SAN FRANCISCO, California—Last Thursday, my sister and two of our cousins trooped to the historic Paramount Theater in Oakland for a milestone event in their lives—their naturalization day.
United States immigration law provides that a permanent resident—what we usually call a “green card holder”—may opt to be naturalized as an American citizen after five years of continuous residence. Actually the immigrant must have been in residence in the US for two and a half of those five years, but five years is what’s best to bear in mind.
Some people choose to retain Philippine citizenship for the duration of their residence in the US; this is not unusual. My two cousins had been living in the Bay Area for close to 20 years before deciding to be naturalized. My sister, ever efficient and by the book, filed for citizenship five years to the day she arrived.
Thus it was that the three of them found themselves in Paramount Theater on the same day raising their hands in an oath to “renounce and abjure” their former nationality, even if they had come into the country years apart.
The lavishly-decorated art deco theater, recently restored, gleaming in gold and copper and basking in the warm glow of golden light, was filled with a throng that packed it to the rafters. There were 1,107 new citizens in the orchestra area, while the balcony and loge were packed with as many family members and well-wishers.
The oath takers came from 90 countries. Some of those states no longer exist or now have different names. Mexico was the most represented, Philippines the fourth. Second and third were India and China.
The cheering, hooting, and clapping shook the venerable Paramount. The officials present from the State Department, Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly Immigration and Naturalization Services or INS), Social Security Administration, and other government agencies beamed as they shared in the rejoicing of the new citizens.
What was glorious about that experience was the diversity of people in that venue. Everyone had come from all over the world for various reasons. For my cousins, it was to make a fresh start. For my sister, to be with family. All three wanted to explore the opportunities and learn from the challenges that living in a new country poses.
Those from other countries, however, came over for reasons that were more tragic or complicated. “Human rights are better here,” said a man from the Middle East. Others were escaping poverty, oppression, genocide, persecution. They found a haven in the US. When the “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung, everyone fervently raised their voices, hand over heart, grateful to officially belong here.
For my sister, there was a moment of pain when she said the words “I renounce and abjure.” I pointed out that Philippine laws allow for dual citizenship, and that is always an option down the road. Although her Filipino-ness is inextricably a part of her identity, to take on another nationality was not a step she had taken lightly; our cousins had taken decades to decide to do so.
Still, being an American citizen doesn’t mean, my sister says, that she feels less Filipino. She joins the ranks of Filipino-Americans and the greater community of Filipino-X, where many who were born in the motherland joined the diaspora for their various reasons, spreading the gospel of bayanihan and adobo all over the world.
After the oathtaking, the new citizens received their certificates of naturalization and listened to a music video of “America the Beautiful.” Some stayed to submit their applications for US passports to officials who had set up a booth. Others hung around to take photos, posing with little US flags and their naturalization certificates.
Everyone was dressed for the occasion; men wore suits, women frocks and high heels. I had laughed at my sister for wearing her stilettos, but after seeing everyone else I conceded that she was, after all, appropriately dressed.
It was a day of bittersweet joy, but also of gratitude, excitement, a new beginning. As new Fil-Americans, my sister’s and cousins’ journeys through life now take on a different dimension. As I took photos and shared their happiness under the glittering ceiling of the Paramount, I wished them good fortune, brave adventures, and the best of all that their new country has to offer.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember, @artuoste