The University of Virginia is a magnet for men and women from all parts of the globe to come to Charlottesville and often to remain here. Others come for a variety of reasons: an Internet meeting leading to marriage, a new job or fleeing a homeland that is becoming dangerous. This Independence Day will mark the 50th Fourth of July Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello—a powerful experience celebrating the ideas and ideals of the Declaration of Independence and what Thomas Jefferson termed “the great birthday of our Republic.”
This inspiring event reminds us that we are indeed a nation of immigrants. Since 1963, more than 3,000 people from many nations have become naturalized at this memorable annual ceremony. Last year, for instance, more than 75 men and women from over 40 different nations took their Oath of Citizenship. Standing on the steps of Monticello as new Americans, their faces wearing wide smiles—and in some cases emotional tears—they created a remarkable living snapshot of our “melting pot” nation.
The ceremony is actually a court proceeding and this year’s presiding judge will be the Honorable Glen E. Conrad, Chief Judge for the United States District Court of the Western District of Virginia. The featured speaker will be gold-medal-winner Nadia Comaneci. The first Olympic gymnast to score a perfect 10, Romanian-born Comaneci became a naturalized citizen 2001. If you have never attended this memorable American moment, it is worth your while to see this testament to how culturally diverse central Virginia has become over the years.
If You Go
Monticello’s grounds open at 7:00 a.m. for the 9:00 a.m. ceremony. (While the ceremony and bus are free, those wishing to take an inside tour of Monticello following the ceremony must purchase a ticket.) The staff suggests allowing an hour to park at the Visitor Center and take a shuttle bus up to the ceremony. Once you reach Monticello’s West Lawn, you will receive a program, a fan and a small American flag. Bottled water is also available and free courtesy of the Coca-Cola Company.
There are plenty of chairs. The Charlottesville Municipal Band, playing for our community since 1922, will perform rousing music, so be prepared for a swell of patriotism.
An Interaction of Cultures
“We who live in and around Charlottesville are privileged to witness an interaction of cultures,” declares John Ince, a country property specialist for Nest Realty Group. “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.”
And there is definitely a mix of people. According to the most recent U.S. Census, almost 12 percent of Charlottesville’s population—nearly one in eight—is foreign born. And this figure doesn’t even include persons born in Puerto Rico, a U.S. possession such a Guam, or persons born in another country who have at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen.
This diversity is reflected at the University of Virginia, in city and county school classrooms, in audiences at Fridays After Five and local theaters, in many of the small businesses in our community—well, in every facet of life. One very visible example is Charlottesville’s mayor.
“It says a great deal about our community that they accept diversity,” says Satyendra S. Huja, referring to his selection as mayor early this year. A Sikh, he came from India as a 19-year-old student in 1960 to attend Cornell University where he studied architecture, psychology and city planning. He subsequently served as the City of Charlottesville Director of Planning and Community Development for 25 years and then became Director of Strategic Planning for the City of Charlottesville from 1998 to 2004.
Huja was naturalized 25 years ago at Monticello’s 1987 Fourth of July ceremony. “It was wonderful,” he says of that day. “I go back every year.” He sees our region as enjoying an appealing environment with a mix of “physical, natural and cultural facilities that most communities don’t have,” and adds, “I think it enriches the lives of all the people when you see other cultures and ideas.”
Another example of our international diversity was clear at the recent graduation ceremonies from Charlottesville High School where the class treasurer was first-generation American and the salutatorian was Romanian-born. First names of the graduates included such diverse monikers as Aung, Heather, Xae-Vaun, Rakiya, Paolo, Priscilla, Isaquiel, Bridget, Byadunia, Leah, Tek, Zunaira, Emily, Ingenieur, Onaing, Emma, Saskia, Wazhma, Fakhria, Butoyi, Abigail, Quanisha, Bakar, Vishnu, Jane, Tatiana, Gawa, John, Gonpo, Amanda, DaQuan, Jacob, Watta, Rebecca and Fazel.
Charlottesville doesn’t just have diversity, it showcases it. One example is the Festival of Cultures held the second Saturday of May in Lee Park. Its mission: to celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity, to build a bridge of communication between new Americans and long-time residents and invite attendees to “travel the world in Lee Park.”
“It’s a celebration of cultures, not necessarily nations,” explains festival coordinator Debra Tuler. Sponsored by the Charlottesville City Schools Adult Learning Center, this past May’s event featured dances and music ranging from Appalachian banjo tunes and cloggers to klezmer music to representative dances from Nepal, India and Mexico.
