New citizen took a hard road, made a better life

By Diane Brown

July 18, 2011

Count to 10, Jose. Hold your breath and absorb the reality. Smile as your name is called and you head to the front of the room, one of 50 this morning at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Baltimore whose life is about to be changed again.

Your life was changed when you left El Salvador during its civil war in the 1990s. You were one of the lucky ones who got out instead of being forced to choose to fight for either the rebels or the government. The lives of the other 49 also were changed when they left their countries for myriad reasons. They, like you, speak a rainbow of languages, but rest their tongues in English.

Grin ear to ear, Jose Hernandez, when you receive you your certificate formalizing your citizenship. Be acknowledged for your hard work that has brought you to this place. Come back to your seat, back to your wife Guadalupe and children, back to your sponsor. Let your face burst with delight.

The room darkens. An image of President Obama is projected on a screen. He is outlining the new rights, duties and responsibilities of citizenship. Free speech, the right to vote, the duty to protect and defend the United States.

The room lightens. We stand with hands over hearts, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the national anthem.

Jose and I became friends at least 15 years ago, when destiny put us at a Latino club in Baltimore, where I promised him that one day I would teach him to salsa. I met him again when he worked at Produce Galore in the Wilde Lake Village Center. Then I met him in my neighborhood as El Jardinero (the Gardener), which is the name of his landscape and construction company. Years passed in our friendship, and I saw him marry twice and become the father of four sons and twin daughters. Ever the entrepreneur, he expects his newest venture, a Latino eatery and bar in Baltimore, called Maria's, to open within the next week.

It hasn't quite sunk in, Jose says, tool in hand at a house on Franklintown Road in Baltimore, where he is working. "I was looking for a long time to become a citizen," he says, "and how I feel is hard to describe." However, "My whole life I have admired the rights outlined in the Constitution, the stuff you can do. They don't have that kind of freedom in other countries, not even the right to speak. You cannot criticize your government, your president. You do that and you never see the next day. Now I am thinking that I can vote. I can be involved. I can have a voice."

Jose left El Salvador in 1990, when he was in his middle 20s. He had been a college student. It took three months for him and two friends to cross Mexico to the U.S. border. "We walked, we took the bus, we hitchhiked, we hopped trains. The train drivers were partners with the police. They would stop in the middle of nowhere so the police could ask you for money. We had no money. We kept hoping somebody would give us food."

Smugglers charged $50 for an inner tube to cross the Rio Grande. Penniless, Jose swam against the strong current. "I was young then," he says wistfully.

He worked as a day laborer, seeking refuge and food at the Salvation Army. He hitched a ride to Los Angeles, slept under a bridge and was ultimately taken in by an empathetic family for more than a year. But his destiny was the East Coast. He met his first wife, Lisa, a Columbia resident, at a festival in Baltimore. Although they are divorced now, Lisa's mother became Jose's sponsor for citizenship. I think that speaks volumes.

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