Often on the Fourth of July, I find myself hiding, both from the fireworks and from the repeated chorus of "Proud to be an American" on the radio. As a naturalized citizen and a religious and ethnic minority, I have spent many hours dissecting what it means to be American. While I'm no closer to finding a definitive answer, in my rumination, I find myself coming back to one particular immigrant I crossed paths with: an 86-year-old Spanish-speaking grandfather.
I met this gentleman in 2008, as we were both waiting to be sworn in as naturalized citizens of the United States. As luck would have it, we were both seated next to each other for the ceremony. As he didn't speak much English, and I spoke even less Spanish, we couldn't really hold a conversation. Nevertheless, his nervous excitement and energy was palpable. As we were addressed by a federal magistrate judge, I watched him hang onto every word of the speech. At the end of the speech, both he and I, along with the hundreds of other immigrants filling the room stood to take our oath, and become Americans. Once the oath was concluded, a huge smile broke out on his face: a smile that needed no translation.
Today, many years later, I think back to the nameless grandfather. I wonder about the process he went through to join me on that day. Memorizing the three branches of the government and the preamble to our constitution for the citizenship interview were chores to me; I wonder how much preparation he put into that same interview. He jumped through every barrier that I had. What's more, he did it all in his twilight years without knowing the language.
As I sit here today, I can begin to appreciate why this country is so unique. It's not that Americans are somehow smarter, or braver, or stronger than others. Rather, America is a country with the true promise of equality. It is a country where an 86-year-old Spanish-speaking grandfather can stand next to a 20-year-old Hindu boy and both can proudly claim citizenship. It is a country that welcomes ordinary people from around the world, regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexuality, and motivates them to greatness.
I never saw the nameless grandfather again after our ceremony. Yet, whenever I hear political discourse dissolve into jingoism, see the rise of hate violence targeting religious minorities, or feel myself despairing about the future of this country, I think of him. I think of the smile he had on his face when the judge told him he was an American, and how proud he looked that he could now serve his country as a full citizen. And, once again, I remember where our country's greatness comes from.