Reporter's Notebook

Your Stories of Becoming an American
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Readers recall the often long and harrowing process of becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States. If you’d like to share your own story, please send us a note (and a relevant photo, if available):

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Fleeing Cuba Alone as a Child

For a recent Atlantic photo essay of naturalization ceremonies, “Choosing to Become an American,” we attached a callout for reader stories. The first one comes from Mayda, who was part of the largest exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere:

I was born in La Habana, Cuba, and came to the United States in 1961 under the Peter Pan Program, which allowed Cuban children to leave the island without their parents or any other adult.

Being a very young girl at the time, I had no idea why or for how long I was leaving Cuba. As anyone can imagine, it was a very traumatic time in my life. For any child to find themselves without their parents arriving at an unknown place, not knowing anyone, not speaking the language—it’s unreal. I passed many nights remembering my family, remembering Cuba, my friends, my school … being very sad and wanting to go back.

But time has a way of healing, even when we don’t want to heal. I finished my high school while living in a camp for unaccompanied Cuban refugee children on Homestead Air Force Base in Florida City. I went on to study at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

In 1973, I decided it was time to become an American citizen and to honor this country which had given me a home. I consider myself very lucky I was born on a beautiful island to a loving family, and I came to live in and love another wonderful country. I’m very proud to call myself a Cuban-American.

“I do not have any photos of my early times in the U.S., but this is a photo of my Twenty Five years service to the United States federal service.” (Photo courtesy of Mayda R. Cruz)

A reader sketches out the basics of his immigration story:

My family and I came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico City when I was three years old. My parents divorced a few years later and my father later married a U.S. citizen. My father, my two siblings, and I became legal residents when I was 12 years old. I grew up in Chicago. I became a naturalized citizen at the age of 21 during my last year of college.

I am now 25 years old and living in Los Angeles. My mother is still undocumented with no path to citizenship. I’m visiting Mexico again in two weeks and it’ll be my first time back in the country since I was 12 years old.

When I asked him what it was like to spend a large part of his childhood in the U.S. illegally, he replied at length:

It was terrifying. The fear of anyone finding out I was undocumented loomed over my entire childhood. It still does, to some extent.

This next reader, Shelly, immigrated to the U.S. from Israel in the late ‘50s:

I came to this country with my family when I was five years old. We actually landed on my 5th birthday off a big ocean liner which sailed from the U.K., where we’d visited relatives and toured London. We came from Israel—a country only a decade old at the time—to help with some of my health issues and so that my father could find better business opportunities. My grandmother, aunt, uncle and their families were already in the U.S. I remember that day as my grandmother met us and brought me my first really beautiful doll.

My parents had been refugees from Nazi Europe in 1938. They met in pre-Israel Palestine and were filled with hope when they came to America.

Fabian and his family overcame the fear and uncertainty of having the wrong documentation:

I was brought to the U.S. in the late ’80s by my parents while I was barely eight years old. We left Uruguay, where I grew up and where my sister was born. (I was born in Argentina for reasons still unclear to me.)

I attended school and ferociously embraced American culture. When I attended college, I was notified that I either had to pay cash or prove that I am a U.S. citizen. My family had gotten a deportation notice in the mail during that time. Although we had been living here for 10 years—which seemed like an eternity at the time—the INS did not recognize my family as having legal status. My father began to suffer from a major depression that deteriorated his health physically. I continued to study and worked three jobs at times.

In 2000, I married the love of my life, a refugee from El Salvador who was a U.S. citizen. We immediately started the process to become a permanent resident. By 2006, I had become a U.S. citizen in LA County. My dad took me to the ceremony himself to make sure I got there on time.

The first person I voted for was myself in a city council election. I lost by three votes in a three-person race in my district.

I am now a U.S. Government and U.S. History teacher. Eventually, my parents were able to become permanent residents through my status as a citizen. Unfortunately, my sister continues to be undocumented because she didn’t qualify for any programs. She is planning to move with her family to Canada due to the Trump presidency and his continuous anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Photo of Shiprock, a land formation in New Mexico, by reader Jimmy Rollison for our America by Air series.

Our latest reader contributor, Mar, became an American citizen in 2013 but now has uncertainty about her future in the U.S.:

In 2001, at the age of 12, I immigrated here from Spain with my parents. My father, a veterinarian, had lost his job and was offered a position (and visa) as a researcher at the FDA after applying for an opening online. The FDA benefitted from my father’s labor in that he performed the work of a veterinarian, but because he lacked a license to practice in the U.S., he was paid less than a licensed vet.

The only difference between myself and someone who crossed the border illegally is that I was born to a family with the means of immigrating legally when faced with economic forces beyond our control.

But I believe it’s still unclear to my parents and I if it was a good decision to immigrate here. My father is getting older and will not be able to afford retiring soon. Once he is unable to work full time, my parents might have to immigrate again somewhere where the cost of living is lower. (They do hang an American flag from their porch and watch Fox News.)

A reader tells the story of a brave accomplished American—her mom:

I saw that you guys are interested in hearing about naturalized citizens. My story is mildly interesting, but my mother’s is amazing (we are both naturalized citizens). This is her story to the best of my recollection.

My mom was born and raised in northern Iran. By all accounts, she was incredibly accomplished, even in her youth. She went to the best university at the time, Shiraz University, and studied horticulture. She went on to get a Master’s in that subject in Iran and later a PhD in the U.S.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When the Shah came to visit her hometown, my mom was chosen as the town’s ambassador to greet him at a young age. When she was in high school, my mom competed in what is essentially the Miss Iran contest, wherein the contestants had to tailor their own attire for one part of the event—another talent she has. Although she did not win, she was a finalist (apparently it’s all political).

During her university studies, my mom married a dapper basketball player who later became my father. The marriage was against the advice of all her family, I am told. My father became addicted to gambling and drugs. In Iran, as you may know, it is quite difficult for women to get divorced from their husbands. Once I was in the picture, Mom was focused on getting a divorce so she could safely get me out of Iran.

Her undergraduate training had been in English, and she and my father had lived in San Diego in the late 1970s (having moved back to Iran, sadly, just prior to the revolution). So my mom felt comfortable with English and figured out a way to get funding to pursue her PhD in the United States. The only trouble, then, was the divorce. It’s a long story involving having to get my father’s signature on a form wherein he admitted wrongdoing. She eventually managed to get that and the divorce, and we fled Iran in 1985. I was five years old at the time.