The invitation to Dante Amaury Perez-Valdez’s naturalization ceremony indicated that it would be a “special” one. But he and his American-born wife, Natalie, assumed the government said that about all of the ceremonies.
For Perez-Valdez, the day was already special enough: Eight years after marrying Natalie in the Dominican Republic, obtaining his green card and then learning English and studying well over a year for the citizenship test, he had become a new American. He would never have to worry again about one day being separated from his wife and baby for lack of papers.
“This was a big day for me and also for my family,” said Perez-Valdez, who became a chef at Eataly in New York City after starting on the prep team when he arrived in the country. “It was a long way for us.”
The day got even bigger when Perez-Valdez saw U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg take a seat on the stage, her tiny frame swallowed up by the wooden chair. Nobody, he said, including the new citizens seated around him, knew she was coming.
“My fellow Americans,” she began, “it is my great privilege to welcome you to citizenship in the democracy that is the USA.”
Administering the oath of citizenship to the 201 new Americans gathered at the New-York Historical Society Tuesday was Ginsburg’s idea. She read an article in the New York Times about how the historical society had been helping green-card holders prepare for the citizenship test and decided to reach out and tell the staff that, “if ever I am in town when they had a naturalization ceremony, I would be glad to participate,” she told the Times in a statement.
On Tuesday, she told of her family’s humble beginnings, how her father “arrived in this land at the age of 13 with no fortune and speaking no English” — the part that Perez-Valdez said he related to most. Her mother was born shortly after Ginsburg’s grandparents came through Ellis Island by ship, she said. She was born in Brooklyn in 1933.
“My father and grandparents reached as you do for the American Dream,” she said. “As testament to our nation’s promise, the daughter and granddaughter of these immigrants sits on the highest court to the land, and will proudly administer the oath of citizenship to you.”
Throughout her speech, 85-year-old Ginsburg emphasized the country’s constant state of change. Detailing the lowest points, from slavery and denying women the vote, she quoted Alexis de Tocqueville: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than other nations but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
At the start, it is true, the union was very much in need of perfection,” she said. “The original Constitution permitted slavery and severely limited who counted among the people. When the nation was new, only white property-owning men had the right to vote, the most basic right of citizenship. But over the course of our history, people left out at the start, people held in human bondage, Native Americans and women — 50 percent of the population — came to be embraced as full citizens.”
Before administering the oath to the room full of immigrants from nearly every continent — from Albania, Guinea, Serbia, Venezuela — she encouraged the citizens to take advantage of their newly granted rights: namely, the right to vote.
Perez-Valdez said he already plans to register for the midterm elections this November.
“It was very special to hear from her today,” Perez-Valdez said. “She told us that if we’re working hard, we can do anything.”
After the ceremony, he headed back to Eataly, where he worked the closing shift.
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