlet had about 50 questions with the answers next to them. I browsed through the questions and found I did know some: for example, I knew that the governor's office was in Springfield. After flipping through the pamphlet for a while, I gave it back to the man. I thought, no, I am not going to pass this exam.

I asked the man, "How about if I don't pass the exam, do I get another chance?"

"Yes, they give you another chance, but I think that you have to apply again."

It was getting late. Then a lady showed up and apologized for the delay, and they started calling out names. The 7 AM appointments were called at 10 AM, and so on. I waited for nearly two hours for them to call my name. I was bored and nervous; I kept changing seats. I sat by this guy who had a man preparing him for the exam. The man was well-dressed, in a suit, and he had a briefcase.

"How many terms does the president get?" the man asked.


"How many members are in the Senate?"

"I don't know."

I got even more nervous when I saw this man had a lawyer. I sat by another guy who was reading another pamphlet, and I asked to see it. The questions were in two languages, English and Spanish, and the English pronunciation was included with the answers.

"Who is the president of the United States?"

"Quien es el presidente de los Estados Unidos?"



I thought, this guy is worse off than me. I just gave up and waited. Whatever happened, happened.

They called my name. I stood up and followed a very tall blond man down a hall and into his office.

"Do you swear to tell the truth?"


"Stand up and raise your right hand to answer."

I stood up like a soldier, raised my right hand, and said "Yes!"

He took out a yellow envelope with the application I had filled out. He handed me the five pictures that I had sent in and said, "Sign your complete name on one edge of each picture."

I thought to myself, I hope I don't screw this thing up. I had to write my whole name, "Maria Elida Reyes Martinez," along one edge of each picture, and the pictures were only about two inches square.

"All right, Maria, tell me who is the president of the United States?"


"The vice president?"


"The mayor?"


"Nah! Forget it. You know all this stuff. Take this envelope with you to the ninth floor and pay 50 dollars."

On the ninth floor I paid my 50 dollars and they told me I would hear from them about the final hearing.

Meanwhile at school I had missed my biology class, but I had asked my friend Susy to tape the lecture for me and left her my tape recorder, with a new tape and new batteries. When I finished at the Dirksen Building, I went directly to school to meet Susy. She finally showed up, smiling and carrying the tape recorder.

"Here, I taped the whole lecture," she said.

I was happy I hadn't missed anything. I rewound the tape so I could hear the lecture right away, but the teacher's voice was tiny. I tried it again at full volume, but it was the same.

"I'm sorry, Maria, I don't know what happened," Susy said.

"That's OK, I'll get notes from someone," I said. "By the way, where did you sit to tape this?"

"Where I usually sit. At the back of the room."

"Oh, well. Thanks anyway," I said.

I went home and didn't mention anything about the test to anyone. My grandmother, who had come from Mexico to stay with us for a few days, completely rejected the idea of any one of the family becoming a U.S. citizen. My mother knew that I had applied for citizenship, but she didn't know today was the day that I took the test.

Another letter arrived, telling me when to come to the final hearing: January 19, 1988, Dirksen Building, room 2050, 7:45 AM.

January 19 came. I got up very early, maybe 6 o'clock. I couldn't decide what to wear. I didn't know whether I should dress formal or casual. I knew it was an important meeting; I was going to be right in front of the judge. On the other hand, I always feel uncomfortable in a dress and nylons. I decided the most important thing was to feel comfortable, so I wore jeans, a sweater, and gym shoes. I took my school bag with me and my lunch--I had a class to go to later that day.

When I left the house, it was already 7 o'clock, and then the train was late. I had in mind to stop off at school and leave my books and lunch, but there wasn't enough time, so I had to take it all with me.

I got off the el at Washington and walked up the stairs into the heart of downtown. The big clock on the Citicorp bank flashed 7:50 AM. I ran like crazy for two blocks--I was afraid if I was late, I would miss my appointment.

I hurried through the revolving doors of the Dirksen Building and up the elevators to the 20th floor. I found room 2050 and pulled open one of the big double doors. Inside were two uniformed guards. I showed them my letter and they told me to come in and sit down.

The room was big, and there were a lot of people already seated on some long benches. The guards kept telling us to "scoot up" to make room for the other people that were still coming. There were maybe 300 people in that room, all from different countries.

