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Staff Blog: The Path to Citizenship by Dana I. Harrel - La Jolla Playhouse Blog

Staff Blog: The Path to Citizenship by Dana I. Harrel

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During American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose, the title character embarks on a wild  journey through American history as he studies for his U.S. Citizenship test. We asked a few of our staff members to share their stories about how they became U.S. citizens. This week’s entry comes from La Jolla Playhouse Associate Producer Dana I. Harrel.

“Why did the North fight the South in the Civil War?” asked the woman sitting at a tiny desk in a tiny room in downtown Manhattan.  She didn’t even look up from the paperwork in front of her, expecting me to give her a oneword answer.   I paused and bit my lip, just long enough that her pen lifted off the paper.

“Well?” she said as she looked up at me.

I came to the United States from Peru with my parents in the mid-1980s.  We were all immigrants – my parents had never lived here before, and our only real experience of the U.S. was as tourists.  We were fish out of water. It took years to adjust – not only to learn English and try to lose my accent in order to fit in, but also to adjust to the culture, the people and the different way of doing things.   As I grew older I realized that not only was I starting to enjoy the freedoms and possibilities of my adopted country, I was also wanting be a part of the decision-making process.  I watched the Presidential elections and knew that if I was going to have an opinion on the way the U.S. was to be run then I wanted to be counted.   Yet in order to vote, I needed to become a U.S. Citizen.

This meant going through the process of obtaining my citizenship through naturalization.

The eight basic steps to becoming a naturalized citizen are:

Step 1: Finding out if you are eligible

Step 2: Completing an application and collect the necessary documents

Step 3: Getting photographed

Step 4: Sending your application, documents, and fee to the Service Center

Step 5: Getting fingerprinted

Step 6: Being interviewed

Step 7: Receiving a decision

Step 8: Taking the oath and become a citizen

The application is long, the necessary documents are complicated and sometime hard to obtain (and also, in my case, all the documents from Peru needed to be translated by an official translator) and the wait in between each step can take years.  Thankfully, I was single at the time, because if you are married or divorced or have children, you can count on having to provide three times the number of supporting materials. Also, if you are applying to become a citizen in a city where a lot of people are doing the same thing, you can count on it taking a long time. I applied in NYC, and it took me four years (my brother applied in the Bay Area, and it took him two years).

I remember when I got the letter telling me I had made it to the testing and interview stage.   Immediately, I went out and bought a book for the civics test. You get asked U.S. History questions and also some questions on who your elected officials are.  You can get asked who the governor of your state is, the President of the United States, your representatives, etc. It’s not a hard test – and I had actually minored in U.S. History in college – but, if you are nervous, it does helps to study a bit.

On the day of testing, I went to a very crowded room down at city hall – and was given a paragraph to copy in English.   They wanted to make sure I could read and write in English (simple phrases – you really don’t have to be fluent).  I was then called into the interview room where the woman conducting didn’t make eye contact with me.  She asked me who the President was, who my state representatives were, why we fought the English in the Revolutionary war and …

“Why did the North fight the South in the Civil War?” the woman didn’t even look up from the paperwork in front of her.  I paused long enough that she actually looked up at me.

“Well?” she said searching my face to see if I was really confused or just stalling.

In this small windowless office in downtown Manhattan, taking my citizenship oral examination, I felt like I wanted to give her my college-educated complicated answer, to really show that I knew the answer was much more complex than slavery.


A scowl crossed her face, I could tell she was not happy with this delay.   Well, here it goes: “Slavery,” I said with a sigh.

She nodded. “Congratulations, you’ve passed.  Please give this piece of paper to the person at the front.”

About 6 months later, I got another letter telling me that I had been approved, and I should go to the courthouse downtown to be sworn in and to turn in my Green Card.

I remember arriving at the courthouse and taking my place with about a hundred other people from all over the world.   I got a little teary eyed at how amazing this was – we were all Americans. We were continuing a long line of immigrants who had embraced the values, freedoms and ideals of this country and wanted to be part of its continuing history.

I turned in my Green Card took my oath waved my little American flag and a few months later received my official certificate of citizenship.

Just in time to be counted in the 2000 election.

1 Comment

  1. Good blogging!


    7:47 pm