By Jane Greeley, Medill, Immigrant Connect May 2021
I’m sitting on the couch beside my mom, my head leaning against her shoulder. Her phone dings, and she reaches over me to grab it. It’s a text containing a photo. She opens it up and shows it to me. It’s my babysitter, Nene, at her naturalization ceremony. She’d passed the test and taken the oath. She was on the verge of officially becoming a citizen.
As I got older, I would learn about things like work visas and green cards. At the time, when Nene’s citizenship process was explained to me, all I really grasped was that she was not a citizen yet. She was working on it, and passing a test was an important part of it. It had all felt abstract until I saw that photograph.
Nene’s real name is Leona. I’ve affectionately called her Nene since the time I could form syllables. Growing up, I knew that Nene was from St. Lucia. I ‘d never considered it something that made her less American than me. She’d been with my family since I was 18 months old. Whenever I would talk about her, I’d affectionately call her my third parent. Growing up in New York City where so many people come from other places, I didn’t see Nene’s identity as being much different from someone who‘d moved from another state. I’d never thought of citizenship as a concept that extended far beyond a place of residence.
She was friends with the other babysitters in our neighborhood. My younger sister and I listened intently to the “broken French” Nene spoke with them. When we walked around with Nene, we tried to imitate it and catch on to some common words and phrases.
We hung on her every word when she told us stories about St. Lucia or sang us nursery rhymes she knew from her childhood. We admired and envied deeply that she knew another language and had called another place home.
For months, Nene and I had been practicing for her citizenship test. I spent hours reading the index cards she’d written out in her loopy cursive, asking her questions like, “What are the three branches of government?” Many of the subjects we reviewed were too advanced for my limited elementary school civics knowledge. I came to memorize the answers.
Her brow furrowed when she got one wrong. Her eyes narrowed with the discipline I’d come to recognize. This happened less and less as time passed. I could tell she was studying in her free time. She recited facts about Abraham Lincoln or the Louisiana Purchase. After so much practice, I was still confused why any of those things mattered so much.
The idea that knowing random facts about former Presidents or the Constitution would elevate her to the status I had simply by being born here felt downright unfair. I knew that my parents, who were adult U.S. citizens, didn’t know the answers to a lot of the questions that those going through the naturalization process were expected to know.
Nene was a pragmatic, driven person. And so, we studied.
In this moment sitting beside my mom, I start to understand just how meaningful those hours spent flipping through index cards were. Even though it’s through the small screen of my mom’s phone, I can feel Nene’s joy.
What sticks with me about that photo is her smile. It conveys pride in her dual identity: St. Lucian and American, an intersection she had occupied for more than 20 years without the validation of official U.S. citizenship. I was merely 10, not old enough to understand the gravity of the moment. Nene’s beaming face communicated everything I needed to know.