I first moved to the USA – well, to New York City – way back in January 2013. It was the coldest day of the month and, as the plane flew into JFK airport that afternoon, the sun glistened off of the sheets of ice floating across the bay. At the time I had on me; one suitcase packed full of clothes, a thousand(ish) Euros in my purse, a sublet ready to stay in, a sealed envelope, and no job.
The envelope contained all of the documents that, along with my passport and immigrant visa, would become the green card that I was lucky enough to win thanks to the
Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery. The program assigns a set number of permanent residency visas to random people from countries that are underrepresented in American immigration statistics over the past five years. At that time my country of origin – Italy – was eligible. There’s plenty of Italian Americans, sure, but not many new Italians were moving to America.
I applied to the program almost every year since my first visit to New York in 2005. I went to the city for business and was spellbound within a few days. I returned home and took with me an irrational need to get back. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t know why I needed to go back, I just knew that I had to. Perhaps it was because I come from a long line of Southern Italians who consider America to be the Promised Land. Maybe it’s because when I first left the hotel in Times Square and went to Central Park it was covered in snow and Christo’s Gates looked amazing in the soft light of morning. Perhaps it was all of the posters pitching New York to be the host of the 2012 Olympics (which ended up taking place in London) that perfectly conveyed the feeling I had when arriving in New York; the feeling that, as the posters said, New York was “the world’s second home”. I wanted the city to be my first home.
When I landed at JFK I was met by an immigration officer. They took my envelope and asked me some questions. They checked my document, took my photo and fingerprints, and explained that my green card would arrive in a few weeks. He told me “Welcome home” as he stamped my passport and handed it
The greeting was as daunting
as it was warming.
Would this really become my home?
It’s all too easy to be cynical and snobby about America, particularly for Europeans. I’ll be honest and admit that I was. I scoffed at the notion of nationalization for the first few years. I absolutely loved New York of course, but the country as a whole was a different thing entirely. The more time passed, the more I warmed up to the ideas and practicalities of citizen. I would still be an Italian citizen after all. I considered it to be the next logical step in the journey, rather than something that I had become emotionally invested in doing.
This all changed in 2016 when I took in my first Presidential election campaign as a resident and journalist. I watched as Donald Trump rose through the ranks of the candidates. I saw the way he challenged the set of ideals that I had come to love and respect – values that America had taught me.
As I stayed in America I learned of issues like feminism, the challenges faced by the LGBTQ community, and how racism manifests itself. I had only been in the country for a few years, but I had been shown me how privileged I – as a white, straight, educated Christian woman – had been. My life was easier than it was for most people, and I was shown how inconsiderate and offensive I had been about it, often unwittingly, in ways that I hadn’t considered before. It taught me the challenges of diversity and how it forces on to question their beliefs, but how those questions can lead to true freedom. True liberty is found in a society that challenges the unique individuality of everyone involved and recognizes all identities as equal. It reproduces the true miracle of humanity in the social order; that humans can become one because of their differences instead of in spite of them. The only thing we all have in common is that we are unique. Our difference is, in a way, what makes us similar.
The freedom afforded by respecting, protecting, and celebrating uniqueness – an idea and value that I had considered to be quintessentially American – was seemingly under threat. I was one of many people who felt that America would rise above the challenge. The end result broke my heart and made me realize that America was not the place I had believed it to be. At least, it wasn’t yet. I wanted to fight to make it the place that I knew it could be.
People love to say that New York is not America. New Yorker’s in particular love saying that. They think that what I learned and embraced in New York don’t exist in the same way elsewhere. I used to be one of those people, but I don’t think that way anymore. I believe that New York – in how it embraces everyone for who they are – is America. It is what the country can, and should, be. There could hardly be anywhere more “American” than a city that believes in a country where diversity and integration can work as long as you keep at it.
I began the naturalization process a few weeks after the 2016 election. The process started in a Brooklyn immigration office where I saw signs written in Hebrew and a Latin American officer took my bio-data and another handed me a booklet so I could prepare for the citizenship test. I went through that booklet and noted the periods of American history that I should never become complacent about; the massacre of the Native Americans; slavery; Jim Crow las; internment camps. I knew that it would be my responsibility as an American – as a white American at that – to try to make amends for all of those terrible things. To make this country, which would soon be my country, as fair as possible.
I was back in Brooklyn about a year later, in 2018. This time I was in a courtroom and I had a few hundred strangers from around the world with me. I didn’t know the woman who was sat next to me, with a hot pink lipstick smile on her face and a hijab wrapped beautifully around her head. Nor did I know the nice old Asian lady sat in her yellow beanie. She was at the end of the bench and had the brightest smile I’d ever seen on her face, despite the missing tooth. I’d never even met the people behind me, who were bonding over being from the Caribbean, nor the man who came in the room and took off his hat like one might when entering church.
The judge in the courtroom told us all that we would forever be ambassadors of our countries. They told us it was our role as Americans to always protect and share our culture and heritage (and trust me I plan to do just that!). They said we would make America by carrying our identities forward with us. I considered that to be an act of rebellion against the global tide that appeared to be trying to crush the different.
We all left that room as Americans, after having held up our hands and sworn our allegiance to the United States. That includes all of the United States. Once the ceremony was over I posed for some pictures outside of the court building, smiling with my naturalization certificate lit up in the best winter light New York City had to offer. I was surrounded by newly-minted American citizens from all around the world who, like me, were making the country richer by adding their own culture, perspectives, and languages to the melting pot known as the United States. We were all born-again Americans.