Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Honor and Weight of Citizenship

Michele's speech from the Naturalization Ceremony on December 9, 2011

About 12 years ago, on March 31, 2000, I stood where you are standing; on the other side of this hall, swearing my American citizenship. It was a decision that I made after having lived in this country for exactly a decade. It was something I did with passion and with acknowledgement that this country was my adoptive land, my second home.

I came to the United States in 1990 from my hometown, Napoli, in Southern Italy. Four years prior to this, while traveling by train in Italy, I met my former wife and decided to relocate in the USA, to start a family, to find a good job and to begin a new adventure in my life. It was a typical fall day in October and I remember looking at the New York City skyline from the plane while landing in JFK. I had a feeling of excitement and a feeling of curiosity, but also a feeling of uncertainty and loss for the homeland that I was leaving behind. I am sure this is something that more or less you all experienced, when you first came here. It was not an easy choice for me, and I am sure it has not been an easy choice for you. You will always be bonded to your homeland, your place of origin, and the adoptive land, the land where you live now; there are many things that one can forget, but not the childhood spent with your own family, in your hometown.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I did not know of the existence of Cincinnati until I came here. I knew New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, but not Cincinnati. So it was literally a step into the unknown for me.

The United States in my mind, and I think in the mind of many Italian people of my generation, always represented the top notch, the land of dreams, the place where you can find the best, the most advanced and richest place on earth, the country where space is not an issue and everything is big. So the idea to come into this new territory for me was also fueled by the curiosity to see the US in person, to live and work here, and to refine the language.

Speaking about big, the very first images I have after landing in this country were the huge 18-wheeler trucks on the four lane expressway. To me they were just giants, because I had never seen them before.

The language was not a big problem at the beginning because I had always studied English with pleasure and to me it was a great opportunity to communicate in a way that I had always dreamed about: to be fluent in English was my ultimate goal.

I have to say that I don’t believe in destiny, but when I look back on my life I have to come to the conclusion that I was destined to become an American. My legal Italian name is Michele, but my mother, brother and all my relatives call me Mike, even if every legal document says Michele. So for three decades before I came here to the States, I already had an American name: Mike. The only difference was that my mom spelled it in the Italian way, which is M A I C H, perfect Italian phonetic for Mike.

For many years I have asked myself, what encouraged me to move to the United States and finally become a US citizen. I don’t have one simple answer; maybe there is not a single answer. For me it was a blend of different components, some rational and some irrational. It was definitely love for the person I married; it was desire of wider opportunities of work, and it was also the dream of discovering a new land, finally traveling throughout the United States of America.

I don’t know what your story is, the motivation that you had to come here after leaving your country. Everybody has a story and everybody has a dream. The steady stream of hardworking and talented people coming here from all over the world has made America a leading country for over a century, an example of productivity, a place where people with skills are valued and reach the highest level of the social strata. This is something that I have always admired in this country: we call it meritocracy, accomplishment based on merit. Even in this global economic crisis, I think the world still looks at the USA as a land of great opportunities, a land of hope, challenge and freedom.

Of course we all realize that we are lucky to live in the 21st century and to have come here in these years. It was much harder for our previous generations, those who arrived here on ships to Ellis Island decades ago. Think about how communication has changed since I got here 20 years ago: now we have Internet, Skype, cell phones and satellite that can connect us with our family and friends on the other side of the world instantaneously. The phone call that used to cost me $10 every Sunday, I can now make for pennies.  It was different, of course, for those who came here long before us, when a handwritten letter could take a month to be delivered to their relatives.

Let’s not forget that the stigma against us immigrants living in any foreign land just a few decades ago was much stronger; immigrants were never equal to American citizens. Now some immigrants have reached high prestigious positions in the American society and no longer have to struggle for their rights. I don’t have to be self-conscious about my accent.  Actually my daughter’s friends think it’s cute.

So from today on, you will be part of the American family, you will be walking on a soil that is part of your new home; you will be an integral part of the American society and will be able to climb that ladder that will take you to success if you are an honest, hard-working person, just like any native US citizen.  Now you can call yourself an American.

Of course, you will probably still have the traditions and habits that you had before coming to this country. My wife says that in some categories I am and will always be Italian. You can imagine what those categories are: food, my sense of time and the way I discuss. I will never be able to eat overcooked pasta with sugar in the sauce; I will not be on time at nine out of ten appointments; and I will always want to talk and talk and talk about an issue for days on end without reaching a solution to the problem. Italians love to discuss… with their hands of course!

Everybody has a story.  Everybody has a different reason for the choice he or she made to come here. Now each of you, each of us, has a common denominator which is the American citizenship. Being a citizen of the United States of America is a big honor and has a stronger meaning when you really feel it inside. You have made the decision to stand here today and swear to protect and honor your adopted country; it means you are committed.  Now you are truly a part of this huge nation and will carry on the principles and beliefs that have made this country a role model and a symbol of progress and prosperity for past generations.

Be proud of being American; it is a decision you will never regret.  But don’t forget who you are, where you come from and the people you left behind, because there will always be moments in life when you will sense those original ties, the roots from your past. Those roots are a big part of your contribution to the richness and imagination that is the United States of America.

You made a courageous choice leaving your home land, and you made a tremendous choice coming to the United States. Today, by choosing to be officially an American citizen, you have made an important step that will be carried on by your kids and grandchildren. You have marked a new way not only for yourself, but for your entire family in this honorable country.