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A New American’s Path to Peace

It is the end of May 2011.  Like most of my students, Rosario already feels American but is eager to make it official.  To her, America means confidence and compassion, which began to deepen noticeably in her life when she decided to migrate here from La Paz, Bolivia.  She was 30 then, a hopeful immigrant, like millions before her, with plenty to learn about America and herself.  The following is part of her American journey.

Pilgrimage to America
In the Bolivian winter of 2001 (summer here), Rosario expected her executive assistant job at a bank in La Paz to be downsized any day, so when the American embassy there approved her visa, she took it as a sign, an answer to her prayers.  She had no family here, but church friends in Queens would welcome her and help her settle.  Knowing that she would be able to continue to go to her church in New York and make new friends made her journey seem a great deal less uncertain, even exciting.  

A few days after her arrival that August, the sight of the twin towers rising near the south end of Manhattan filled her with awe at the magnificence of the human will they embodied. They also reminded her of the magnitude of her journey from a country now thousands of miles away and seemingly decades behind.  “I can’t believe I’m here,” she recalls saying to herself whenever something in New York amazed her for the first time.  

***
As I review my interview notes, I remember Rosario telling me her story in the now empty classroom at Queens Community House where I’ve taught my wonderful students American history, government and civics in preparation for their citizenship interview.  Imagining her journey, I can’t help but think of my mom’s, from a small village in the highlands of Peru to the city of Lima, her jolting discovery of electricity, her perseverance and wisdom; of my father’s, from a small fishing town in northern Peru to Lima and the world of television, to which he dedicated most of his life, his strength—rising daily before the sun; of my oldest brother’s, from El Callao, our hometown, to New York via Mexico, his big heart, great cooking, and enduring good humor (big thanks for tearing down that wall, Mr. Reagan!); of my nephew’s journey from Lima to Tennessee (“…home of the brave,” indeed!), via Afghanistan and Iraq; in short, of my immense immigrant family’s “pursuit of happiness,” their work, faith and love for America, the place where we typically learn our biggest lessons and continually rediscover our best.

American Crisis, Unity and Identity
Only a few weeks after Rosario’s arrival, the terrorist attacks of September 11 brought down the towers she had so admired, taking the lives of thousands of Americans from over 60 countries, replacing whatever peaceful and optimistic expectations they and millions worldwide had for that day with haunting loss, shock, fear and grief.  But it was precisely that frightful day that Rosario “felt American for the first time.”  She did not yet have a naturalization certificate, only a sincere emotion she named that way because it felt right.  

Within days, her pastor asked her to accompany him to a crisis center in the City.  The countless pictures of missing people posted on the walls and the multiple tents where secular and religious counselors provided guidance and spiritual consolation to anyone seeking them gave her a sense of America’s caring, enduring and united diversity.  As she witnessed people from all of the world’s tongues and creeds freely and generously give each other kindness, feeling American to her meant “to help anyone from wherever they came.”   

***
9-11.  America at its most vulnerable.  Fear, grief and anger rising and twisting in countless hearts like billowing smoke.  I remember amid all the fragments, the spirit of fallen heroes rising too, inspiring people of goodwill from all corners of America and the world to help, to give their best in all forms, to create paths of kindness that helped many navigate the obscure maze of such unimaginable circumstances.  How many of us, natives and immigrants, in our discovery of new depths of mutual compassion, solidarity and love for our neighbors, must have felt just like Rosario: newly and indistinguishably American.

Reconstruction
As the post 9-11 reality set in, Rosario admittedly felt anxious about the future; however, helping out at her church regularly and seeing firsthand how many New Yorkers faced loss and challenges more daunting than her own helped her believe that she could overcome her fears of not being able to find a job and her insecurity about her limited English.  She counted her blessings.  Getting a visa to the U.S. now would have been nearly impossible, but she was here, safe and healthy, as was her family in Bolivia.  Getting a job now would be even more difficult, but she was determined to rebuild herself in America.  

Two anxious months later, Rosario obtained work as a live-in maid for a wealthy Long Island family, a job she was happy to have but had never imagined doing.  Before her late father, a military man, passed on, her family had had a live-in maid too; a young woman from the Bolivian countryside, whose services her family could afford only because they gave her room and board and admittedly paid her little.  Rosario’s maid experience in America was humbling in a back-breaking, knee-scraping, all-hours-of-the-day, tearful way, but she earned a great deal more than her maid had, even three times the salary of her former bank job in La Paz.  Grateful she could send monthly remittance to her mom, Rosario also earned a better appreciation of her former maid’s tough, long, scantly and partly-unpaid hours of work, her provincial modesty and now intimately familiar vulnerability.  She also learned to recognize her own prejudices in others, prejudices that her American experiences have increasingly drained of sense.