Cultural exhibits included tables with arts, information and maps from such diverse countries as Bhutan, Congo, Honduras, Indonesia, Japan, Russia and Ukraine and also an exhibit about our own Buffalo Soldiers. Ethnic food was available from vendors such as Monsoon Siam, the Balkan Bistro and Meryem’s Bakery which served Turkish baklava.
While many American cities have a foreign “sister” city, Charlottesville has not one, but four. We have ties to Besançon (France), Pleven (Bulgaria), Poggio a Caiano (Italy) and Winneba (Ghana).
“I love that we have real relationships with our sister cities,” says Charlottesville Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos enthusiastically. “Cultural and educational exchanges with Besançon and Winneba in the past year have been exciting windows into the lives of people in other parts of the world.” The sister-city program is aimed at both adults and young people, she explains. “We’re looking forward to sending our high school students to study abroad and to hosting students from our sister cities here. In our increasingly small, globalized world, we are offering them a critical leg up in preparing for careers in almost any field.”
The Big Draw
What draws people from other countries to the Charlottesville area? Olga Morse, an associate broker at Sloan Milby Real Estate Partners, was born in Puerto Rico. This made her an American citizen, but she still faced difficulties when she first came to U.S. in the mid-70s. “The first experience I had when I first came to this country, I felt like an outsider,” she recalls. “I was trying to learn the language, but it was very difficult.”
Then in 1987, she came to Charlottesville, although she was apprehensive about moving to a small inland city. “To my surprise,” she says, “it was very special from the first day I came here. It was friendly hearing people talking other languages. People were welcoming and I didn’t feel too unique.”
Morse definitely has a niche in her real estate business where she specializes in residential properties. “Because of its diversity, Charlottesville is a welcoming city,” she says, “and because of language I can facilitate services, especially for first-time [Spanish-speaking] home buyers.” She points out that even Spanish-speakers who are fluent in English, may be unfamiliar with the special language of real estate and they have confidence that they understand transactions in their native language.
Morse is also the publisher of “FORWARD-ADELANTE” a bilingual magazine with its main circulation in the greater Charlottesville area. FORWARD-ADELANTE aims to connect the English-speaking business owner with the Spanish-speaking market place and vice-versa.
AnnaMaria Bakalian, an instructor of Italian at Speak! Language Center in Charlottesville, met her New Yorker husband in Milano while he was working for an American company there. In 1993, they returned to the U.S. but her husband’s company was bought out. “Then 9/11 made it really hard to find another job,” she explains, “so we did some research for a place to live.” They found Fortune magazine’s article on Best Places to Live. “Charlottesville was on the top list,” she says, so they came for a visit and liked our small city.
What did they like? “The strategic location,” she states. “Not too south with storms and heavy rains. Not too north with cold and snowy winters. Close enough to an international airport and the capital. And abundances of lakes, walking trails and outdoor activities.”
In addition, she says, “I see Charlottesville as very cosmopolitan. I believe the university is the pulling force of it. There are students and professors from around the world.” Although Balkalian is not now a citizen, she says, “Someday I will!” Perhaps at Monticello on a future Fourth of July?
Another person who felt “at home” in Charlottesville from the start is restaurateur Brice Cunningham, a U.S. citizen since 2007. Born in Paris, Cunningham lived in Tahiti for six years and along the way he learned the art of professional French cooking.
“There is a huge heritage of life with Thomas Jefferson and all,” he says. When he first came to the U.S., he worked at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. where he became friends with a co-worker from Charlottesville. In 2001, the two created Fleurie and later opened Petit Pois. In 2011, Cunningham’s father came from France and together they launched Tempo Restaurant on Fourth Street just off the Downtown Mall.
Cunningham sees Charlottesville as “a niche city” that has more than many American cities can offer. “I can surely say I think the quality of the food is better here than in New York City,” he says. “There is a style of life here that is close to European living and it makes coming to America easier. This is a very nice place to live.”
Indeed, restaurants reflect the personality of a city and Charlottesville boasts a remarkable roster for a city of its size. Often menus reflect the birthplace of foreign-born owners of eateries and our local list includes (alphabetically) Afghani, African, Balkan, Chinese, Dominican, French, German, Greek, Honduran, Indian, Jamaican, Japanese, Mediterranean, Mexican, Moroccan, Salvadoran, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese and probably a couple others.
Many neighborhoods, from rental apartments to condos to single-family dwellings are home to residents from a variety of countries. Neighbors have a way of getting together for block parties or potlucks in a social hall, tasting each other’s foods, watching their children playing together and learning about each others’ cultures. All of this makes the area around Charlottesville a desirable place to settle.
Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County near Monticello. One of their daughters-in-law is a recently naturalized American citizen from Kazakhstan and Marilyn’s paternal grandparents were naturalized citizens from the Netherlands.