I’ve heard “America the Beautiful” countless times in my 15 years of living in the United States. But recently, for the first time, it nearly brought me to tears.
I was seated in a ballroom at St. Paul’s RiverCentre among hundreds of immigrants. A judge administered our naturalization oath and gave an inspiring speech. Then she redirected our eyes to the screens behind her — they were showing a music video of the patriotic hymn.
Listening to it, I felt an unfamiliar sense of pride, and a rush of responsibility.
I became a citizen of the United States that morning, but I’ve been a part of this country since January 2002. My family and I flew from Chile to Tucson, Ariz. — just four months after the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks — to follow my dad as he started a new job.
I was 8 years old. The only English I spoke was a few short sentences and a handful of nouns.
That soon changed. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Mann, would teach lessons in English and repeat them in Spanish to make sure I understood. Clifford the Big Red Dog and the Boxcar Children helped teach me to read. I quickly made friends on the playground, joined baseball and soccer leagues, and rode my bike with the boy who lived across the street from our little white house.
I entered adolescence and followed a greater passion: music. I played baritone in the school ensemble, bass in the local jazz academy and conducted for the marching band. I also served as editor-in-chief for my high school paper, foreshadowing my future career as a journalist.
My family and I attended Spanish mass on Sundays and befriended other Latino families. We spoke Spanish at home and ate empanadas and other traditional meals. We celebrated July 4th and Fiestas Patrias, the Chilean day of independence. And we rang in the New Year in Chile and Arizona time, dancing until well past midnight.
Then I moved to Phoenix to study journalism at one of the largest public universities in the country. I made friends of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. As a cub reporter, I covered stories along the U.S.-Mexico border, where my Spanish gave me a huge advantage. I attended a few ragers, too, just to balance it all out.
I look back and realize these were unequivocally American experiences, similar to how a lot of native-born 23-year-olds have lived their lives. I enjoyed access to great opportunities, the ability to participate in a blend of cultures and the support of a caring family every step of the way.
I wasn’t entitled to any of this — my parents worked tirelessly to provide it. They drove us to Nogales, Mexico, several times to renew our visas. They later registered our family for permanent residency so my sister would qualify for college scholarships. With each year in the U.S., my parents separated a little further from their lives and families in Chile. It’s a sacrifice many immigrants make.
We applied for citizenship in January 2016, 14 years after we arrived. My parents and sister naturalized shortly after. For some reason, my letter from Citizenship and Immigration Services was slow to arrive. It wasn’t until I moved to Minneapolis in the fall of 2016 that I was scheduled for an interview.
It all culminated that Monday morning in St. Paul. Hundreds of friends and relatives filled the crowded ballroom, including my parents and sister, who flew in for the occasion.
A total of 878 people were naturalized that morning, united by a shared desire to call the United States our home. There was the young man to my right from New Zealand, who studied abroad in Minnesota and married his high school love. There was the woman who moved from Iraq in 2010 and, with a wide smile across her face, introduced me to her partner, a man from South Africa.
And there was me: the young boy from Chile who grew up here and knows this country better than he knows any other.
The Immigration Services officer named the 89 countries from where we came. The new citizens would stand up when they heard their nations of origin. Many of the new citizens came from Mexico and Somalia. When the officer called these nations, there was a swell of applause and the waving of small U.S. flags.
I stood up when Chile was called and glanced around the room. I was the only one.
After leading us through an oath of allegiance, Magistrate Judge Hildy Bowbeer gave a speech about our new role as citizens. She said it was our differences that made this country stronger. She said our right to vote is something we should never take for granted. She said there is no one right way to be an American. In a wispy and joyous voice, she reminded us of what is often lost in the national political discourse.
And then came “America the Beautiful.” The song consists of four verses, each providing a sense of closure before the next verse picks up. I found the fourth verse — the last four lines, in particular — especially powerful that day.
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
As I whispered along, the lyrics caught in my throat. Some of us sang the verses quietly, as if too nervous to claim something previously unavailable. In reality, I finally realized, America was mine all along.
That song marked the end of a more innocent time in my life. It opened the door for a new era, with significance I can’t possibly grasp for a long time to come.
I’m comforted to know I’m not the only one.
Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753