Gaining Citizenship is like coming into the world. You do it alone, naked. I brought an immaculate existence—a clean criminal record, no lawsuits, excellent credit, and no back taxes owed to the IRS. I had lived in the U.S. for twenty-two legal years and been a permanent resident for twelve.
Confident in my strides, I walked in with my pearls and wore black, my power color. I stretched out my hands, one at a time, still aching from clenching the steering wheel after taking the wrong exit off I-35. The attorney had said not to worry: I had nothing to hide.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service lobby in San Antonio was large and populated with other applicants. I compared myself to them, thought highly of my chances. I looked clean and professional, someone the U.S. would be proud to welcome.
He appeared almost immediately, speedily, reinforcing my satisfaction with the efficiency of the United States of America. He was a regular man of regular size.
“Elizabeth?” he asked, extending his arm. “My name is Officer Marco.”
I nodded and shook his hand, following him into an elevator packed with polyester and a whiff of Tide. The door opened onto a desolate landing. A dark hallway stretched ahead. I wondered if all government buildings looked so forbidding and soulless. We walked in silence until we reached our destination and Marco held open the door to a small room. It was windowless and the lighting fluorescent blue, buzzing with subtle oppression. The officer took the chair across from mine, across from a desk too large for the room and I thought he may have smiled.
“Is Marco Italian?” I asked, a bit too eager.
“Puerto Rican. Let’s get started. What do you want your name to be? You get one chance to change your name.”
I had already thought this through. I wanted to change my name back to what it used to be, the origin of me, that I might retrieve my authentic self.
“Elisabetta La Cava.”
“No one would like that name.” The officer explained that my choice was too complicated. His certainty stifled me. I thought of other ideas, other names, told him to make it something similar. I offered a few suggestions, choices that shared a fraction of my birth.
“Elizabeth Angela LaCava.”
“No,” he said again, this time shaking his head.
Now mind you—I was in no way going to sabotage my own interview. This was it, citizenship in 2007. I had lived in the US since 1985, longer than anywhere else. What I had gone through, no one knew but me. This was all I had ever wanted in my adult life, to be a U.S. citizen, to feel permanent, to finally ground my roots.
He would not proceed. We went back and forth, this name and that, all so I could include my birth back into the name I had adopted at twenty-six. The one that had nothing of me in it, that had morphed by jumping continents twice and entering marriage.
Marco chose an American name, my husband’s name, the same name I held when I walked into the building. It was a label untraceable to my ancestry and lacking in cultural pedigree.
“Elizabeth Angela Wheatley,” I repeated.
I wasn’t going to argue. I had studied months for the test, memorized the national anthem, had rehearsed in my head the possible questions. I couldn’t afford to care about my name. I would have given up anything to be an American, even myself.
“So tell me about yourself,” he said.
I began my story. I told him I was born in Italy and moved to Venezuela when I was eight years old.
He slammed the desk. “LIAR,” he said.
I felt my face and ears ignite. He told me I was not from Italy, that I was born in Venezuela. I said no. That wasn’t true. I had moved when I was eight.
The more I disagreed, the harder the officer named Marco pushed. Gradually, his face became distorted, no longer regular. The walls were his vehicle to confine me. His voice lowered to a whisper, morphing into a growl with each additional push for a confession. I began to think—maybe I was wrong. Maybe my parents had lied, and I was in fact Venezuela-born. The officer stated he was CIA-trained, that he would know if I was lying. He said he could deport me. I thought—so quickly? Just that morning I had woken up in my bed. I owned a home and a business, had a husband and two children. My company created jobs. Really? Deported?
“What would you say if I told you I have in my possession your birth certificate from Venezuela?” he asked, relinquishing the dispute that had taken more than its own time. I felt a push, a breath of calm to move me forward, something external because my core had already broken.
“I would say I’d like to see it.”
He slid a document across the desk, his eyes looking impatiently at the door. I could not have held it in my hands as they shook uncontrollably, like the rest of my body. I left the stapled pages on the desk. República de Venezuela, read the seal at the very top.
