At Seattle Center and in cities around the country today, people from across the globe will become U.S. citizens. They will shape not just their lives and those around them, but the character of this country a country of immigrants that is becoming more diverse each year. Many will struggle financially and socially, clinging to their identity while adjusting to altered circumstances and new expectations. Others will find that balance and thrive. What follows are the accounts of some who have found their way, realizing the kind of aspirations that have kept people coming for more than two centuries.
From migrant camp to federal bench
Ricardo Martinez, the only Hispanic federal judge in the Northwest, was 5 when his family moved across the Rio Grande from Mexico to Mercedes, Texas, where his parents picked cotton. The family had sold its small ranch to pay medical bills and moved to the U.S. to start over.
Ricardo's mother was already a U.S. citizen because her father had immigrated to America from Spain before settling in Mexico. That, and the fact that she made sure her two children were U.S.-born, helped get work status for her husband, a Mexican national. But no one in the family spoke English when they made the move:
"We got in with migrant workers even though my parents didn't have a migrant background. One of my earliest memories was sitting in a cotton field with mom. It was so hot you could see the heat rays rising along the ground.
We hopped in the back of his canvas-covered truck with about five families and drove straight through from Texas to Whatcom County. I can still hear the constant hum of the tires on the road because I would lie with my ears to the wooden floorboards. I also remember arriving. Everything smelled so fresh and seemed so quiet and clean. We stayed that summer, then went back to Mercedes. The following spring, we went back to that same Whatcom County farm.
At the end of that second summer everybody headed back, but my dad said, 'We can't do this. Look at those kids. No way they'll get any opportunity if we keep doing this. We need to put roots down.' I look back at that as an amazing decision. What if someone told you that you'll be putting down roots in a foreign place where you don't speak the language and your culture is basically nonexistent? For two people who basically had no education to make such an important emphasis on it.
My dad went to the farm owner and asked if there was any chance he could work there as a handyman. The man's wife was an elementary-school teacher, and when my dad said the reasons he wanted to stay, I think the wife said, 'That's good enough for me.' So we stayed.
The first winter, we lived in basically a single-room cabin. No indoor plumbing. Most people would consider us poor, but I got what I needed, and Dad never accepted assistance from the government even though we qualified.
My classmates were not used to seeing someone my color and background stay. They saw us in summer, but then we left. I was the only ethnic minority in my class. It was a tiny school. By the third grade, the teachers seemed to take an interest in me. Eventually I became known as the smart odd kid. I think I felt an incredible responsibility to do well because of what my parents had done for me.
One of the proudest moments of my life was watching my dad get sworn in as an American. After almost 40 years of living and working in this country, he just decided one day he needed to be a citizen. He said, 'This country has been very good to my children.'
In 1997, we went to the federal building at about lunchtime. I assumed they would allow me to serve as translator in case he didn't understand something, but found out that they wouldn't let me because I was family. Dad says, 'I can do this,' and he goes into a room. It was the longest 20 minutes of my life.
He comes out and the person giving the test is smiling and says, "He did just fine." He was sworn in there right at the immigration center. I didn't realize until later that I could have sworn him in. That would have been great, but I'm not sure I could have gotten through it."
From Nazi tyranny to college colloquy
Hamida Bosmajian taught literature at Seattle University for 37 years. Her experience growing up in Nazi Germany inspired her to write, most notably, "Sparing the Child: The Grief and Unspeakable in Youth Literature about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust," which recently won the Book Award from the Children's Literature Association:
"I was born in 1936, so Hitler had been in power three years already. We were living in Berlin, and my mother was in her second marriage with a physicist who worked with the state-run film industry. He made himself independent when everyone who worked for the state-run industry had to join the party. We moved to Bavaria, and he set up a radio factory.
We left just before the 'economic miracle' in 1952 when he, my mom, me and my two sisters came to America. He could have come earlier, but he didn't want to be part of the brain drain; he didn't want to be considered war booty.
I was 16, and it was traumatic for me to leave the lovely alpine village which is nothing like Leavenworth and all my friends. We took the Italian liner, and my mother had bought us new Bavarian outfits. I still have the cape I wore that day I walked off the ship.
As we were entering New York Harbor, I was called up to the deck to see the Statue of Liberty. But I was not interested. We rode up Broadway and saw those billboards, like that horrible Camel ad with smoke coming out and Mr. Peanut. I thought I was on Mars!
