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Your grandpa was awesome! Week #13

Dear Luki,

You got your U.S. Passport last week! I have to be honest and admit that it’s not your best picture. Partly because I couldn’t find your brush and your hair is sticking out to the side, but also because, instead of smiling, you decided to bite your lower lip and make sad puppy dog eyes.

But it’s OK, immigration officers don’t care about what your passport picture looks like, what matters to them is that it says UNITED STATES OF AMERICA on the front. As you grow older, that’s probably something you’ll take for granted, but those of us who were born abroad, particularly in Latin America, KNOW what a treasure that little blue book is. And your grandpa knew it better than anyone.

You see, when he qualified to become an American citizen, he didn’t apply right away. Your grandma did, and your uncle Ani and I became citizens through her, but your grandpa didn’t really make it a priority. Mostly because, in order to become a naturalized citizen, you have to pass a test. A test in English.

Your grandpa never went to school in the United States to learn English (he was too busy working hard to provide for his family), so everything he knew about the language, he learned from people on the street. Somehow, he managed to communicate effectively with his co-workers in an English/Spanish hybrid tongue that only they understood, but reading and writing posed a much greater challenge.

The thing is, Luki, that a Cuban passport is about as useful as a your appendix. You need a visa to go anywhere, and renewing it is a long and complicated process that involves traveling to D.C., standing in a hot little room for hours, paying a ton of money to the Cuban government, and then waiting months to receive a document that may contain someone else’s picture.

When your grandpa tried to vacation in Costa Rica and was sent back to the U.S. for not having a visa, he got fed up and applied to become a citizen of the United States.

I wish I could say that I believed he would succeed, but the truth is that I saw his citizenship as a very slight possibility. I remember thinking to myself, “He has never read or written an English sentence in his life! There is no way he can pass that test.”

But your grandpa proved me wrong. As soon as he got the study guide from the immigration office, he began to prepare. Every day, he listened to a tape with the recorded questions and answers in his car on his way to and from work. And on the weekends, he asked grandma and I to help him learn the basics of reading and writing in English. Really simple things, like the sound a “t” and an “h” make when put together.

On test day, he sat anxiously across from a Homeland Security officer and answered every single question right. Then, he shakily read and wrote a sentence in English.

After his exam, the officer asked him a set of standard questions, including some on terrorism. When he later told us the story, your grandpa couldn’t recall exactly what happened, but there was a miscommunication problem. The officer ended up having to ask him, “Did you lie to me?” and your grandpa, in his nervous state, wasn’t sure what she was saying. “Lie. What is lie?” he though. “A light? Like what hangs from the ceiling? Something light? As in, not heavy?” Finally, he was able to make it clear — probably in his English/Spanish hybrid language — that he was, in fact, not a terrorist. The interviewer then congratulated him for becoming an American citizen.

Your grandpa was ecstatic. And the rest of us were incredibly proud.

I know that for for a lot of immigrants to the United States, the citizenship test is not a big deal, but for your grandpa it was a huge obstacle. And he overcame it.

Luki, I want you to understand that you can do the same. No matter how difficult it seems, no matter how many people are convinced you won’t make it, you too can pass any test life throws your way.



7 Responses to “ Your grandpa was awesome! Week #13 ”

  1. Catalina says:

    oh Ailen, this post hits home. both Juan and I can relate to the importance of that blue passport and how the rest of the world treats it versus a Venezuelan passport (in my case, years ago)….before getting my US passport, traveling with the Venezuelan one was almost impossible, with countries asking for a million things to grant you the visa (aka – make it REALLY difficult so you don’t come visit us because we don’t want you in the first place…)

    ….we just both traveled with US passports and what a difference when you go through immigration at the airport…no million questions, drills about who you are/where you live/what you do….no asking of business cards and who you work for..instead, after reviewing both our passports this last trip, we simply got a “welcome home” from the Homeland Security officer…..it was beautiful.

    and i certainly agree that those who had to work for their US passport probably don’t take it for granted as their counterparts might….

    what a great post, Ailen. i had no idea how hard Uli worked and prepared for his test. what an amazing man.

  2. Ailen says:

    Thanks Cata! Yep, the blue passports are great…it’s so nice to stand in the shorter line and breeze through the immigration counter!

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