Apple-picking migrant proud to be U.S. citizen

The brakes screeched as the dust-covered Greyhound stopped at California's southern border so officers with la Migra could hunt for illegal immigrants.

The federal agents pulled off two men who had no papers. Nine-year-old Maria Maldonado cowered in her seat, knowing she could be next.

Her mother assured her they'd get to Livingston, their destination. After seeking a better life in the U.S., her mother had suddenly returned to Mexico to retrieve the daughter she'd left behind.

Looking out the window, Maria knew these men could force her back to her aunt's house in Mexico -- the hovel that didn't have electricity or running water -- if they discovered she was sneaking across the border.

She glanced at the immigration officers as her mother handed them the residency card she had been issued two years earlier. "Is that your little girl?" one of them asked.

"Yes," the mother told them. "She's with me."

The agents walked away, the bus lurched forward and Maria looked ahead to America.

Now, nearly 19 years later, she's taken the final step on her journey to become a United States citizen. Alongside 34 other immigrants Friday, she swore her allegiance to the Constitution during a ceremony in Kings Canyon National Park.

"Even though I was born in Mexico, I have nothing to do with it," said Maldonado, who has since taken her husband's last name, Razo.

She's one of the estimated 700,000 immigrants who will be naturalized this year and celebrated on Monday, Citizenship Day, established in 1952 by President Harry Truman.

"There's nothing happier than making new citizens," said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "We're the ones who help people get their dreams."

As the debate about immigration policy rages across the country, residents like Razo are joining America's representative democracy. Their stories will become part of the national dialogue, while the ballots they cast will speak even louder, affecting local, state and national policies.

"I want to be part of the process," said Razo, a bilingual teacher's assistant for the Merced County Office of Education.

While she's not yet sure what political party she'll claim, she's proud and thankful that she'll be heard in the upcoming presidential election.

Daydream believer

Twenty-six years ago, Razo's mother fled Mexico with other family members to pick fruit and vegetables in California's fields. From time to time, she would return to her village and bring her six children, one by one, across the border.

She had originally left Mexico after her husband was shot and killed in a hunting accident. Razo, still in her mother's womb, never knew her father and was sent to live with her aunt at age 2 when her mother headed north.

Without warning one morning in May 1989, Razo's mother appeared to take her to Livingston and join the rest of the family. Razo hurriedly stuffed a backpack with a change of clothes, leaving behind her toys, photos and friends.

As she stared through the bus window at the pink and white oleanders whizzing by along California's highways, the little girl dreamed about living in a bigger house with running water and wearing finer clothes. She started the fourth grade at Selma Herndon Elementary School, knowing how to say only, "Thank you." Her teacher, whom she remembers as Mr. Gonzalez, spent an hour each day teaching her English. She picked up the language in about a year, and was helped by her friends, who would correct her mistakes.

Though she was already driven to excel in school, she spent one summer picking apples and strawberries with her mother. At age 16, she wanted to experience both the pre-dawn chill and the afternoon sun that her mother faced every day.

This is not the job I want, she decided.

In high school, she enrolled in the Regional Occupational Program and worked with kindergartners. The connections she made and skills she learned eventually led to a part-time job at Schelby School for developmentally disabled children. She now works with teachers in the county education office's Early Head Start program.

On most days, she's in Los Banos translating for Spanish-speaking families with infants who need early attention because of learning disabilities. She believes her own scholastic triumphs pushed her to help people who are struggling with change.

"Sometimes you don't have opportunities when you need them the most," she explained.

Taking a day off from work yesterday, she stood beneath the General Grant Tree, the third-largest sequoia in the world, and pledged allegiance to the United States, just as she had done in Livingston classrooms as a child.

Her husband and two sons watched. But her 6-year-old daughter was back at school in Livingston -- she doesn't like missing class.

That apple didn't fall very far from the tree.

Reporter Scott Jason

can be reached at 209-385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.