We went to a boarding house in either Brooklyn or the Bronx. We moved to California in 1953.
I knew some English already, but I didn't fit in at all in high school. This was the '50s 'Rebel Without a Cause,' 'American Graffiti.' I never got asked out to dances. I painted the posters for the dances. If I had been seen as an exchange student, that would have all been quaint and wonderful, but I was an immigrant. I cried a lot, but I now realize it strengthened me to go against the grain and support other people doing something non-conforming yet not anything wrong.
In 1955, I started college at San Jose State and would go to the library and see these huge collections of books about Nazi Germany and the war. It was the first time I had learned there had been a huge pacifist and anti-war movement in Germany. That was very comforting. I began research into the German past when my (now) husband was researching for his doctoral dissertation at Stanford. I was his translator.
I began to understand why my parents would say, 'What you hear in this house will not go beyond this house.' I remember my father listened to the BBC with a blanket over his head and the radio.
It made me feel tremendously guilty. I did not see myself then as I do now as an American. I realized while we were working at Stanford that I would have to write about these matters. I belong to a nation of perpetrators, do you see? I just can't escape that because now we're democratic. My mother did not approve of my projects. She says, 'Our past is the past, we have to get on with it.'
I became a citizen in Moscow, Idaho, in 1959. But I felt more American when I was active, along with my husband, in the presidential election, working against Barry Goldwater.
What is important about being American and it sounds really corny is the Constitution. It led me to teach literature and law, in which I taught the Constitution and got some people really inspired. I saw myself more strongly as American when being involved in the process, even when I protested U.S. policies. It bothers me that some Americans confuse freedom with freedom to shop."
From Indian ball boy to coach of champions
Yusuf Khan built squash in Seattle and, along with his children, still defines it. But the game has defined him, too, along with his American life.
At 72, he is still consumed by the sport, teaching as well as mentoring two of his daughters who play professionally and two sons who teach. He started his journey as a barefoot ball boy in India and eventually became a champion. Then he became a coach of champions:
"I was born before the Partition of 1947 of India and Pakistan, and as a boy I helped out at the squash courts at this British army base. The courts didn't have roofs, so the ball would fly outside sometimes. The army people would start grumbling, so I'd run around and look through the grass and return the ball. They'd give me a little tip, a few rupees. It was a lot of money to me.
After the partition, I was really sad because I didn't know where to go, what to do. An English brigadier colonel named Michael Taylor told me I should stay in India, that I will be a good squash player one day. He was like a father to me. I was 13, and I remember it like yesterday the way he talked to me. I came from a poor family. My father passed away when I was 9 or 10 years old.
Ed Madison, who was head tennis pro at the Seattle Tennis Club, wrote me and said he was looking for someone to help teach. I came to Seattle June 7, 1968. He wanted to play right away to make sure I could. I was in street trousers and street shoes. He asked where are your shoes? I said I grew up without shoes, I can play barefoot. We played, and he said OK.
One day, after two months, I ask where is the squash court? It was a hardball court; different from the softball style the world plays. When tennis season slowed down they let me start teaching squash. Eventually, I just started teaching squash all over the place. Charged $2 for a lesson, then $3, then $5. Got so busy after a while, lessons every day. I would teach 16 lessons a day sometimes. I needed the money.
I didn't push squash on my children. I came here so they could get a good education. I'd tell them, championships fade, but education is always there. But when they started working with me, it opened up the Khan family history to them (including 50 years of domination in world squash), and they learned more about me.
I get so much respect from this black ball. So much friendship. It represents my culture and gives us a chance to earn some money. I miss India a lot of times, but this is my home. Friendship makes a home.
I had a little heart attack and surgery. I had no insurance. Donations came in from all over. One day a nurse comes to me and asks, 'Are you a prime minister of some country?' Because every doctor comes to this room first, asking how is this guy doing?
This is what keeps me here."
From struggling African student to humanitarian leader
Blaise Judja-Sato, a native of Cameroon, gave up a lucrative high-tech career to start VillageReach, a humanitarian project that aims to get life-saving supplies and services to remote parts of developing nations. The venture's first phase in Mozambique was so successful that it attracted funding from the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:
"I come from a large family. My parents were teachers, and although we lived very modestly, they were successful compared to their brothers and sisters who lived in the villages.
