Naturalization Ceremony, Naval Air Station Sigonella
“[We] had all paid dearly for this piece of paper, this final assurance that I belonged in the club. It had cost my parent’s marriage, my mother’s spirit, my sister’s arm.”
My friend Arroldo from Guatemala once told me that naturalizing himself in the United States was the hardest thing he ever had to do. I thought of him while reading Edwidge Danticat’s collection of stories, Krik? Krak!, and our talks about his daily struggle to learn English. Becoming a “true American” required Arroldo to reshape everything in his identity from how he spoke to the way he cared for his family. For him, and for many immigrants, naturalization is far more than receiving a piece of paper—it’s a concerted human effort to sacrifice for something better.
Danticat talks about some of the same sacrifices, but from a Haitian American point of view. “Caroline’s Wedding” begins when Grace, the narrator, finally receives her naturalization certificate. She calls it a chance for “boundless possibilities” for her family, possibilities that have come at an enormous cost for her mother, father, and her soon to be married sister Caroline.
As a family, they work hard to naturalize, although their mother still holds on to Haitian traditions at home. When speaking, they switch between English and Creole. The smell of bone soup, folk music radio, and lingering superstition fill the house. Grace and Caroline play word games that seem a little foreign to an American ear:
“Who are you?” Caroline asked me.
“I am the lost child of the night.”
“Where do you come from?”
“I come from the inside of the lost stone.”
The food, the games, they are still major parts in Grace’s life. But because she left Haiti at eight years old, there was plenty of time to adjust. She learned English at an early age, attended American schools, ate American food, and wore American clothes. Her father died and was buried in Queens. How much more Americanized could Grace be?
The U.S. government gives us a bureaucratic, checklist answer. Citizen and Immigration Services says she must have continuous residence as a green card holder for at least five years. She must “be able to read, write, and speak English,” and “Be a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to [our] good order and happiness.”
But documentation and language are only the first two steps. The third, says Cornell Professor Michael Jones-Correa, co-author of Latino Lives in America: Making it Home, is a “perception of inclusion by the larger society.” To become fully naturalized, immigrants need to be accepted on a cultural and social level as well as legal. Changes in family, dress, behavior, and more are expected for them to even be considered as more than outsiders.
Could Grace reach this third step with both her American and Haitian identities? Not without roadblocks. Just to receive legal naturalization, her family had to undergo tremendous struggles. To earn citizenship for himself and passage from Haiti for his family, Grace’s father married and then divorced an American woman, forever damaging his relationship with his wife. Caroline was born without a forearm, a defect that probably came from drugs given to their mother during her pregnancy, when she was sedated in an immigration jail. And let’s not forget the mother’s struggle to accept her daughter’s wedding as she makes compromises with her own Haitian identity.
Grace realizes that they “had all paid dearly for this piece of paper, this final assurance that I belonged in the club. It had cost my parent’s marriage, my mother’s spirit, my sister’s arm.” We often think immigrants prosper in the United States because they work hard. Rarely do we imagine the difficulties that come from just striving to be on the inside every day.
Grace’s fictional family sacrifice is still only the beginning. In the real world, as Arroldo perfects his English, he will still be an outsider to many because of the culture and experiences he carries with him. Perhaps he won’t feel truly naturalized until we accept him as the insider he has worked so hard to become.
 Edwidge Danticat, “Caroline’s Wedding,” from Krik? Krak! (Vintage, 1996), 214.
 Danticat, 159.
 Danticat, 164.
 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Path to U.S. Citizenship,” Department of Homeland Security, Last updated January 22, 2013. http://www.uscis.gov/us-citizenship/citizenship-through-naturalization/path-us-citizenship
 Michael Jones-Correa, “The Markers of Outside Status,” Crossing the Line Between ‘Immigrant’ and ‘American,’ New York Times, November 15, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/11/15/how-immigrants-come-to-be-seen-as-americans/how-immigrants-are-marked-as-outsiders
 Danticat, 214.