Last week, Goleta gained four new citizens: Enoc and Silvia Uribe and their daughters Olivia and Cecilia. Silvia and Olivia were able to go through their naturalization ceremony on January 19 – four days before registration closed for the presidential primary and so were able to vote on February 5. Enoc was not so lucky, having to wait until the next week to take the oath of citizenship, but he will be voting in June. Cecilia, a senior at Dos Pueblos High School, is just 17 but will be able to vote in November.
Silvia and Enoc first came to Santa Barbara as tourists in 1993 and fell in love with the place. Enoc was offered a job locally by a friend who had a manufacturing business and needed help selling in Mexico and so he was able to stay here on a work visa. After seven years, the family was able to get resident visas and, five years later, began the process of applying to become citizens. Silvia is fluent in English and Spanish, having attended a bilingual school in Mexico City. She had worked as a translator before they came to the U.S. After working here at the Girl Scouts and then the Rape Crisis Center, she began working as a translator again. She can often be seen doing simultaneous translation at meetings around the area. She also works with the District Attorney’s office with victims of violence.
Olivia graduated from Dos Pueblos High School and after attending Santa Barbara Community College and UCSB, graduated with a BA in Political Science in June 2006. She is now assistant director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN), a countywide advocacy group, and is also going to law school. When I met with the family last week, she had just run a marathon that morning in Huntington Beach!
The process of becoming citizens was agonizingly long, the Uribes said. It began with being fingerprinted and paying a fee and then waiting almost a year for an interview. They were given a CD of American history and institutions to study in the meantime. It was quite well done, they said, and gave a lot of interesting background to the questions it covered. For example, the answer to the question “Who lives in the White House?” included information about who built it and when.
When they were finally scheduled for interviews, the questions were very easy, on the order of “When is Independence Day?” and “What is the Constitution?” Silvia was amused that after the questions, the interviewer told her he now had to test her knowledge of English. “But we have been talking in English all this time,” she said. Nonetheless, she still had to read a sample to him.
At Silvia and Olivia’s naturalization ceremony, the judge who administered the oath of citizenship said he was happy and honored to be there because he knew that of all the people from so many different countries were “the best,” because “We have investigated you!”
I remember my own experience becoming a citizen some 40 years ago being grateful to the judge for not just congratulating us, but also saying that we were bringing something of value to America. At that time dual citizenship was not an option, so while I was proud to become a citizen there was also a sense of loss. Today, new citizens like the Uribes are able to keep citizenship of their original country. Silvia says she has a deep sense of gratitude for this country and what it has done for Latinas. It had welcomed her with open arms but she had always felt like an outsider before gaining citizenship. Now that she is a citizen, she feels complete. She had voted before when she lived in Mexico but never felt that her vote would make any difference. Here she knows it can, and it will, and it is empowering to Latinas.
For Olivia, being a citizen means being able to vote and even running for office some day. And as one who has lived most of her life in the U.S., she will no longer have to explain that she is not a citizen. Enoc said he feels pride in having all the rights and privileges that he now has as a citizen.
Early on Election Day, I waited with my camera outside Ellwood School for Silvia and Olivia to arrive to vote in the presidential primary. They arrived, all smiles, entered the polling place, signed their names, got their ballots and voted for the first time in one of the most exciting elections of the past 25 years. It was thrilling for them and thrilling for me to be there to see them exercise their rights as citizens to vote. Enoc has to wait until June for his first vote, but the whole family will be going to the polls for the general election in November.
Goleta has gained the wonderful talents and skills of these, our newest citizens. And we are enriched not only by their embracing our laws and traditions, but also by the rich diversity they can now more fully contribute to our society.