Pedro Porro, 85, dipped a leathery hand into his wallet and pulled out a 40-year-old photograph that was taken when he was a newspaper editor in Cuba.
"This is what I looked like when I was young," Porro said in Spanish, his bright blue eyes sparkling with reminiscence.
Porro and his wife Amelia, 73, left Cuba in l972 and renounced their Cuban citizenship. Now residents of Waverly House in Bethesda, they have seen their two children and seven grandchildren become American citizens.
Their one remaining aspiration, Porros said, is to become U.S. citizens themselves before they die. But their lack of proficiency in English is preventing them from achieving that goal.
Both have taken and failed citizenship examinations but they still meet weekly with other foreign-born senior citizens to study American history and government, hoping they can one day take the exam in Spanish. The class is taught in Spanish and English.
Earlier this year, their class petitioned Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist and local congressional representatives in an effort to initiate reform that would allow them to take the citizenship exam in their own language.
Their argument is that one need not speak English to become an American citizen, teacher Rogelio Quincoses said. The view is shared by many Hispanics nationwide, and it has ignited conflicts over bilingual education, voting ballots and public services at all levels of government.
But the senior citizens maintain that theirs is a special case. They feel they are simply too old to learn English.
Federal immigration law allows five-year residents to take the examination in English and those over 50 to take it in any language once they have been here 20 years, Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Duke Austin said.
Austin said the law is based on a notion that "English is the language of this country." He rejects Quincoses' contention that the elderly have trouble learning foreign languages.
Those opposed to the law argue that it is unconstitutional. In a letter to the Montgomery County Commission on Aging, Hispanic affairs adviser Ileana Herrell wrote, "Our founding fathers did not consider it (English proficiency) a necessity."
Quincoses, a Cuban-born retired real-estate agent who has been a naturalized citizen since l969, said the law's two conditions makes it unreasonable.
"Many of these people are so old that they cannot wait 20 years to take the test in Spanish. I have had some students who died while they were waiting."
Quincoses teaches two classes, one at the Waverly House and another at Arcola Towers in Silver Spring. About a dozen students attend each class, although some come irregularly because of health and transportation problems, he said.
The reasons they give for their fervent desire to become citizens are part sentimental, part practical.
"It is mainly because I love this country," Pedro Porro said. "My children and grandchildren are citizens, and I feel like an outcast in the family."
Amelia Porro pointed out that as noncitizens they cannot vote and cannot be issued passports. If they leave the country, they must apply for reentry permits.
"Many of us come from Cuba," she said, "and we have no home to return to. We feel that we are stateless."
The Latin-American students are among Montgomery County's 990 Hispanic citizens over the age of 65, according to the county's Division of Elder Affairs. Hispanics comprise l.9 percent of the county's 50,905 senior citizens, according to the l980 Census.
Phyllis Courlander, deputy planner for the division, said elderly immigrants, including Asians as well as Hispanics, face numerous difficulties with government agencies because of their trouble with English.
However, she said, the government is often reluctant to "duplicate services" for those who do not speak English. The county does offers free classes in ESOL (English for speakers of other languages).
Those interviewed said they came to the United States to spend their golden years with their children only to act as live-in babysitters for their grandchildren with little time to practice English.
"I never spoke English in the house when I lived with my children," Amelia Porro said. "They didn't want me to. They wanted the grandchildren to learn Spanish."
Gilchrist has written the group a supportive letter in Spanish. But the students say they realize that changing the law will require congressional action.
Lenora Odeku, legislative assistant for foreign affairs to Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.), said that a provision probably could not be added to the long-debated Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, which recently passed in the Senate and is now before the House.
Odeku said House members are unlikely to accept any changes that might delay the bill's passage.