Celebrating mom’s citizenship this Independence Day
Maria Emilia Hechavarria became a citizen this year after immigrating from Cuba five years ago. This is how she got there.
By LIUDMILA BATISTA
On this Fourth of July, my family has a special reason to celebrate: Five years after immigrating to the United States from Cuba, my mom, Maria Emilia Hechavarria, became a U.S. citizen this spring.
I came to the U.S. in 2001, when I was 16 years old, after my stepmother won the diversity lottery. My father came too, but it was the first time I had ever lived separately from my mother, which was very hard on both of us.
We landed in Louisville, Ky., which has a large and diverse immigrant community. A friend of my father’s had told him it was a good place to raise a family. We have found Louisville to be a friendly place, with people who are interested in our background.
I became a U.S. citizen in 2003, and in 2006 I was able to petition for my mother to join us in the United States. She arrived in Louisville that October. She was 56, and adjusting to life here was difficult for her. In Cuba, everything was a walk or a short drive away; in Louisville, life requires driving relatively long distances to get anywhere. And without family that just pop in to say hello, as was the case in Cuba, she initially felt somewhat lonely and isolated.
Language was also a major barrier. Even as she was learning English, communication was complicated. Even simple things like grocery shopping required more dependence, from a woman who had been quite independent in Cuba. But my mother is very outgoing and talkative, and she made friends incredibly quickly, even though she struggled with the language.
After she got here, she worked in a factory making floral arrangements in Kentucky — very different from her 35-year career in the pharmaceutical industry in Cuba. In December 2008, her challenges in her new country multiplied. She was laid off when the economy collapsed, and she had a hard time finding work again.
Yet she never took her eyes off her goal. With my sister working full-time as well as studying to get into a doctoral program in physical therapy, our mother helped take care of my nephew — an assignment that gave her time to study civics and English, even before we submitted her application for citizenship.
She would take time every morning to review the questions, then return to them each night. When my sister and I were unable to help her study, my eight-year-old nephew would help, especially with her pronunciation. Learning English has remained a challenge for her.
But she was determined to become a U.S. citizen as soon as she was eligible to do so, primarily so she could vote in the upcoming presidential election. She also considers citizenship an important step as she integrates into her new home.
As I sat next to her during the exam, I was overcome with emotion from seeing the enormous effort she was making to answer each of the questions correctly. Her dedication did not surprise me, though. My mother has been my biggest inspiration in life and a perfect role model of dedication, perseverance and integrity.
While we deeply cherish our Cuban culture and aim to preserve it, we also understand that being full members of American society, with its rights and obligations, is fundamental in allowing us to voice our concerns and improve this country that we love.
My mother’s swearing-in has great significance for my family and me, as it represents her commitment and success in achieving her goal of citizenship. As we celebrate the freedom that defines our adopted country this July Fourth, I am very proud of her.
Liudmila Batista is a lawyer living in Washington, D.C., after receiving her Juris Doctor from University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law and a Masters of Law from The George Washington University Law School. She worked for the National Immigration Forum in summer 2011.