In one generation, Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s family went from being immigrants, cooks and house cleaners to public servants helping to determine the future of California.
Padilla’s parents emigrated from Mexico in the 1960s and raised their three children in Pacoima, one of the oldest communities in the San Fernando Valley. It wasn’t until the 1990s that they became U.S. citizens.
“Almost 30 years of living here in California before becoming citizens and I remember how nervous they were when they made that decision,” Padilla said. “I remember the evenings after work and after school where my brother, my sister and I would sit on the couch in the living room, studying flash cards. Did anybody do that getting ready for the test?”
Several of the 890 people from 54 countries participating in Tuesday morning’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony at the Fresno Convention Center shook their heads yes. He delivered the keynote speech, and explained that his family knows a little bit about the journey it takes to become an American because that was his parents’ story.
Padilla shared how his father worked for nearly 40 years as a short-order cook, scrambling eggs, cooking pancakes, making sandwiches and hamburgers. His mother used to clean houses, what Padilla described as a lot of hard, honest work. They finally retired a few years ago, Padilla said.
Padilla has an older sister who works for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She’s been a teacher and principal. He also has a younger brother who works for the Los Angeles City Council. Padilla is the middle child. He worked as an engineer before joining public service, and was sworn-in in January as not just the secretary of state for California, but the first Latino to hold the office.
“That’s my family’s story and I know for each and everyone of your families you have an equally great story, an equally great opportunity to serve and to determine the future of your community.”
The men and women in formal attire sat in Valdez Hall, holding American flags and a packet that included copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a U.S. passport application, an information sheet about Social Security and a voter’s guide. Friends and family gathered in the back of the hall.
The ceremony began at 10:05 a.m. Henry Lemay sang “The “Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.” Lemay volunteers every month to sing and join in the naturalization ceremonies, and afterward, the citizens-to-be stood up, many waving American flags, when the name of their home country was called. For India, Mexico and the Philippines, the room erupted with tremendous cheers and applause. These countries had some of the highest numbers of individuals participating in the ceremony: Mexico, 439; India, 130; and the Philippines, 76.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Fresno Field Office Director Jonathan Crawford administered the Oath of Allegiance — the last step to becoming a citizen. In unison, the candidates raised their right hand and repeated the oath. Whistles, cheers and applause filled the hall as Crawford congratulated the new citizens and introduced Padilla to the stage.
Along with sharing his family’s story Padilla congratulated the new citizens for their courage and said, “Becoming a U.S. citizen is an incredible achievement.
“You studied, you prepared, you took that test and passed that interview and here you are as the newest citizens of the United States of America.”
He also mentioned the importance of voting and the new citizens’ responsibility to cast ballots in each election. “You have a voice,” he said, “but only if you exercise it.”
Following Padilla’s speech, a video message from President Obama was played. He said “you can help write the next great chapter in our American story” and welcomed the individuals as new citizens, who were then excused row by row and formed lines to receive their certificates of naturalization.
As they exited the hall, many smiled and looked at their certificates in admiration as they reunited with their families and friends outside. Several voter registration representatives and tables were set up encouraging the individuals to sign up.
Merced resident Juan Carlos Sotelo Gutierrez, 35, said it was an honor to have someone of Mexican descent speak. at the event Originally from Mexico, Gutierrez said he’s been in the U.S. since he was 6 years old. He thought it a great honor to finally hold his naturalization certificate.
Cuc Nguyen, 61, a Fresnan who was born in Vietnam, also received a certificate of naturalization, and her 19-year-old son Tam Vu attended to celebrate her achievement. Vu said his mother was moved by Padilla’s speech because she could relate to the study habits he spoke of. Vu would quiz his mom while at their kitchen counter.
Immigration Service Officer Aggie Verboon, who has worked for the Immigration Service since 2008, said naturalization ceremonies happen once a month at the convention center. The number of people who participate fluctuates depending on how many applications the department is able to process. She said last month about 500 individuals became citizens.
Occasionally, a ceremony is held in a special location, like Yosemite. Verboon works at the ceremonies every month, and sometimes recognizes people that she’s interviewed. She enjoys seeing their reactions because becoming a citizen represents a long journey for a lot of them.
“It’s very rewarding and emotional sometimes,” Verboon said. “But it’s very wonderful to see them follow their dreams.”
Nicole Santos: 559-441-6247, @Iam_NicoleS
Demographics of new citizens
Tuesday’s ceremony resulted in 890 applicants from 54 countries taking the Oath of Allegiance to become U.S. citizens. The countries they represented and number of individuals from that country include:
Algeria 1, Argentina 1, Armenia 5, Australia 1, Bangladesh 3, Burma 2, Cambodia 7, Canada 5, People’s Republic of China 9, Colombia 4, Congo 1, Congo-Kinshasa 2, Costa Rica 1, Cuba 1, Dominican Republic 1, Egypt 2, El Salvador 18, Fiji 8, France 1, Guatemala 5, Honduras 1, India 130, Iran 31, Iraq 17, Jordan 2, Kenya 1, Kuwait 1, Laos 21, Lebanon 1, Malaysia 1, Mexico 439, Nepal 1, Netherlands 1, Nicaragua 4, Nigeria 7, Pakistan 2, Peru 8, Philippines 76, Poland 1, Portugal 4, Russia 5, Saudi Arabia 2, South Korea 4, Spain 1, Syria 4, Taiwan 3, Thailand 9, Togo 1, Ukraine 6, United Kingdom 3, Uzbekistan 1, Venezuela 4, Vietnam 10 and Yemen 10.