‘I belong here’: Newly minted citizens share their stories

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  • Carmen Solorio Wallace, whose journey to South Hadley involved multiple moves between countries, is seen at her home Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • New Americans, from left, Was Hussein of Iraq, Shittu Ladejobi of Nigeria and Renzo Vasconcelos of Brazil, listen to remarks by U.S. Magistrate Katherine Robertson during a naturalization ceremony on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse on Thursday, July 2, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • U.S. Magistrate Katherine Robertson speaks to nine new Americans naturalized in a ceremony on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse on Thursday, July 2, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • New Americans, from left, Shittu Ladejobi of Nigeria and Renzo Vasconcelos and Wender Coelho, both of Brazil, each receive their Certificate of Naturalization from U.S. Magistrate Katherine Robertson, foreground, during a ceremony held on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse on Thursday, July 2, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • U.S. Army Specialist Shittu Ladejobi of Nigeria holds an American flag, his Certificate of Naturalization and a program to the ceremony on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse during which he and eight others became citizens on Thursday, July 2, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • New Americans, from left, Was Hussein of Iraq, Shittu Ladejobi of Nigeria and Renzo Vasconcelos and Wender Coelho, both of Brazil, take the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony Thursday for nine new citizens on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nine new Americans recite the Pledge of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony Thursday on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • New American Eric Deutou of Cameroon speaks to the Gazette after receiving his Certificate of Naturalization in a ceremony on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse on Thursday, July 2, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Rohan Markland of Haverill takes a video of his wife, Tracyann Smith Markland, a native of Jamaica, as she takes the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony for nine new Americans on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse on Thursday, July 2, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Georges Tala Ghonsi, left, of Pittsfield shows a photo to his brother, fellow Cameroon native Eric Deutou, now of Lowell, that he took during Deutou's naturalization Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Wender Coelho of Brazil, a private in the U.S. Army Reserves, speaks to the Gazette after receiving his Certificate of Naturalization in a ceremony on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse on Thursday, July 2, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/4/2020 9:21:39 AM

NORTHAMPTON — At 9 years old, Carmen Solorio Wallace and her family moved from Oakland, California back to her birth country of Mexico — trading in sidewalks for dirt roads and running water for a well.

Wallace, now 34, of South Hadley, recalled the hours-long wait for a tub of water to heat up in the sun just so she could take a hot shower, scenes of small children selling peanuts on the bus to Guadalajara, and “little huts with tin roofs” on the side of the road. It was a life in stark contrast to the one she has in the United States today, yet she enjoyed both.

Her family eventually moved back to the West Coast — to the country where her mother envisioned a new life for herself and her children, including Wallace, who was 3 when she first immigrated to the U.S. After nearly two decades of living and working undocumented before seeking legal residency, Wallace finally achieved her ultimate goal this June: she became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

“I will always be part of the immigrant community, because that’s how I experienced life,” Wallace said on a recent morning at The Village Commons in South Hadley. “Now I’m an actual citizen of this country and I can vote … I’ve grown up here, I’ve lived a life here, I’ve been part of this country and I belong here.”

Each year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalizes hundreds of thousands of new Americans. The process can be arduous and long; candidates must pass English and civics tests and must have years’ worth of lawful residency in the country.

Growing up in the self-described “tough neighborhoods” of Oakland, Wallace and her family lived among a large Mexican community surrounded by people of other ethnicities and cultures. She remembers feeling like an outsider at first when she moved back to Mexico for a few years, but she enjoyed her time there nevertheless.

“It really made me appreciate what I had here and how my life could have turned out so differently,” Wallace said.

Wallace was 16 when her mother left California to go back to Mexico, leaving her to take care of her three younger sisters. She got her first job at a high-end seafood restaurant where her father worked, running food to tables and eventually serving drinks.

“I really loved working,” Wallace said. “I was working four or five nights a week, and I was trying to take care of the kids.”

She ended up not graduating from high school, but since she believed education was important, she went to an alternative school to get her diploma. Wallace kept working and continued her education at a local community college — but there was one fact that loomed over most everything she did. She had never been a lawful resident of the United States.

“At any point, they have these ICE immigration raids in communities,” Wallace said. “So that was always in the back of my mind, and it gives you anxiety and you’re always nervous about certain things. But I still worked — I paid taxes over 12 years of working.”

Wallace was 25 when she married her husband, Robert Wallace, who is a U.S. citizen, and began the process of obtaining lawful residency for the first time. From California, the two took a cross-country road trip for their honeymoon in a beat-up 1997 Saturn — a trip that widened Wallace’s eyes to the vast expanse of the American landscape.

“It was pretty amazing to see how the country changes so much from state to state,” Wallace said.

The pair finally arrived in South Hadley, marking the beginning of a brutal nine-month process of obtaining a temporary residency during which Wallace didn’t know anyone and couldn’t work.

“It was a completely different world to me,” Wallace said. “I was probably the only not-light-skinned person living on the road.”

Temporary residency status in hand, Wallace went back to school, started working and eventually obtained her permanent residency, or green card. She graduated from Westfield State University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, gave birth to two young boys and got a job working for the state.

Focused next on obtaining her citizenship, Wallace reached out to the Northampton-based Center for New Americans in 2018 for assistance with the process. But a scheduled naturalization ceremony this April with the normal pomp and circumstance was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Wallace with an impromptu two-minute parking lot ceremony in Lawrence in June.

“I was a little disappointed,” Wallace said. “But I go back to my way of thinking of, ‘Hey, you’re lucky to even be able to get it.’”

‘I’ve accomplished a dream’

Underneath the shade on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse in Northampton this past Thursday morning, officials at a socially distant 12th annual naturalization ceremony, organized each year by the Center for New Americans, welcomed nine new American citizens.

Each participant stood in front of officials and recited the naturalization oath of allegiance through face masks while raising their right hands.

“This country wouldn’t be what it is without people like you, who have chosen to live here, who have chosen to work here, who have chosen to raise your families here,” said U.S. Magistrate Judge Katherine A. Robertson to the newly minted citizens after the oath, adding it was the first ceremony held by a judge since March. “We value the contributions you’ve made as residents of this country — we value the contributions we know you are going to make as citizens of this country.”

Wender Coelho, 21, came to the U.S. from Brazil about four years ago and was one of the nine who became citizens Thursday. Coelho, a private in the U.S. Army Reserves, said he joined the military to “give something back to this country,” adding that the Army helped him obtain citizenship.

“It feels great — it feels like I’ve accomplished a dream,” Coelho said. “I’m pretty happy.”

Another of Thursday’s new citizens was Eric Deutou, 29, who is originally from Cameroon in central Africa. He moved to the U.S. five years ago and also joined the U.S. Army.

“One of my goals has been achieved,” Deutou said.

During the ceremony, Robertson noted the “divisive discussion” around immigration in American politics, but said to the new citizens, “We want you here.”

Immigrants are viewed differently in American society, Wallace said, adding she’s ready to exercise her newfound voting rights to “help toward, hopefully, a candidate that’s a little bit more lenient with immigration.” She said her older sister was a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was implemented under former President Barack Obama’s administration.

“Being an immigrant, it’s very humbling,” Wallace said. “People should know that they’re working and contributing to society as much as anyone else.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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