When I attended my Naturalization Ceremony in Detroit last month, I hadn’t quite decided how I felt about becoming a U.S. citizen and changing my last name to my husband’s. For the last forty years of my life, my name and German citizenship have been a huge part of how I defined myself, and both would change in the hour-long ceremony.
In the last four decades, I have lived in four countries and learned two languages in addition to my mother tongue, Spanish. Throughout the flurry of moves and adventures in my childhood, my last name and citizenship served as a connecting thread to my origins. Even though I couldn’t count on being in a place for too long, I could always count on defining myself by where I came from and who my European ancestors were. The history of my family had been relayed by my parents with pride and gravitas, emphasizing that as long as we could trace our ancestors, they were educated, hard working and landed gentry. “Lawyers, writers and doctors,” I remember hearing as a kid; the expectation was that I would represent the family name well.
When we moved to the United States, I was 12 years old and had no immediate family nearby – but I had my name and my history, and as it turns out, I was the only person with my name in the entire U.S. Going through puberty is hard enough when one understands the stage, but doing so in a brand new place with brand new social rules was no picnic. My name made me unique in a big world. As a teenager, I held on to my name and my history even more tightly, and even considered getting a tattoo of our coat of arms (which my ancestors, including my immediate ones, would most certainly not have approved of).
When I married in my twenties, I chose to keep my last name. I did this in large part to maintain my connection to my history and what had now become a deeply engrained identity, but also because I found name changes unnecessary. Europeans don’t formally change their names, nor do South Americans. Women keep their names and use the family name informally. I figured I’d do the same. Oh, and there was also that feminist reason…
The question of citizenship never really came up in my thirty years here. Our family moved to the U.S. when I was 12, in what was never meant to be a permanent relocation. I never considered becoming a U.S. citizen because there was no need – by age 18 I was a permanent resident, and I could work and pay taxes just the same as anyone else. My European passport afforded me “citizenship” to 28 countries in the European continent, and allowed me to study and work in Europe without the difficulty of obtaining visas and permits. I enjoyed holding a European citizenship; in my mind, my passport was yet another elegant and sophisticated accessory, much like European cars or shoes.
And so for three decades I lived in the United States: studied, worked, married, had children – all the while holding on tight to a history that each day had less and less to do with the person I had become. And, in reality, the German citizenship had little to do with who I ever was: I was born in Peru, not Europe, and I have never lived in Germany for more than three weeks. As for my German name, it was the name of my ancestors, but hardly suitable for someone who considers herself Hispanic. So, really, the need to hold on to my European-ness was my grandparents’ and parents’, not my own.
It took me about 40 years to let go of where I was supposed to be from, and who I was supposed to be and to become who I am. My life and how I forge ahead now seem much more important than carrying a torch for my origins. The German ancestors who traveled to Peru gave me a push, but the time has come to move forward and away from their shadow.
The changes to my citizenship and name made me think about how we define ourselves in general. Each of us have internal and external behaviors and things which we use to define ourselves and our place in the world. We often hold on to our history, possessions or behaviors in the name of defining who we are and how we want others to see us. We share our values with people in the hopes that we will find sympathetic ears and perhaps converts to our way of seeing things. We buy the organic produce, read the right books, buy the beautiful car or the large house so others will see us as we wish to be seen. Sometimes we hold on so tightly to what defines us, we miss the opportunity to change and grow as people, get a lower-paying job which could make us happier, or boldly go in a new direction we would have never envisioned for ourselves.
In The Shambhala Principle, Sakyong Mipham explains that the world has many beautiful things to offer and there is no shame in finding a painting, a watch or a car beautiful and wanting it. The challenge lies in not letting these possessions define you. I will extrapolate and say that there is no shame in finding pride in the ancestors that paved the road for you with their hard work and effort, but one must not let their legacy hold you back from fulfilling your own dreams and aspirations for this life. And while on your life journey, we must rise to the challenge and be brave when it comes to re-inventing ourselves when life is showing us it is time to let go of the identities we have crafted for ourselves in the past.
The Naturalization process gave me the opportunity to look at how the United States treats immigrants, and I was very moved to see that as far as I could tell, people from all origins and all religious beliefs were treated warmly and patiently as they turned in paperwork, were escorted for interviews, and were given directions for the Ceremony. There were people of African, Arabic, Asian and Hispanic descent. There were people dressed in shorts and tank tops, and people in hijabs. The Ceremony itself was emotional for many of the 89 people who were there to become citizens, with husbands embracing wives, older people being escorted by their children, and a general spirit of brotherhood in the Detroit Courthouse. As I looked around the room waiting for my name to be called, it struck me that I had been an American for a long while already. I believe in a country that is made better by diversity and hard work. I am proud to be part of a nation where we are willing to take enormous chances in freedom, even if sometimes it takes us a bit of work to get things right. Now I get to be a part of the voices that make this country dynamic. In becoming a citizen, I have made a commitment to this country and to making it a better place.
Tomorrow, I’ll be proudly celebrating my first 4th of July as an American…right after I register to vote.