In a flash came the realization that I had seen this document before. I recognized the green lines and faded yellow paper. I had submitted this document. I began to read, unable to focus on the words, reviewing each line until something meaningful caught. It was in Spanish. I reached the middle of the first page and found my answer.
“It says I was born in Rome, and they registered my birth in the Venezuelan Consulate,” I said pointing to the spot on the certificate. “For double citizenship; see?” I wasn’t proud of having located this information. Marco might get angry for being opposed.
The officer took the document, yanking it in dissatisfaction, confirming my discovery, masking his own surprise. He’d made a mistake. Then he shoved the paper to the side, dismissing the entire conversation as he had dismissed my name.
We proceeded to a rehearsed line of questioning, mostly about records. He asked for my phone numbers and addresses. He did this over and over, in various ways, hoping to catch me in a lie.
Then he asked a simple question. “What does your husband do for a living?”
“He’s a coach and a teacher,” I said. “He finished his degree but can’t find a full-time job. He’s been subbing.” I shrugged.
The officer took it out on the desk again, this time his anger turned elsewhere. His daughter had recently graduated with a teaching degree and couldn’t find a job either. “Why do they say we need teachers? There aren’t any jobs out there.” He was frustrated with the system and felt sorry for my husband, for me, that we had to go through this as well.
And there it was. Nothing of me or my efforts had mattered. Not my track record, my degrees, the lawyer. It was my husband’s unemployment that delivered me. And it had not mattered one bit what color I had worn to the interview.
I took the test about history and civic duty. I passed with flying colors.
The officer stood up, satisfied with the turn of events. His smile definite as he extended his hand once more.
“Congratulations, you’ve been granted U.S. citizenship,” he said.
I broke down.
Officer Marco patted my shoulder, telling me it was O.K. But I couldn’t stop. I revealed how scared I’d been, how I loved America and how deeply I’d longed for this moment.
“I know,” he said. And then I saw—tears in his eyes. I sobbed uncontrollably, hugged him in gratitude, openly welcoming his graceless embarrassment. How likely was it to change an officer’s mind? I was unaware this interview had gone sideways. This was not how “they” did it. They didn’t scare you to get the truth out. Not unless they really thought you were lying. I would hear this over and over from other naturalized citizens. They had all been treated properly. It was only me.
Marco and I walked out to the unfriendly corridor, back to the elevator. We stood side by side, officer and citizen. A few weeks later, I would see Marco at the Oath Ceremony and he would be a wall of a man. Three bleacher rows above me, he would bellow out the name he had given me, and I would reach toward him and grab my new life, shouting his name back to him and realizing he didn’t know me. But at that moment, we faced the elevators together, watched the metal doors open to display a crowd of tightly packed staring individuals. I was still sobbing when I began to step forward, but Marco grabbed my arm and said it was the wrong elevator.
“These are happy tears,” he announced.
Marco explained that the elevator going up was for applicants who didn’t make it, people who failed the interview and were being deported, not for me.
People not of this nation. And of course, they were moving up, away from the ground floor, away from any hope of settling here. Like me, they had left everything behind and tried to live U.S. life perfectly, so they’d be accepted.
The things that go on.
We said our goodbyes like old friends. Marco wished me well by adding his advice for my husband’s job search.
I drove in the rain, didn’t call anyone. The sky—a 70-mile runway to my home.
The officer’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.
Elisabetta La Cava is a double immigrant born in Italy, raised in Venezuela, who became a Texan some years ago. Twice foreign, she carries a family tradition of global interconnectedness and writes essays of cultural interest. She’s a first-generation college graduate and MFA Candidate at Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has or will be seen in Stone Canoe, The Pointed Circle, Hispanic Culture Review, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Texas Poetry Calendar, and others. She currently lives in Austin, Texas.
Jeff Corwin has taken photos out of a helicopter, in jungles, on oil rigs and an aircraft carrier. Assignments included portraits of famous faces and photos for well-known corporate clients. After forty years as a successful award-winning commercial photographer, Corwin turned to fine art photography. Trusting his vision is important as he has always created photographs grounded in design. Simplicity, graphic forms and repeating configurations personally resonate.