Over the past 15 years, since I was 10 years old, I’ve been collecting eyelashes. As many as I could get my fingers on, plucked from my cheeks or the faces of my unwitting friends. My collection didn’t end there. It also included coins, birthday candles, stars, rainbows—any lucky thing I could find. Every time I found a talisman, I’d make a wish quietly under my breath, summoning some unseen mystic power. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been saving all my wishes for one single thing: becoming an American citizen.
I arrived in the United States as a kid and it was through the actions and sacrifices of my parents, rather than any ability of my own, that I was granted a visa and eventually a green card. Today immigrants make up 13.7 percent of the population. Of that group, 10.5 million are undocumented. Contrary to what many politicians and Twitter threads might have you believe, entering this country legally with a pathway to naturalization is for many immigrants simply impossible. But in early 2019, after waiting a lifetime, the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services gave me the go-ahead for naturalization. So I paid the standard $725 and sent in my application.
“How do you feel?” I remember coworkers asking me.
All I could think of were the people I’d grown up around, many of whom are undocumented themselves. I’d be granted shiny new rights. I’d finally get to vote, to actually have a say in what happens in this country while they all continued to live in the shadows.
“Relief,” I answered. But also guilt.
For the past two years, I’ve been working at the Tenement Museum, a historic building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The museum focuses on the stories of immigrants who lived there from the 1860s to the 1980s. Often in discussions about immigration and identity, I’d ask visitors to describe what they thought made a person an American. One day, as I recounted a visitor interaction, a coworker asked me, “Do you think of yourself as an American?” The question caught me off guard.
“I don’t know,” I responded. "I don’t think so?”
“Why?” he asked. “If a stranger described you, you’d say that person was an American. Why can’t you see it in yourself?”
I had no answer I could put into words, only a feeling I’d carried my entire life. Growing up, I never brought friends home. In my house, we spoke Spanish and ate lentils with rice for lunch and arepas for breakfast. We watched Colombian TV, had terra-cotta kitchen tiles, and hung beaded portraits of parrots on the walls. When I looked around, my family didn’t seem to fit into the definition of being “American.”
But when the country first slowed in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests erupted all over, I thought back to that conversation at work and the question: What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to have the right to vote?
This year, it all seems obvious. Our nation has descended into deep disunity and instability that threatens the very ideals the U.S. was built on. Of my new rights, no other feels more pressing than my duty to vote. When I cast my ballot, I will show up to honor the people who advocated for someone like me to naturalize, the women who put their lives on the line for my right to suffrage, and the activists who’ve vehemently fought against voter suppression—specifically in Black communities—for generations. I am overwhelmed by an unyielding optimism and a desire to fight for democracy, equality, unity, and civil liberties—especially now, when every piece of political showmanship is downright depressing.
In August, I took my citizenship test and swore the oath of allegiance in a muggy federal building while wearing a mask. The ceremony lacked all the pomp and circumstance of a normal naturalization ceremony. In the eyes of the law, I am now officially an American, but I’ve already been one for years. I grew up here and have no false pretenses about how this country treats its most vulnerable people.
In many ways, countries are like families: You don’t always get to pick them, they have a special capacity for breaking your heart, and yet you strive to make it work. We can’t change them unless we show up.
A few days after my naturalization ceremony, I was sitting in my kitchen when my boyfriend softly brushed his fingertips against my cheek and brought them up to reveal an eyelash caught between his thumb and pointer finger.
“Make a wish,” he said softly.
But I don’t need a wish anymore—I have a vote.
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