July 4th naturalization ceremony at Monticello welcomes new citizens

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© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Jack Looney © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Jack Looney

Like George M. Cohan, composer of such patriotic favorites as Grand Old Flag and Yankee Doodle Dandy, Charlottesville’s Hiromi Johnson was born on the Fourth of July. Well, sort of.  Cohan’s birthday was actually July 3rd, and Johnson calls Independence Day her second birthday.

“That day,” she says with deep feeling, “is my birthday of being a citizen.”  It almost didn’t happen, though. Last year she had been looking forward to taking her oath at Monticello when, with no explanation, she received a “de-scheduling” notice. “Thomas Jefferson is my hero,” she says, “The letter did not say why it was cancelled. I was so disappointed.”

Johnson had moved here from Japan with her American husband, Martin. She brought her own long-time practice of t’ai chi and established Hiromi T’ai Chi in Charlottesville with classes and outreach to persons with disabilities, senior citizens, and after-school programs. She also made many friends.

When her friends and students learned of the de-scheduling, they leaped into action and several days later Johnson reported, “Senator Warner’s office emailed me that the de-schedule notice was wrong. And Congressman Hurt’s office confirmed this is true.”

So Johnson she joined with more than 75 men and women from more than 40 different nations as they took their Oath of Citizenship on the lawn at Monticello. And how did she feel?

“I was speechless,” she confesses. “I had been dreaming and waiting for a long time for that day.” There’s a hint of tears in her eyes as she recalls the ceremony. “It was nice to see other people waiting for that day, too. Almost like a family.”

Coming to America

Many things draw people from all parts of the globe to Charlottesville and often they remain. The University of Virginia is a main attraction. Other times it’s been an Internet meeting leading to marriage, a new job, or leaving a homeland become dangerous.

“Charlottesville is increasingly cosmopolitan and we all benefit from that,” says Charlottesville Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos. “Our public schools have students who are native speakers of more than 60 languages. Although that can be a huge challenge in getting students up to speed in English, it’s also an amazing experience for all our kids to get to know folks from so many other cultures. Immigration is one of the things that has defined the strength of this country, and Charlottesville’s no exception.”

“In some cases, people coming here are fleeing political or religious persecution,” observes former Charlottesville mayor Kay Slaughter, citing new residents from Tibet and the Balkans. “We continue to be a nation of immigrants.”

The Monticello ceremony punctuates the nation-of-immigrants theme. Since 1963, more than 3,000 people from many nations have become naturalized at this memorable annual ceremony. This Independence Day will mark the 52nd Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello—a powerful experience celebrating what Thomas Jefferson termed “the great birthday of our Republic.”

Standing on the steps of Monticello as new Americans, their faces wearing wide smiles often coupled with emotional tears, these new citizens create a living snapshot of our “melting pot” nation.

An Interaction of Cultures

“We who live in and around Charlottesville are privileged to witness an interaction of cultures,” says REALTOR® John Ince, President of the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors and an Associate Broker at Nest Realty. “We see it on an international level and a local level as academics and blue collars, good ol’ boys and preppies, goths and jocks all mingle on the stage that Thomas Jefferson set so long ago. On the whole, I think we do it very well.”

The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service’s Demographics Research Group reported earlier this year that about 9 percent of Charlottesville’s population is foreign born.

This diversity is reflected in education from UVa to local elementary schools. It’s also very visible in local businesses, restaurants, religious settings, Fridays After Five, and every facet of life.

REALTOR ® Olga Morse, who works with Sloan Milby Real Estate Partners, was born in Puerto Rico so she is automatically an American citizen. Still, she remembers it wasn’t easy when she came to U.S. in the mid-70s. “I felt like an outsider trying to learn the language,” she recalls.

When she moved to Charlottesville in 1987, however, she was surprised to feel at home. “It was very special from the first day,” she says. “People were welcoming and it was friendly hearing people talking other languages.”

Morse definitely has a niche in real estate. “Because of its diversity, Charlottesville is a welcoming city,” she explains. “I can facilitate services, especially for Spanish-speakers who may be fluent in English but unfamiliar with the special language of real estate.”

Morse is also the founder of FORWARD/ADELANTE BUSINESS ALLIANCE (FABA) and publisher of FORWARD-ADELANTE, a bilingual magazine with its main circulation in the greater Charlottesville area.  “The mission of FABA,” she explains, “is to connect the English-speaking business owner with the Spanish-speaking market place where professionals, business leaders, and organizations can share ideas and build relationships.”  

Connections to the world

While many American cities have a foreign “sister” city, Charlottesville has not one, but four with formal ties to Besançon (France), Pleven (Bulgaria), Poggio a Caiano (Italy), and Winneba (Ghana). The city is an active member of  HYPERLINK “http://www.sister-cities.org/” Sister Cities International, a nonprofit citizen diplomacy network that creates and strengthens partnerships between U.S. and international communities, seeking to build global cooperation, promote cultural understanding, and stimulate economic development.

The Charlottesville Sister City Commission, appointed by the City Council, is the organizing body devoted to assisting the individual Sister City relationships with community activities and promotion. The City of Charlottesville website has information and photos of the sister cities and local citizens may propose additional sister cities.

“I love that we have real relationships with our sister cities,” says Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos enthusiastically. The sister-city program is aimed at both adults and young people, she explains. “In the past year, we’ve had various exchanges with our sister cities in France and Ghana that have been real examples of mutual benefit.”

One particularly visible example of Charlottesville’s welcoming atmosphere is its mayor. “It says a great deal about our community that they accept diversity,” says Mayor Satyendra Huja, a Sikh who came from India in 1960 to attend Cornell University. He became a citizen at Monticello on Independence Day in 1987. “It was wonderful,” he says of that day.  “I go back every year.”

Mayor Huja sees our region as offering an appealing environment with cultural facilities that most communities don’t have, saying, “I think it enriches the lives of all the people when you see other cultures and ideas.”

Marilyn Pribus and her husband live near Monticello. One of their daughters-in-law is a recently naturalized citizen from Kazakhstan and Marilyn’s paternal grandparents were naturalized citizens from the Netherlands.

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