Naturalization: What it Takes to Belong in the Club

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.”[1]

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”[2] 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.”[3]

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.”[4]


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.”[5]  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.”[6]  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.

[1] Edwidge Danticat, “Caroline’s Wedding,” from Krik? Krak! (Vintage, 1996), 214.

[2] Danticat, 159.

[3] Danticat, 164.

[4] U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Path to U.S. Citizenship,” Department of Homeland Security, Last updated January 22, 2013.

[5] Michael Jones-Correa, “The Markers of Outside Status,” Crossing the Line Between ‘Immigrant’ and ‘American,’ New York Times, November 15, 2012.

[6] Danticat, 214.

13 thoughts on “Naturalization: What it Takes to Belong in the Club

  1. You bring up some really interesting points regarding what it means to be a “true American.” The United States is a melting pot of different cultures and yet there is this definition of what a true American should act like? Seems like an interesting juxtaposition to me.

  2. “Perhaps he won’t feel truly naturalized until we accept him as the insider he has worked so hard to become.”

    Patrick, this part of your post made me think of contemporary discourse surrounding immigration. I wonder if xenophobic public opinions regarding immigration may stem partly from constant media coverage of issues such as Mexico’s drug war. In American media, it seems the most common representation of Mexico is one of constant violence and danger. Do these images then create a ‘barrier’ that prevents Americans from accepting immigrants as “insiders”?

    1. Mexicans were subject to racism years before the drug wars were serious in their native country. I think the underlying issues for many people were that the Mexicans were different, and were suddenly more numerous and visible than they’d been before. To my knowledge, virtually every new immigrant group has faced this problem. Even the Irish Presbyterians were widely stereotyped when they came over in colonial times. The Quakers found them so unlikable that they basically shooed those guys off to the Pennsylvania border. It wasn’t a hospitable way to treat a mass of people hoping for a new start in life.

    2. Reading this post reminded me of ABC’s program with John Quinones, “What Would You Do,” ( where actors create controversial situations to monitor how people react. One episode examined racial profiling in Arizona. It was fascinating to watch people as they observed blatant scenarios of racial profiling. It was also interesting to observe people’s rationales for either stepping in or staying out of it. In real scenarios, Americans experience these issues all of the time, making it easy to understand why anyone would feel the outsider.

  3. You’d be surprised, the impression we have in the United States reaches even further than that. There are quite a few communities of Salvadorans around the country, after Reagan gave asylum to those fleeing the Civil War in the 1980s. Racial profiling and assumptions based on the media rope them into the “Mexican” category when they are not Mexican at all. Central Americans take this slight as a double attack, as many had to cross through Mexico to reach the United States. Think the Arizona minutemen are a problem? Look into Mexico’s border control and you’ll see how disheartening it is to be grouped into such a stereotype when it took so much hardship to get to the States (illegal in multiple nations, as it were). Check out here for further information.

  4. I think it’s really interesting that the Citizen and Immigration Services lists that someone must “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,” in order to become a citizen. First, it seems pretty arbitrary seeing as we all have different ideas of good moral character, happiness, etc. Second, even if we can all agree on some basic things it still seems difficult to measure.

  5. Thanks for drawing attention to the requirements outlined by the Citizen and Immigration Services. I found it particularly interesting that one of the requirements is “Be a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States during all relevant periods under the law.” How do you judge someone is a person of good moral character? I assume what this statement really means is that citizens should not break the law but it seems to suggest more than that. It really seems to be referring to an “American” ideal and value system we have fabricated that can be potentially alienating as values are different for everyone. This requirement made me think of the Kitchen Conversations article and how the Tenement Museum offered free admission for anyone who could score 100% on the citizenship exam and no one could do it. It seems our ways of determining citizens can be very arbitrary.

    1. I was thinking this too, Emily. It seems like an innocent enough statement, but I feel like there’s an underlying message of alienating the other. It seems to suggest that anything outside what the overarching American culture would view as good and decent is bad. Should we really be putting these value judgements in the criteria for citizenship?

      1. I also found this hard to believe. Thanks for posting that link, Patrick! I wonder what should be on the checklist for becoming a citizen? If these requirements seem arbitrary, what could be instituted to take their place? This gets back to the idea of what it means to be American- this is really a difficult concept to define and means different things to different people. NPR did a series on the “American Dream,” a core idea in our national myth, where they asked listeners to comment on what the American dream means to them:

  6. You brought up some really interesting points Patrick. I particularly liked where you said “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.” There is a lot more to being an immigrant in the United States than receiving a paper. Immigrants suffer with trying to ‘fit in’ with American norms while holding on to their own cultural values thus contributing to being seen as outsiders, despite attaining citizenship.

  7. I think there is a difference, though, between the racism and hatred that is pointed towards Mexican immigrants and the type of racism Irish Presbyterians faced when they first began immigrating. In the 1940’s and 1950’s Mexican migrants were welcomed into the Southwest as temporary laborers under the Bracero Project. While they were meant only to be temporary residents, Mexican migrants living in the United States began to strike and advocate for labor and citizenship rights. Around the same time the post-war boom waned and American anxieties about foreign radials grew, so the United States government began, “Operation Wetback,” a secret investigation and deportation program. The Bracero Project ended in 1964 after millions of Mexican migrants and Mexican-American citizens had been deported to Mexico. So you see, Mexican immigrant, migrants, and Mexican-American citizens often cannot gain the rights that other immigrant groups eventually gain. Instead, they face continued expulsion, abuse, violence, ridicule, and humiliation.

  8. When reading about immigration in the United States, I can’t help but think back to a last year when Sebastien De la Cruz (an 11-year-old Mexican American boy, born in Texas) sang the National Anthem at the NBA finals and was greeted with a firestorm of racist tweets, and when Nina Davuluri (the first Indian American to be chosen as Miss America, born in Syracuse, New York) was crowned in September and also withstood racist comments. Though the United States has always been a country of immigrants, we still have a long way to go before we are a country that is truly accepting of everyone who crosses our borders, no matter how long ago or how recent.

  9. Patrick, you make a good point by noting that there are many levels of naturalization. Naturalization can mean more than just the legal process, but a cultural and social acceptance by others as a fellow American. How does our government set these requirements for naturalization? How do those differ from our cultural and social expectations? Will somebody feel truly naturalized without having achieved both, and if they do, will it be worth giving up a part of themselves to fit in? There are so many questions because there is no clear idea of what makes somebody American. In the beginning of the 20th century, to obtain citizenship in one of the French colonies required complete integration into French culture and renouncement as any ties to your previous, “uncivilized” culture. French colonial policies were also very racist and based around their “civilizing mission,” which assumed their own superiority. That practice seems clearly wrong to me, and yet today, we expect immigrants to assimilate, at least to a certain extent. It seems to be a lot to ask of somebody just so that they can receive acceptance.

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