Next to me was an Indian couple; I think it was a father and daughter. The man smiled at me and I smiled back. We sat for about an hour without saying anything. The guards wouldn't let us do anything. We were not supposed to read the newspaper, and we had to ask permission to leave the room.

By now it was 9 AM. I was getting impatient, especially because I knew my history class was about to begin without me. I started to mumble to myself, and the Indian man said, "What's the matter, were you supposed to be at some other place?"


"Where at?"


"What school?"


He nodded. For another hour nothing happened. The Indian man began to talk with his daughter in their native language, and I just sat looking at the people, the lights in the ceiling, and at the flags and the empty desks up front. I began to cough. I couldn't control myself. I tried to cough slowly, but it got worse. I asked one of the guards to let me out to drink some water. He said "Sure," and told me where the fountain was. After my cough had calmed down I went back to the room.

The guard said, "Are you ready now?"

"Yes, I am."


I sat down again. About five minutes later, three men (two whites and a black) came in and went up to the front and sat down. The white men took out folders and papers, and the black man took out a big wooden hammer, slammed it on his desk, and said, "This meeting is now in session." He slammed the hammer again and introduced the judge, and we all stood up. The judge came in. He was wearing a long, black gown. He stood up and faced the wall and started looking at some papers. All we could see was his back. Then he turned and told us to raise our right hands and to swear to be loyal to this country and be willing to defend it against all enemies.

We all said, "Yes."

Then he told us to say the "Pledge of Allegiance," which we did. Then the black man slammed the hammer one more time, and the judge left, and the other men followed him.

We sat down. Everyone got very quiet. Then a sweet-looking old lady stood up in front and said "Congratulations! You are now part of this great country! You are now citizens!"

I said to the Indian man, "Are we?"

He said, "I guess."

The lady told us to remain seated until we got our certificates. She also told us that after we got our certificates, we were invited to go to the conference room and get some doughnuts and coffee.

A man came in with a box and started calling out names. I was very alert, trying not to miss mine. After about ten minutes, I heard my name and went up front, and he gave me my certificate. I sat down to look it over.

The certificate is the size of a sheet of typing paper, with an engraved border like they have on money. At the top it says CERTIFICATE OF NATURALIZATION. My picture, with my signature along the side, is on the left side, with a raised seal on it, like a passport. The certificate has my personal description, marital status, country of former nationality, and my complete and true signature, certifying that the description is true and that the photograph is really a likeness of me. The words are printed in a fancy script ("Be it known that . . . intends to reside permanently in the United States. . . . admitted as a citizen of the United States of America . . . this 19th day of January nineteen hundred and eighty eight"), all except for some small capital letters at the bottom: "IT IS PUNISHABLE BY U.S. LAW TO COPY, PRINT OR PHOTOGRAPH THIS CERTIFICATE."

I also received a letter from the president.

After I got my certificate, I went to the conference room. There were a few persons there already, but they weren't people I had spoken to. I was happy when the Indian man and his daughter appeared soon, so I had someone to talk with.

The Indian man said, "Let's go and get some coffee."

I looked around. "Where is it?"

He said, "Right over there by the corner."

We walked over and served ourselves, and some other people came in for coffee, too. I told the Indian man, "I think this is not our coffee."

"Oh yes it is! They told us to come and get some coffee and doughnuts, and there is no other coffee but this one."

"Maybe you're right," I said. We all went to sit down with our cups.

Within seconds a lady came and told the Indian man, "Excuse me, I just want to tell you that coffee is not for the new citizens, but for the personnel who are patiently working to register new voters."

The Indian man said, "Well, I didn't know."

As soon as I heard that, I wanted to get rid of my cup of coffee. The lady saw me and said, "Excuse me, honey, you see that coffee was put there for persons who are registering new voters."

"Oh! I didn't know. So, you want me to put it back?"

"Will you please?"

I went and put my cup of coffee on the table, and sat back down. Soon the lady who told us not to drink the coffee stood up in front and welcomed us. She was the chairman of some organization. Then a Methodist minister came in, and we prayed the "Holy Father." Then came a lady named Mrs. John, and we said the "Pledge of Allegiance." Then came Mr. Walter, and we sang "The Star-Spangled Banner." Then came Mr. J.D. NaVarre, who gave a tribute to the new citizens. He asked us to sing "America the Beautiful":

beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

My cough started again. I stopped singing, and because I kept coughing and coughing, I decided to leave the room--I was disturbing the other people.