My parents made sure that all tuitions were paid and we had access to all the books and after-school teachers. We lived in the city, but during the three-month summer break we would spend a month doing school things, addressing areas our teacher thought we needed help on.
The two other months were spent in a village with relatives in western Cameroon. My parents felt this was a good way for us to stay in touch with our roots, and help us appreciate what we often took for granted.
Trying to find financial help was very frustrating. I was lost in the middle of three things. I am from Africa, I live in France and I'm trying to go to school in America. None of those three groups wanted to take ownership of me. So I deferred my admission for a year. I ended up saving enough and tapping into my parents, who squeezed their savings. I'm sure some of my brothers suffered for that.
I came to Seattle to work for Teledesic and became an American citizen in May of 2002. For those of us coming from the developing countries, America means dreams, but it brings a lot of responsibility. People from Africa and other developing countries know that you understand their conditions, and now that you're an American they expect you to help solve their problems.
When the floods hit Mozambique in 2000, I got money from Craig McCaw (his boss at the time) and the Gates Foundation. About $1.5 million. I went to Mozambique to make sure the money was spent properly. One day we went to this camp. The people dragged me into a tent to show me a newborn. There was this woman lying on a cloth on the ground and this tiny baby was right next to her. They were sharing a happy moment, but to me, it was traumatizing. There was no sanitation, and I began realizing she and her child wouldn't have received adequate care anyway.
What was critical to the success of VillageReach is that in the U.S., an idea can collect support and attract investors who will help with the risk. And nobody in America would blame you for trying and failing. In Cameroon, and even in Europe, people would say, 'Oh, there's that guy who started a coffee shop and couldn't make it work,' and they'd laugh at you when you started the next thing. But in the U.S., they'd go, 'Maybe he learned from that experience.'
The way I was brought up and the values my parents gave me led to this. The only difference is that the village has expanded. Theirs was a small village in Cameroon; I consider my village to be the whole developing world."
From Chinese village to governor's mansion
Gov. Gary Locke made history by becoming the country's first Chinese-American to hold the position. Today, as he has done each Fourth of July for a decade, he will address the annual naturalization ceremony at Seattle Center. It means a lot to him, he says, as does an old framed photo of a house he displays in his office:
"This house is actually the house that my grandfather worked in as a servant boy shortly after he came over in the late 1800s as a teenager. It is literally one mile from here. I joked at my inauguration that it took my family 100 years to go one mile.
A large contingent of the Locke family came from the same rural village in China and settled in Olympia. After the racial tension here, some, including my grandfather, moved to Seattle. As with Chinese custom, he'd send money he earned back home, and made a few trips back and forth. He got married there and started a family, and eventually he brought them over.
We grew up speaking Chinese at home, and I didn't learn English until about kindergarten, which was right at the time my mom was learning English to become a U.S. citizen.
We grew up with a lot of Chinese customs, an emphasis on learning and staying home and helping out. I'd see TV shows like 'Father Knows Best,' 'Ozzie and Harriet,' 'The Donna Reed Show,' and I'd wonder, how come Mrs. Cleaver wears a dress, high heels and pearl necklace while she is vacuuming the floor? How come my mom doesn't do that? Mr. Cleaver wears a coat and tie at the dinner table. How come my father doesn't do that? Are we not American?
My older siblings and I couldn't go to dances; you can't go out or go to friends' houses. There was a lot of tension between what my parents expected and were used to versus what I saw Caucasian and other classmates doing.
Mona (his wife) and I are Americans through and through, but we think it is important that people of all backgrounds and ethnic groups try to instill in their kids their culture and ethnicity. A blending of both worlds.
During my first year in office, I went on a trade mission to China and was able to visit the village where my grandfather and father were born. The whole village welcomed us. Inside the ancestral home on a wall were pictures of the entire Locke clan for the last 100 years. It was like stepping back in the 1800s. No indoor plumbing. It was so emotional for me.
It made me realize how fortunate we are to live in the U.S. and that my success was really part of the dreams and aspirations of the entire village. America has always been the beacon around the world of freedom, hope and opportunity, and families would sacrifice, scrimp and save and hope that someone in their family could make that trip.
That picture on the wall is a reminder of how far we've come."
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Barry Wong is a magazine staff photographer.
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