Newly minted U.S. citizens salute the Constitution on its 225th anniversary

September 17, 2012

On Monday, the United States celebrated the 225th anniversary of the signing of its Constitution and, as everyone knows, the proper gift for a quasquibicentennial is French toast. Specifically, a French toast stick planted in a shot glass of whipped cream.

Consuming this treat was the first civic action taken by many of the country’s 215 newest citizens, who swore the oath of allegiance in the rotunda of the National Archives at 10:30 a.m. and then were herded to a reception where servers wielded silver trays of dessert breakfast, because nothing says “America” like carbs, coffee and butterfat.

Posing for a photo at the center of the reception was Tina Evangelista, a program coordinator at Johns Hopkins University.

“You’ve got to get my shoes,” she told the man holding up her iPhone. “Very important.”

She cradled her certificate of naturalization and pivoted her peep-toe slingbacks: red, white and blue, bought especially for the day.

“Ten and a half years ago, I came to visit a friend for three months, and I just stayed,” says Evangelista, 36, explaining her path to citizenship, which led from her native Guinea-Bissau to her adoptive Portugal to her newest home. “I love it so much. There were too many opportunities to turn around. Just knowing that all I had to do is grab what I want. I’d be jumping up and down if there weren’t all these people here.”

There were supposed to be 225 of them — one for every year since the signing of the world’s longest-standing and most-briefly-worded governing document — but not everyone showed up. (They obviously didn’t know there would be French toast sticks.)

The event began with that most American of activities: the filling out of paperwork while waiting in a line. In single file, the petitioners inched down the steps of the Archives’ basement theater to check in with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS). Each had arrived at the same metaphysical place through different and winding paths, and were grouped randomly to take their oaths on Sept. 17, which has been known as Constitution Day since the late Sen. Robert Byrd attached an amendment to an appropriations bill in 2005.

“It only took three and a half months” from application to swearing-in, says Pablo Mendez, 40, originally from the Dominican Republic and a resident of the District for the past 25 years.

“If you want a different story, I’ll tell you one,” says Edit Pena, standing in front of him in line, wearing a flag-patterned sweater and red-white-and-blue hoop earrings.

Pena’s family emigrated from Buenos Aires in the ’60s, and she first applied for U.S. citizenship in 1975, but she didn’t hear back from the government until 1977, when authorities told her the application was no longer valid.

Discouraged by the resulting runaround, she put off pursuing citizenship until after she retired from the World Bank in 2004. She applied again in 2007, but in her interview the following year she learned that her paperwork had been misplaced somewhere in Philadelphia. A month ago, with no elaboration, she was told that her naturalization was a go.

Democracy begets bureaucracy.

“I have felt American for a very long time, but the main thing is” being able to vote, she says. “It’s interesting enough that I live in the District of Columbia. We’re the victims of circumstance, of a decision that was made a long time ago [to place the District under exclusive congressional jurisdiction without voting representatives]. I always say we live in a developing country that happens to be the capital of the United States of America.”

Despite its imperfections, the charter of freedom survives. Allegedly. According to cable news pundits and fervent partisans, the Constitution has been shredded and set ablaze by either George W. Bush or Barack Obama, the Democratic Senate or the Republican House, or by any combination of Supreme Court justices.

On Monday morning, however, the Constitution slept soundly and squarely intact inside a steel-bolted, airtight, glass-and-titanium case as the Archives rotunda filled with 215 petitioners of all ages and colors, from 69 different countries, Algeria to Vietnam, some in head scarves, some walking with canes, others with headphones around their necks, some pregnant, many from Ethi­o­pia and Eritrea and El Salvador, most carrying small U.S. flags. A brass quintet from “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band sounded the lush tones of “America the Beautiful.”

The lighting was greenish and dim, the vibe a bit hallucinatory, with the likenesses of the Founding Fathers looming overhead in a pair of murals. Each petitioner stood and said “here” when his or her name and country of origin were called, until all 215 were standing with their right hands raised, swearing to renounce all allegiance to foreign entities, to support and defend the Constitution and to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.

“I am honored to be one of the first to address you as ‘my fellow Americans,’ ” said Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, whose CIS has processed 4 million new citizens since its creation in 2006.

And so the country develops.

And so it eats French toast.

Dominique Bagnato, his wife, Tesa Conlin, and their two daughters, Bliss and Mila, snacked their way through the reception afterward.

“I came for one year, in August 1993,” says Bagnato, who’s originally from France and is a teacher and IT director at the French International School in Chevy Chase.

“And 19 years later, he has a vacation house and two children,” muses Conlin, who says she’s the great-great-great-grand-niece of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“Life brings you unexpected things,” Bagnato says.

They adopted Mila, 7, from Mexico and Bliss, 11, from Colombia when they were both 2 months old.

“A four-nationality family,” Conlin says proudly, although now, of course, they are one.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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