Written by: Sandy Placido
The sneakers catch a glimmer of early-evening, late-summer light, giving the Adidas logo the heftiness of sunset. As I walk by—my own body cased in golden glow—my eyes follow the sun’s arrow to those shoe heels, which peek out from under the drawn shade of the barbershop’s glass door. Body pushed back as black hair dropped down in piles, and now this small box of life. Quickly and simply, this image becomes mine, forever vivid.
I leave the barbershop behind, and my mother and I pass a bodega and laundromat before arriving at our destination: Kee Hong restaurant. We don’t go to the other Chinese spot—the one with Philly cheese steak egg rolls, fried ice cream, and dollar-bills of graffiti love and luck decorating the bulletproof glass—because that corner is hot. Someone was killed about a week ago and there were flowers and candles everywhere. Instead, my mom tells the lady in the pink baseball cap behind this bulletproof glass that she wants her usual: shrimp with lobster sauce and shrimp fried rice. The woman throws back the order for my dad’s pepper steak too, everything Mandarin but I can pick out the word tostones.
Earlier that day, my father and I sat in the waiting room on the seventh floor of 26 Federal Plaza. My mom had gone in for her citizenship interview while we were downstairs in the cafeteria. My mother hadn’t slept or eaten. It was already past two, and we had gotten downtown at ten. My father and I couldn’t handle it anymore, so we slipped downstairs to get a quick snack, and sneak something up for my mother, who didn’t leave the room afraid she would miss her name when they called it, crinkly and fast, over the loudspeaker.
Before waiting at Federal Plaza, we had already killed time on the second floor of the McDonald’s across the street. The jazz music was playing too loudly, so we screamed questions and answers about U.S. government, history and geography, my father listening, his mouth slightly open, since his test was the next day. The source of our big confusion was that the Constitution defined and established the government, even though its first three words were, “nosotros el pueblo,” we the people. Because of this discrepancy, my dad kept saying that the Constitution defined and established the people, and that the three first words of the Constitution were “nosotros el gobierno.”
The second hardest question for my parents was, “what is the national hymn of the country?” not because they didn’t know the answer, but because they couldn’t pronounce it. My mom kept saying, “Estar Springle.” We all laughed at them in the weeks leading to the exam, my sister, nieces, and me. But in that waiting room at Federal Plaza, I realized a lot of folks were dealing with the same issue. There were several other Dominicans struggling and figuring out how to say it, in between flips of shiny, heat-bludgeoned hair, and makeup accentuations.
After about an hour at McDonald’s, we sat outside of Federal Plaza for a short while, reviewing more questions. I encouraged my mother to try a few deep breathing exercises. Her breaths were shallow, as if annoyed that her body would require her to waste time doing such a thing. “No tengo tiempo ni de deprimirme,” she would often say.
When my father and I came back up from our escape to the cafeteria, the young Peruvian girl with the tight black dress and platform heels let us know that my mother had been called in. I waited anxiously, remembering how my mother kept confusing the supreme law of the land—the Constitution—with the Supreme Court. I thought of Sonia Sotomayor, from my neighborhood, and the projects and community center that have been named after her. I pulled out the historiography essay on the American Revolution that I was reading in preparation for my upcoming general exam, another hoop as I wound through a PhD program in American Studies. My parents and I were reading about the same folks—Jefferson, Washington—but I had to hold back the details on their slaveholding and Indian-disrespecting ways because there was no room for that type of conversation in these interviews.
Mitt Romney appeared on the TV screen in the waiting room as I read. It was a speech in front of Veterans, and he explained that our country needed to build up our moral, economic, and military power—if any of these three things failed, we, as a country, would fail. I began to imagine empires falling at the hands of their colonies, and wondered, when the oppressed arrived to take what was theirs, will they care if I say that I am one of them?
My mom finally came out: she passed! They mostly asked her personal questions. How many children do you have? You are divorced? Filed your taxes? Why didn’t you become a citizen before?
“I told them because I was a single mother, and too busy raising my children.”
The woman who interviewed my mother was Filipina. There was a lot of laughing because there was an interpreter, but my mom managed to answer all the questions in English. Name three of the original colonies. A state that borders Mexico. The supreme law of the land. The current president. My mom said they are making it easy for people right now to get their citizenship, since it’s an election year. It’s true that the older folks who sit on the benches outside of our buildings all seem to be studying the same one hundred questions these days, exchanging information on what train will get them all the way downtown. And I can’t help but picture similarly-toned conversations that took place fifty years ago on the island, a soon-to-be diaspora sharing information on how to go about getting those visas over at the American embassy.
We emerged, blinking, from Federal Plaza and waited for my sister and niece, who were nearby. Our family rode the 6 train along most of its route, back to the Bronx. My own exam looming, I turned to my sister and began to discuss Native American alliances, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Mexican American war, all while sketching a map. She caught on quickly. Meanwhile, I gave my niece ideas for things to draw in her Justin Bieber-themed notebook. She finished four out of the six drawings as we rode—my favorite was the picture of a one-eyed monster serving a cone from an ice cream truck, a fitting visualization for the bright summer day we had all just grown through.
My mom and I finally arrive home with our hard-won Chinese food, a satisfying meal for new Americans, 40 years in the making. We eat, drink whiskey, and debate the veracity of Caso Cerrado. I pull out my laptop, and we call my uncle and aunt in the Dominican Republic. When we give them the good news, they squeal and joke and tease. In the post-phone call quiet, we ease into the evening. Slow blinks at the TV screen, my father dozing, swivels of ice against glass, hopes still simmering in our hearts pero ya se bajó el fuego, and it’s as if nothing has changed at all.