I went and drank water, but I was still coughing. A lady, one of the workers, was standing by the door and watching me. She thought I was too busy coughing and drinking water to notice her, but I was seeing her all right. I spent about five minutes coughing and drinking water.

When my cough stopped I went back to the room, and the lady who was watching me said, "Are you all right?" I nodded. "Probably was a piece of bread that got stuck in your throat," she said.

"No. I have had this cold for over a week."

I went back to my seat, and now they were singing, "This Is My Country." I tried to sing but then I thought, no, better not, my cough will come again.

Then they asked if any of the new citizens wanted to say anything. The Indian man, who was sitting next to me, went up to the front.

"I won't mention the country where this happened," he said. "But anyway, the officials wouldn't let me into the country. They told me I might want to stay there to live. I told them, 'Oh, come on! How can you possibly think that!'"

We all laughed. He looked around at us and said, "After all, how can a person want to stay in a country that offers no opportunities? You know? Now! I am going back to that country again, and I am going to tell them, 'Now, I am a citizen of the United States. Do you still think that I will want to stay in your country?'"

We all stood up and applauded him.

A few more new citizens spoke and then we sang "God Bless America." After that, refreshments were given out--our coffee and doughnuts at last--and then they registered us to vote. After I registered, I said good-bye to the Indian man and his daughter. On my way out, I took one of the flags that they had on a desk--I think they were for us--and I went home.

When I got home I ran up the stairs and knocked softly on the door. I had planned to go in waving my flag and singing "America the Beautiful," but I lost my nerve. I was feeling insecure; I didn't know if I had done the right thing or not.

Nobody answered, so I pushed the door open. Inside was the noise of the washing machine, the noise of pots and pans, and a sweet smell of mole. The smell of the food led me to the kitchen. My mother was stirring the mole, my father had the refrigerator door open looking for something, and my younger brother was doing his homework at the kitchen table. They all turned to look at me. My mother cleaned her hands on her apron and said, "What's wrong with you?"

I lifted up my chin and pulled out my flag and said, "Congratulate me. I am now a citizen of the United States."

My mother's face changed. She smiled and said, "So, you did it. Ah! Was it hard?"


"What did they ask you?"

"What was the name of the president and of the vice president and of the mayor."

"That was all?"


She looked uncertain. "I remember that my sister Anatolia told me that her exam was not so easy. And two of my friends went to take the exam and failed it."

"I think it depends on how much English you know," I said. "If they know that you speak just a little bit of English, probably then they will ask you harder questions."

"You came just in time for the mole," she said. "I made mole because I know that is the only way I can make you guys eat chicken."

I started to fill up my plate, still thinking about everything that had happened. My brother said, without looking up from his homework, "I will apply for citizenship, too, but not now; otherwise they can draft me and send me to fight."

My father was sitting in his chair, waiting for my mom to serve him. He was eating an apple and listening to all this.

My mother looked at my father, then she spoke slowly and hesitantly. "I want to be where my sons are. If they decide to become citizens, then I will apply for the citizenship, too."

It took a few seconds for my father to answer. He sat there eating his apple and looking at my mother. Then he said, "Do you think that Maria did it because she likes it? No! She did it for convenience, because she wants to find a better job! Not me. I will do what my uncle Ezequiel did. He lived all of his life here, he died here, and he was buried here, and he never became a citizen. He always dreamed of someday going back to Mexico."

He took another bite of his apple. "I do not agree with what you have just done," he said to me. "But you are old enough to make your own decisions. It's not like some years back, when I used to scare you with my belt whenever you were going to do a wrong thing."

Nobody said anything. My mother fixed a plate of mole for my father. He started to eat, but he kept on grumbling.

What's done is done, I thought. He'll just have to get used to it.

I sat down across from my brother. He was looking at me and smiling. "From now on, Sister, I am going to call you 'La Guera' [Blondie]," he said. "I can see that the color of your eyes is changing already."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David Small.

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