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Citizens on the Move: A Naturalization Story

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(This article was originally posted on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival blog. Story by Mariela Melero, Chief, USCIS Office of Customer Service and Public Engagement.)

During the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I had the opportunity to share my story of citizenship. As I showed my Certificate of Citizenship to the audience, I was reminded of why it is one of my most prized possessions. This certificate represents the final step in my journey to become a U.S. citizen. My first step, however, begins in another place: an island in the Caribbean.

I was born in Cuba and lived there during my early childhood. I remember that my father served time in prison for his beliefs. Now I know that during that time, political uncertainty in Cuba drove many people to seek new lives in the United States, but leaving Cuba was a difficult process.

Above: Mariela Melero shares the story of the doll she and her sister had to leave behind. She donated the doll’s tiny yellow shirt to the Smithsonian. Photo courtesy of Mariela Melero

On my last day in Cuba, my mother did not have the heart to tell my sister and me that we were leaving forever. Many families traveled with only a few articles of clothing. When we were told my sister’s doll could not travel with us, it became clear that this would be our final goodbye. My mother, however, saved the doll’s tiny yellow shirt so we could have a tangible reminder of the toy.

Our journey took us first to Mexico and then Puerto Rico, where I spent the next fifteen years. When I was eleven and my sister Maria was sixteen, we spent our time helping our parents prepare for the naturalization test to become U.S. citizens.

We studied fifty test questions and tutored our parents until they were confident they knew the answers. Due to my superior tutoring skills, my parents easily answered the questions I had prepared them for, much better than those with which my sister helped!

Now I work for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which allows me to help others realize their dreams of citizenship while also reminding me of my own journey.

Above: New immigrants to the United States celebrate their naturalization.

I have worked to help immigrants become citizens for more than twenty years, and I cannot imagine doing anything else. I thank my family for taking this incredible journey with me and my colleagues for helping others realize this dream. And I especially thank my amazing family of new Americans!