By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City — A handful of friends asked me how does it feel to be a US citizen now. It was a well-meaning inquiry, out of curiosity, out of bewilderment.
My immediate answer was: happy. Grateful. The United States of America finally gave birth to me, as a naturalized daughter, full of dreams to be completely part of the dynamic and fabric of the world’s most powerful nation.
Inside a sprawling Brooklyn courtroom on Cadman Plaza, there were about 340 of us, decently dressed, multi-racial, who were sworn into allegiance to the flag of the United States. This after going through protocol of surrendering our green cards, filing up the voter’s registration, signing our naturalization certificates, all for about five hours. There were four immigration staffers who managed the whole procedure, and the one best staffer, perhaps the most senior, had a pleasant demeanor to encourage us to vote, know our rights, and be active in community life.
The presiding judge came in past noontime of March 31, 2015, a damp Tuesday of a fickle-minded spring.
New York is the biggest immigration office in the US which goes through the daily grind of the oath-taking ceremonies. It is so now, as it was since the 1900s.
I stood on the fourth row of the seven front benches facing the judge. On my left was a beautiful Latina who was dressed in black. On my right side was a Middle Eastern woman, in yellow and gold long dress. She wore a colorful burqa that matched her golden earrings and bracelets. She could not speak English very well, and had to ask for assistance from the skinny blonde woman next to her, born to Dutch parents in the Netherlands.
The judge greeted us with a great smile and welcomed us “with warm embrace into America”, the land of immigrants. He mentioned his own parents who came from Europe in 1950, on a boat, and entered the Ellis Island.
He led us to the take our oath. We raised our right hands and pledged loyalty to the Constitution of the United States.
It felt good and happy reciting the oath. Minutes earlier, I read the welcome letter from the White House, penned by President Obama. Welcome to America, the president wrote. We applauded ourselves and everyone else in the courtroom. I am now Miss US Citizen, I told myself, grinning.
After more than five years of being a green card holder, aside from working hard like a buffalo (this doesn’t sound so sweet as when spoken in Filipino...kayod kalabaw) and surviving triumphantly against my daughter’s cancer, financial woes, and other skirmishes, I decided to not be distracted. I embarked on the most important decision in my life, and that was to apply for US citizenship.
My esteemed friend Susan Pineda, an immigration consultant, carefully guided me to go through the process and the documents to prepare. I submitted my packet in October 2014 and begun studying the US Constitution until I was scheduled for a test and interview on February 4, 2015.
The interview at the Jacob Javits Federal Plaza with immigration officer Jennings (not his real name) was tough and brought me the gruelling memories of my political asylum interview in 2008.
The lanky, bearded, curly haired immigration officer asked how did I get my green card. His demeanor meant I will be having another hard time in the interview.
I replied to him that I applied for political asylum in 2008 following the murder of my husband in the Philippines. He asked about the circumstances of his death, which I pointed out clearly as having risked my safety and made me vulnerable.
Then he asked what is the truth? I suppose he wanted to test me as a journalist. But because truth to me will always have angular or philosophical answers, I chose to be direct and generic. I answered, truth is an honest information that you know to the best of your ability.
Then he asked, do you think it is safe to go back to the Philippines? I said no, it isn’t. Then why did you go home in 2011? I replied, my grandmother died and we had to follow her wish to be buried in the Philippines. Besides, my mother asked me to come home. Anyway, I said, it was a short stay and I was fully with my family and did not go anywhere away from them.
Interspersed with all political and personal questions, Jennings asked me facts about the US Constitution and history. I gave out a perfect score.
A week before I would take oath, I was down with the worst flu, cough and cold I ever had in my seven years of continuous stay here.
It was not surprising, because twice last week I was wearing a light jacket when the weather was still atrociously cold. One was when snow poured incessantly on the first day of Spring, and I walked stubbornly through Lexington until the 1st Avenue where the UN is headquartered. The second bad case of wrong fashion was when I forgot to wear a scarf and walked through the dead of the night with its ferocious grip of cold down to the bones.
The cold knocked me down.
I cancelled four public events that I committed myself to, including the 3rd anniversary part of OSM! and some important work which would have added money to my wallet. All I cared about was to be healed and be ready for March 31.
The Tylenol severe that I took for two days did not fully help. It may have taken away my fever which made me shiver and set my eyes ablaze, but it left my stomach so upset, that I woke up three straight mornings in severe gastric pain that made me throw up.
I was truly sick and miserable. I thought I would only be a headless chicken on the week I lined up four straight activities. Nope, my body protested to my speed and I was sick and had to rest in bed for more than a week.
The saving grace for my ordeal was traditional wisdom of concocting lemon, lemon grass, ginger, and honey. It was taught to me by my friend Vanette Colmenares who also has her own blog with OSM!. The wonderful lemony power of the juice gradually eradicated my cough and cold.
Tired and not yet fully healed, it was a big effort to reach the Brooklyn courthouse on High Street early in the morning. The ceremony was long but well organized, from 8 AM to 130 PM. I surely was the person who coughed the most in that court room. Many were sniffling and coughing too. But I just knew I was the number one ‘spreader’ of germs in that space and time.
My only guest, daughter Leani, congratulated and kissed me after the oath taking. We collected our cell phones and headed outside the colossal glass building and took a few shots of pictures. I thought I still looked sick in the pictures.
While in search of a nearby restaurant for lunch or brunch at the Cadman Plaza, I did a verbal shout out to the spirits that I always call upon in my immigration journey: my late husband, my grandmother, my grandfather, my great grandmother, and mother-in-law. Leani, this time, was tolerant of my faithful allegiance to ancestral spirits, and said, Mom, I have a new name for myself when it is my turn to apply.
We’re on to the next milestone.