THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
By Jackie R. Broach
Hector Garcia Alvarez was born in Mexico, but having grown up in the United States as a legal resident, he said he’s always thought of himself as an American.
So when he traveled to Charleston last week to take the oath of citizenship and make it official, it didn’t seem like a big deal at first.
“It was just like a formality,” said Garcia, who will be 30 next month. “It felt like graduation day, like can we just get on with it and give me my diploma, so I can go.”
The friends who accompanied him were more emotional than he was, he said.
It wasn’t until he was seated in the room where the ceremony was to take place that the significance of what he was doing hit him.
“There were probably 30 of us in that room that was about the size of a regular classroom. It was such a culturally diverse group and we all had the same common interest,” he said. “There were Japanese, Chinese, Hindus, Africans, Colombians. There were probably 12 or 13 nationalities out of 30 people and that’s when I realized, OK, this is something.”
Ana C. Garcia Alvarez, his younger sister was sworn in during a smaller ceremony in September. The siblings, who help run Habañeros Mexican Cantina, will now be able to vote, apply for government jobs and run for political office.
Having a political voice is what they’re most excited about, they said. With all that’s going on in the world now, they believe it’s more important than ever for Americans to take advantage of their right to vote.
“Ten years ago, we had a great economy and we weren’t fighting an endless war, plus I was younger, so I wasn’t really worried about it,” Hector said. “Since 9/11, it’s been a roller coaster of emotions and politics and everything has been up and down. I think it’s more important to have a voice now.”
“Now we really have the chance to make our vote worth something,” added Ana.
It was Ana who encouraged her brother to apply for citizenship this summer when it was time for her to renew her residency. It would save them each a regular $300 renewal fee. The fee to apply for citizenship is $670, but it doesn’t require any renewal.
Hector said he’d been thinking about applying for citizenship for a number of years, and had even filled out the application form several times, but never got around to mailing it.
“It was the right decision,” he said of finally submitting the application. “We’ve made a home here. This is where, hopefully, I’ll get to grow old and I wanted to be able to take part in every aspect of society.”
Myriah Lortz, a friend of Hector’s, took the day off work to attend his swearing in and said the ceremony is something every American should see at least once. She said the image of an elderly Asian man bowing to the woman who presented his certificate in front of an American flag, and that of a woman in military fatigues who became a citizen so she could enlist will forever be with her.
“It really made me think about how much we take for granted in this country,” Lortz said.
The next time she steps into the voting booth, she said she’ll remember the people who sat in that room.
“I’ll think about the hoops they had to go through to get the simple rights those of us who are born here have,” she said. “It changes you. It opens your eyes to how people fight to be here and stay here, and to have the rights we’re born with, but didn’t ask for and often don’t appreciate.”
Hector said a surprise for him in the process was how quickly he was able to obtain citizenship. He’d expected it would take anywhere from a year to 18 months, but he and Ana mailed their applications in early July and had appointments for interviews by the end of the month.
“I have to say kudos to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services people. They’ve come a long way from when you used to have to go and sit there for four hours, waiting for them to call you,” he said. “Now, it’s very efficient, they’re very cordial and it was a really good experience.”