NORTHAMPTON — Diana Albornoz likes to be surrounded by a flurry of activity. The place where everything is happening, she said, is America.
Since a young age, the United States has tugged on the Colombian immigrant’s heart strings. Now, after nearly three decades in America, Albornoz has officially joined the ranks through U.S. citizenship on the nation’s Independence Day.
Some 300 people garbed in red, white and blue gathered on the Old Courthouse lawn to display their pride in America’s rich cultural background during the eighth annual July Fourth naturalization ceremony. The Northampton-based Center for New Americans arranged the Monday event.
Luis Chaves, director of the Lawrence field office for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told the 51 new Americans that soup with only one ingredient is “pretty boring.”
“Hold on to your cultures, traditions and beliefs, because those make our country great,” he said. “We now have 51 new ingredients in the soup — the melting pot called America.”
Northampton native and presiding Magistrate Katherine Robertson seconded that opinion, saying “with very few exceptions, we are all immigrants here.”
The new citizens hailed from Bhutan, Bulgaria, Canada, People’s Republic of China, Colombia, Cote D’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Iraq, Ireland, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Mexico, Moldova, Nepal, Pakistan and Poland.
Most of the new Americans are now living in 13 towns and cities across western Massachusetts.
“When I was very little I had the feeling in me that I wanted to be out in the world, somewhere exciting,” said Albornoz. She said she is thrilled to be in the Pioneer Valley, where many nationalities are represented “all in our backyard.”
“We get to share the culture and see what other people have to offer,” she said.Communication barrier
But for Albornoz, life wasn’t always so easy. The path to citizenship was winding and she was not yet connected to the diversity in her new region.
She first joined her mother in America during the early 1990s, leaving behind what she said was a then-dangerous country with little opportunity to progress.
While she grew up listening to the Beatles and picking up bits of English here and there, Albornoz was not prepared for the communication barrier.
“A 10-minute homework might take me 10 hours to do,” she said, noting that she had no translation support at the time. “It was the hardest thing.”
She said she also struggled with “the resilience to endure.”
But with a strong vision for success, her life eventually began to settle into a new normal. She got married, gave birth to her now 7-year-old son, Giancarlo Astuccio, and moved to Easthampton. Albornoz is since divorced.
When JFK Middle School needed a bilingual secretary, Albornoz stepped up to fill the position — connecting her with a new world of multicultural people.
“That was the first moment I realized how big of a community we have here,” she said, noting the high quality of life she was discovering in the Valley.Citizenship requirements
Still, something was missing.
One day, an announcement on the radio caught her ear. Albornoz listened closely as Center for New Americans’ citizenship assist program was outlined.
In July 2015, she walked through CNA’s doors to “get educated on the process.”
Because Albornoz had maintained a legal path in entering the country thus far, she felt the logical next step was to “become an American.”
It was at CNA that she began taking action on that front.
Tina Sanchez, CNA citizenship and immigration associate, said there are many requirements as one is considered for citizenship.
“It’s not just a question-and-answer process,” she said, noting many prerequisites for citizenship eligibility.
Once those are satisfied, she said, the next step is filling out a roughly 20-page application along with supporting documents, she said, which include a green card, employment information, proof of residence, documentation of any children and passport photos. CNA charges program participants a $20 consultation fee, but waives that fee for those who need it. A $680 fee is also required by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants to process the application, but CNA sometimes helps applicants apply for assistance with that fee.
The applicant is then fingerprinted, undergoes a thorough background check and must learn 100 questions for an interview with Homeland Security.
Sanchez said only 10 of the questions are asked, but they are randomly selected. Six questions must be answered correctly, many pertaining to U.S. history, geography, economics and civic responsibility.
The interviewer will read sentences in English and the applicant must write them correctly.
The last part of the interview, said Sanchez, is a process in which applicants are screened against their application.
“They might be asked questions about their information using specific vocabulary,” Sanchez said, some of which might not be commonly used.
Sanchez said the applicant will then find out if she passed or failed the interview. It is possible to pass some parts and fail others, meaning an applicant only has to retest on those failed portions.
After the application is signed with an oath of allegiance to the U.S., a non-American can be naturalized.
“CNA reviews and doublechecks the application information,” said Sanchez. “We know the expectations and help our clients maintain files, as well as providing citizenship tutors through the entire process.” Balancing act
The nonprofit organization will guide clients for however long it takes.
For Albornoz, it took about six months. She feels extremely grateful that CNA offered her “priceless guidance” through each step.
“Some have been born into this country, (but) you have chosen this country,” said Laurie Millman, executive director at CNA, at the Monday ceremony.
To balance work, caring for her son, night classes for college and the citizenship paperwork, Albornoz said she had to divide her time using “a mental quadrant.”
Sleep was scarce, she said, with days that began around 6 a.m. and ended at midnight when her “brain gave out.”
But now it feels like everything is finally coming together, said Albornoz, who also recently earned a bachelor’s degree in international business from the New England College of Business.
In the future, she hopes to use her skills and cultural experience in a liaison role of international work.
More than anything, though, Albornoz strives to set an example of high achievement for her son. She is grateful he won’t know the same struggles that have formed her, but said one day she will share her experiences with him.
Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz assured the group that although there is much negativity around the issue of immigration, “Northampton and the state of Massachusetts welcomes immigrants with open arms.”
Giancarlo watched as his mother was naturalized, joining her in proudly waving the American flag for pictures afterward.
“Having an official acknowledgment that I am a new (U.S.) citizen is priceless,” she said, noting that she had goosebumps from the thrill of having her name called. “I now have a sense that I belong to a free community.”
“No matter how hard things are,” she added, “there is always an opportunity for better.”
Albornoz feels confident her son will look on her as a demonstration of what one can accomplish with “a strong drive to get things done.”
“That is the gift I can give him,” she added.
Sarah Crosby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.