by Patheresa Wells with photography by Susan Fried
On July 4, at Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion, 300 applicants who represented 74 different countries of origin participated in the 37th Annual Naturalization Ceremony. Families and friends crowded around the packed lawn to watch the ceremony, which included members of multiple branches of the armed forces, dressed in uniform, and families dressed in the traditional clothing of nations across the world. The event included remarks by Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.
At a time when so many U.S. citizens are struggling with what it means to be considered equal under the law, the ceremony was a reminder that the journey to citizenship has been a long one for many. To become naturalized citizens, applicants must meet specific requirements, including having a green card for at least five years, being tested on U.S. government and history (civics), and being tested on the U.S. Constitution, which they swore to uphold during the oath.
Emma Adabrer, who led the Pledge of Allegiance during the ceremony, along with her two younger siblings, El Nathan Adabrer and Angel Teresa Adabrer, and other members of the group Children of Our Nations. The day, as well as the Pledge, was a unifying experience for Emma, whose mother, Claire, shared that the line “one nation under God” has always had special meaning to Emma, since she was born in Ghana and her siblings were born in the United States. Having said the Pledge many times in school, Emma said the Ceremony’s recitation held special meaning because she is “saying it to welcome people into the country.”
Participants waved the U.S. flag and stood as their home countries were called out one by one. This showed the unifying aspect of the ceremony, as many dressed in the traditional attire of each place came together as new citizens. The ceremony also paid homage to the original inhabitants of this country with a land acknowledgment and a Native American performance of “The Spirit of We the People” by storyteller Gene Tagaban, violinist Swil Kanim, and flutist Peter Ali.
Yet although the day was full of celebration, speakers noted how those who became citizens on the 246th birthday of this nation joined its ranks at a particularly perilous time. Tagaban brought up how the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” contains the question, “[Over] the land of the free and the home of the brave?” He told attendees, “That is a question that we now need to answer, and we are called to answer, perhaps more so than any time certainly during my lifetime. Because the fundamentals of democracy that have drawn you and your predecessors to America are under question, they are under threat, and they are under assault.”
Numerous immigration stories were heard. Navy Culinary Specialist Fakiyesi Ifeoluwa has served her new country for two years. Ifeoluwa said taking the oath of allegiance was a dream come true for her. Likewise, Oluwarotimi Anigilaje, originally from Nigeria, was there with his children to watch his wife, Olajumoke “Jummy” Anigilaje, take the oath. He said the day holds a sense of fulfillment for him, as he sees himself “making a positive contribution to the growth of the United States of America,” and sees his “family being successful from it as well.”
Leading the ceremony, Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs told the immigration story of his mother, who was in the crowd. He said his mom, who worked numerous jobs after coming to this country, would watch Sesame Street with him so she could learn English. Hobbs said she instilled in him the importance of public service and voting. He then encouraged those who were recently naturalized to visit the Armory building afterward, where they could register to vote.
Chief District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez, who administered the oath of allegiance, told the crowd how his father, a migrant worker from Mexico, paved the way for him to become the first person in his family to go to college. Martinez shared that at the ripe age of 73, his father decided to become a U.S. citizen so he could exercise his right to vote, and that Martinez was honored to preside over his father’s Naturalization Ceremony.
As the ceremony wrapped up and the newly naturalized citizens celebrated their new rights and responsibilities, Gov. Inslee shook their hands and welcomed those who lined up to speak with him. With the ability to have a say in the political outcomes of this state and country freshly granted, the citizens shared their stories with their governor.
When asked what the ceremony meant when so many citizens are grappling with whether they have equal protection under the law, Gov. Inslee said, “It means a new burst of freedom and a new crop of people, hopefully, who will work and fight for democracy.” He added, “We need that, because our democracy is under assault right now. By those who want to suppress the vote, those who don’t want to respect the vote. … And now we have a new group of people who hopefully will be newly dedicated to the preservation of these freedoms. We need it now more than ever, because there are forces who want to suppress democracy.”
Editors’ Note: This article has been updated to correct a photo caption that misidentified Angel Teresa Adabrer as Emma Adabrer. We regret the error.
Patheresa Wells is a Queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.
Susan Fried is a 40-year veteran photographer. Her early career included weddings, portraits, and commercial work — plus, she’s been The Skanner News’ Seattle photographer for 25 years. Her images have appeared in the University of Washington’s The Daily, The Seattle Globalist, Crosscut, and many more. She’s been an Emerald contributor since 2015. Follow her on Instagram @fried.susan.
📸 Featured Image: The families and friends of the candidates for U.S. citizenship watch the ceremony as their relatives are sworn in during the 37th Annual Naturalization Ceremony at Seattle Center on July 4. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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