Naturalized

By John Toth

It took place in the Spring of 1975 inside a cavernous courtroom with hundreds of people there.

We came from all over the world. We were young, old, black, white, brown and yellow. I was 19, and I was about to become an American citizen.

I can appreciate the moment even better now, many decades later. Some of the details escape me, but I do recall that I felt very proud to be in that room.

I was all the way in the back and could barely see the judge who would later administer the oath. There were all kinds of languages being spoken around me.

The ceremony was simple, to the point. It was hard to hear back there, but we hung on the judge’s every word. We all came from different countries, and traveled different paths to get here, but now we were about to become citizens of this great country.

My mother did the same thing a short time later, and in 1976, we went together to the near-by community center to cast our vote in the presidential elections. We were two proud new Americans. I have not missed a national election since.

I came here from Hungary, a country behind the Iron Curtain at the time, and controlled by an oppressive Communist regime.

Hungary was fenced in, and its citizens could not leave. Nobody living behind the Iron Curtain could just pick up and head west.

That’s why Winston Churchill popularized the phrase “Iron Curtain” in his “Sinews of Peace” speech in 1946. The people of Eastern Europe were stuck in their oppressive countries, with no way out but to escape.

I always thought it ironic that I escaped from a country that fenced in its citizens, while for most of my life I have lived in a country in which there is a debate on how to keep out those who want to enter without documentation.

I am more proficient in English than my birth language. I’d better be, since I have made a living being a writer all these decades. I am as American as anyone can ever be. I live a good lifestyle, and have had a very rewarding career. And, of course, I also have had a very loving and rewarding family life.

But, there have been a few instances that have made me think that to some people I’ll always be an outsider for the simple reason that I was not born here. It doesn’t bother me, but it is an interesting study in human nature.

I’ll give you some examples.

While working for The Houston Chronicle, I had a Page 1 story appear that one of my American (Texan) relatives was reading. “That was good, but I can tell that you write with an accent,” she told me.

I write with what?

A half-dozen editors went over that story and changed a lot of the wording and phraseology before it went to print – a half-dozen American-born editors.

When I ran for public office years later, my opponent labeled me a Communist in one of those whisper campaigns. Hey, I got over it. It’s just politics, and it’s supposed to be dirty.

I’ve been told several times that I would understand an issue better had I been born here. Really?

But these are the exceptions, not the rule. It does not derail my main point that if you want a chance at success, a comfortable lifestyle, this is it.

This is a country where anyone can achieve anything with hard work. This is the land of opportunity. Immigrants know that. Many are living their dreams. I know I am.

I raised my right hand and repeated the oath. That was it. I was then an American citizen. It was all over, except for the smiles and hugs and some tears around me.

It was one of the greatest days of my life.