Jose Gaspar

Sunday, Apr 06 2014 04:00 PM

JOSE GASPAR: New citizens achieve their dream

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    By Jose Gaspar/ Special to The Californian

    Teresa Arredondo shows her naturalization certificate at a ceremony held March 31 at Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene.

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    By Jose Gaspar/ Special to The Californian

    Adriana Vallardes holds her naturalization certificate at a ceremony held March 31 at the Cesar Chavez National Monument.

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    By Jose Gaspar/ Special to The Californian

    Mingxia Zhang holds her naturalization certificate at a ceremony held March 31 at the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene.

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By Jose Gaspar

They came from all over the world including China, India, Israel, Mexico, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. A week ago today, 23 immigrants came together in the Tehachapi Mountains to achieve a milestone moment in their lives. They became full-fledged citizens of the United States.

If you have never been to a naturalization ceremony, consider attending one and take your children with you. You will witness how immigrants the world over appreciate and count their blessings at having achieved citizenship and all the rights and responsibilities that come with it. Some may speak in broken English, but the message is very clear.

"I feel so happy and so lucky, not all people can be American citizens," said an emotional Mingxia Zhang. Born and raised in Qing Dao, China, the 39-year-old came to the United States in 2008 on a work visa. There was no way to support herself and her son in China because good jobs are scarce, Zhang said. Since coming to Bakersfield, her life has changed for the better -- she works as a massage therapist and her son is a freshman at West High School.

It was no accident U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) chose to have the naturalization ceremony at the Cesar Chavez National Monument in the mountain community of Keene, and it was held on March 31, which would have been the late labor leader's 87th birthday.

This is where Chavez is buried and also serves as headquarters of the United Farm Workers union.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Chavez was born in Yuma, Ariz., and is considered an iconic figure in the fight for better living conditions and social justice for farmworkers, most of whom came here as immigrants themselves.

This was especially significant for 45-year-old Teresa Arredondo of Bakersfield, who was born in Michoacan, Mexico.

Coming to this country illegally when she was 14 years old, she and her family went straight to work picking strawberries in Santa Maria. School was not an option. Rather, Arredondo learned valuable lessons working in the fields, where she says she observed firsthand how farmworker women were abused by company foreman or farm labor contractors.

Following the crops, her migrant journey would take her to the Coachella Valley, where she met Cesar Chavez in 1988. It wasn't long before she began organizing farmworkers and speaking up for those who were afraid to denounce their abuse because of their undocumented status.

"The abusers would say to the women, 'If you say anything, I'll report you to immigration.' I hated so much to hear that," said Arredondo, whose voice rises when she recounts numerous examples of sexual harassment.

Learning from Chavez, Arredondo still works in the fields and is now a foreman herself. Determined to get a high school diploma, Arredondo juggling work and night classes and earned her GED.

More importantly, she is also an active member of Lideres Campesinas, an advocacy group of and for farmworker women. Her outgoing and affable demeanor was especially evident as she took the oath to become a U.S. citizen. In broken English, she led her fellow newly minted citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance; her voice cracked with emotion as she concluded with "....with liberty and justice for all!"

She appeared to put emphasis on the "justice for all" part.

According to data from the Migration Policy Institute, the immigrant population in the United States in 2011 was about 40.4 million people -- a historical numeric high for the country.

Each year, approximately 680,000 people in the United States and around the world become U.S. citizens, according to USCIS. The trend in the last four years shows a growing number of immigrants becoming U.S. citizens.

This reveals another important point, the myth that immigrants do not want to assimilate into the larger society. Between September 2002 and May 31, 2013, USCIS naturalized 89,095 members of the military.

It's a point not lost on 45-year-old Vanubia Keller, a native of Brazil. "I need to contribute to this country and vote," she said as her four U.S.-born children and husband were on hand to see mom become a U.S. citizen.

Others also want to exercise their newly given right to vote.

"You have a voice here," said 27-year-old Adriana Valladares of Bakersfield and a mother of a 4 year old.

She noted the work that Chavez started in the fields can be made stronger when people vote. Being sworn in as a citizen at the Cesar Chavez National Monument added the right touch, she said: "It's even more meaningful that it was held here."

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