***
One of the first questions I asked Rosario during our interview was about the main thing she had learned from her American journey.  “To realize how hard it is for all of us immigrants to leave our families and cultures behind.  I got a chance to go back and see my family, but many aren’t so lucky.”  “What is the main challenge you’ve had as an immigrant?” I asked. “I came to America and started over, like a child.  Learning English is so hard, and people sometimes treat you like you’re dumb because you can’t communicate well, but you keep trying.  You learn to love this country, celebrate the 4th of July and Thanksgiving alone, sometimes with new friends or a new family, as in my case….You give thanks for all the blessings you get, but you always think of the family you left behind….The hardest thing is when you’re alone and miss your family,” she replied.  

Growth, Responsibilities, and Citizenship Rights
After learning to clean a big house from top to bottom to standards that admittedly raised her own and improving her English, Rosario got her second job in America as a personal assistant to a successful real-estate broker in Great Neck, Long Island.  To her surprise, her main, overriding responsibility at work was taking care of her boss’ dogs.  This, she explained, meant reporting hourly to her boss on the dogs’ well-being.  The details her boss required from her, which included a coloration and consistency analysis of their poop, amuse her now, but for a while she too became obsessed with their care because she “thought the dogs were sick with some fatal disease my boss was not telling me about.”  Rosario recalled that she took her duties so seriously that after three years—during which the dogs thankfully did not die—her boss promoted her to home attendant to her elderly Iranian parents.  Learning English, she soon discovered, would not be enough; she also had to learn Farsi to be efficient at her job.

Fast forward to May of this year: Rosario has undertaken her studies of American history, government and civics with the same humble dedication and welcoming smile that she likely had for all the other things she has needed to learn along the way.  She got an A- on the final written test I administered (all 100 questions) and is on her way to becoming a new American citizen.  This means that she will soon have the same rights as her Ecuadorean-born American husband and will make history in her family as its first American.  Only six years ago she was an immigrant doing her best to prove herself worthy of a paycheck.  Now she is also a legal resident (thanks to her husband of five years!), a woman eager to prove herself worthy of full citizenship.  (Susan B. Anthony would be proud—yes, Rosario also knows who she is.)

***
Rosario reminds herself often and me, as I write this, how fortunate we are not to have had to endure inhumane conditions, miles of merciless desert or unpredictable ocean in our journey to America; how fortunate we are to have learned new things that enable us to forge a better future for ourselves and others; to have our families within reach; how unforgettably fortunate we are that our faith in America has not been thwarted by fate as is the case for those who lie in nameless desert graves and the Atlantic; to be able to travel freely, without the fear of being deported, like the estimated 12 to 20 million undocumented immigrants who live and work in America today, who fill and generate millions of homes and American jobs—contributions not to be easily dismissed.  Those millions are in their large majority as decent, productive and loving of this country as any native-born citizen.  Those millions are not alone in their belief that America will give them a chance to redeem themselves for the circumstances of their arrival and their decision to stay, come hell or high water, often with nothing more than hope for guidance and sustenance; that America’s history and founding principles will support their pleas on the basis of the lives they have ultimately forged, contributed and sacrificed.

 A New American’s Path to Peace
At the end of our last class together Rosario stands up to say a few words on behalf of her classmates (Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador, India and Bangladesh—yes, the United States—represented) and hands me a thank-you card signed by all of them and a present.  The simple ritual, repeated in slight variations at the end of every class cycle, has never failed to move me.

The whole class has contributed food and drinks to share in a celebratory meal together.  Craig Schofield, the director of adult education at QCH in Jackson Heights, joins us.  I think it is only fitting. He was one of my English as a Second Language (ESL) tutors in college and got me my first teaching job at the Latin American Integration Center (now, Make the Road New York) while I was still a student and was not even a citizen yet.  My friendship with him is one of the reasons I volunteered to teach this class at QHC, which like many non-profits in New York lost funding for it and would not have offered it otherwise.  Because in the end, my students at QHC, Craig and I find ourselves around the same table, a microcosm of America, still learning, sharing, and expressing our gratitude…together.   

In these uncertain “times that try [our] souls,” my prayer for the new American is that she, like the rest of us, honors our common immigrant heritage and cares responsibly for the health of America, with gratitude, “liberty and justice for all.”  Inspired by great patriots like Thomas Paine, an immigrant himself, and Thomas Jefferson, I pray for her to speak up for immigrants, without distinction, and add her light to show that the faith, energy and passion that millions of us infuse daily into the hearts of our cities only improve the health of America and the world when we are allowed to circulate freely, like beneficial blood cells through arteries, unblocked and without fear of being mistaken for a virus, when we are allowed to create, share, explore and trade the best of our destinations.  Because for millions of us, a path to citizenship is also a path to peace.