Strength Isn’t Something You Have. It’s Something You Find.
For the past several years, The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Washington field office has held a Children’s Citizenship Ceremony at Sully Historic Site. This year, on May 9, 2017, 17 children of ages five to 13 from 12 countries took an Oath of Allegiance and received certificates of citizenship.
Certified Interpretive Guide Alexandra Fernandez is a Cuban-born American citizen who serves as the Scout Coordinator and Merit Badge Counselor at Sully Historic Site. She spoke at this year’s Citizenship Ceremony, and you might enjoy making her inspirational talk a part of your Independence Day celebration:
I would like to thank the Sully staff for inviting me to speak here today and share with you a little bit of my story, and I would like you to know that I am really honored to share this day with all of you.
When I was 17 years old, many years ago now, I took part in a citizenship ceremony like you are today. Unfortunately, my ceremony did not take place at a beautiful historical site on a beautiful sunny day. Mine took place in a gloomy, mostly gray courtroom in Buffalo, New York, and if you have ever been to Buffalo you know it can be a gloomy place. But somehow that didn’t take away from the day. I still remember how excited I was to become an American citizen, and I remember thinking, as I sat there holding my little American flag, now no one can tell me I don’t belong.
My journey to becoming an American citizen began in 1975 when my Mom and I arrived on a cold winter’s day at New York’s Kennedy airport. My Dad, who I had not seen since I was one, was there waiting for us. He’d left Cuba on my first birthday and, after crossing no-man’s-land, was granted political asylum at the American Naval Base in Guantanamo. As a result of his defection, my mother and I were not allowed to leave Cuba for six years. But that day in New York, I just remember meeting my Dad for the first time and how cold it was. And then we went to Rochester, which was even colder.
I was happy at first, in spite of the cold. I had a room of my own, a beautiful canopy bed – and waffles! Life couldn’t get better for an eight-year-old. Sure, I couldn’t understand what the cartoons were saying, but hey, at least there were cartoons. But then I had to go to school. You see, in 1975, at Neil Armstrong Elementary School in Rochester, there was no ESl program, nor translators, nor teachers who could speak Spanish.
It was very difficult. I went from having lots of friends to not having a single friend. I went from doing well in school to not knowing how to do well in school. Thank goodness for math – the only time in my life I loved math. I’m more of a history person. But that first year, I cried myself to sleep most nights and begged my mother not to send me back. And I’ll be honest, there were times I didn’t think I could do it.
But you know, strength isn’t something you have. It’s something you find. And it was in the sadness and in the struggle that I found the strength to rely on myself, the strength to keep working hard to understand and be understood, and the strength to not give up.
A great English writer and poet by the name of Rudyard Kipling said in his poem If
- If you can trust when all men doubt you
- If you can wait and not be tired by waiting
- Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
That’s what I did. I trusted in myself when others doubted me, I realized that things wouldn’t change overnight, so I waited. And I chose not to hate, even when people were unkind, even cruel. And you know what? A year later I was able to function, and a year after that I was just another kid in the classroom, which is really important when you are in 4th grade.
As a young person, and now as a mother of three wonderful young people, one of the things I’ve loved most about this country is our right to dream about what we want to be and our right to work to make that dream a reality. I graduated from college in 1990 with a major in International Studies and Anthropology in spite of my parents suggesting that I study something more practical. In 1993, I received a master’s in education, and I went on to teach early American history in Arlington County for the next eight years. And in teaching, I learned.
I learned who we were, who we are, and who we hope to be. I learned that this is a land of immigrants. Everyone is either an immigrant or a descendent of immigrants. I learned that this country and its citizen-based government was created in committee through debate and compromise. I learned that our ideals of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for all people are a work in progress. And yes, we have stumbled, even fallen at times, and certainly have at times taken one step forward and two steps back. But history is a great teacher, and I also learned that we are strong not in spite of our mistakes, but because of them. I learned that we are at our best when we work together to correct injustice and to make the American ideal of equality accessible to all people. I learned that it is a noble thing and a great American tradition to stand up for the rights of others.
Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president, once said, “This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in, unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.”
One day you will inherit this country, as thousands of immigrants have done before you, and I hope you will think about how you will make this country a good place for all of us to live.