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The America of Hamilton, not Trump, is the one I chose to become a citizen of this year

Despite the United States' multiple crises and poor leadership, I became an American because I know the country is bigger, and better, than one man.
Image: Mariana Atencion
Mariana Atencio at her naturalization ceremony in Miami on Feb. 14.Courtesy Mariana Atencio

“Boy, did you pick a time to become an American citizen! Are you sure you made the right decision?” My friends from abroad have recently asked these questions, with varying degrees of sarcasm and concern.

They are valid questions.

The United States has suffered social and political division since its inception, but lately it seems like the fabric of American democracy is stretching thinner and thinner, torn apart by three parallel epidemics: COVID-19, a fast-growing recession and racial strife flaring across the country.

My country of origin was torn apart by corruption, division and lack of leadership. We cannot let that happen — let alone encourage it — here.

It was only a few months back, on Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day, no less — that I declared my love to this country by becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in one of the last swearing-in ceremonies before the coronavirus halted that tradition, and everyday life for that matter. I was exhilarated! Getting to this point was challenging emotionally and financially. I had been waiting in line, albeit not always patiently, for over 11 years to take my oath of allegiance.

As I pushed back tears after singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and waving a pint-sized flag, I hastily opened the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services packet handed to me. There it was: not a love letter, but a pact.

“Dear Fellow American,” President Donald J. Trump wrote. “No matter where you come from … you share the sacred rights, responsibilities, and duties that unite us as one people.”

Being a journalist who is originally from Venezuela, where an op-ed questioning the government can put your life at risk, I feel compelled to take Trump at his word, put in the work and exercise my newly acquired First Amendment rights.

As an official member of this nation, I humbly ask the president to take a moment to listen to all sides — without taking sides — in the debate over the inequality and division fracturing America and then create a plan to tackle police brutality, the coronavirus and the looming economic crisis from all angles: legal, social, economic, ecological and, most importantly, human. That’s the only way we will get out of this mess in the best possible shape.

I’ve experienced the frustration of fighting to restore democracy in Venezuela and having the government respond with authoritarianism and tear gas. Even after what happened during the now-infamous Bible photo-op at St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington — where protesters peacefully demonstrating against racial injustice across from the White House were hit with flash-bang grenades and showered with tear gas because the president wanted to clear the crowd to have his picture taken at a church across the street — I’d like to think Trump is not like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.

Maduro's government has thrown tear gas canisters from choppers to disperse crowds, ordered armed vehicles to run over protesters and essentially starved his people to line his family's pockets. Whatever the ideology — and I don’t condone Maduro’s — totalitarianism is equally destructive coming from the left or the right.

My country of origin was torn apart by corruption, division and lack of leadership. We cannot let that happen — let alone encourage it — here. You could say I come from the future and know what pandering and misleading tactics can do to a prosperous, democratic nation, like Venezuela used to be.

We don’t need a president who tosses paper towels and poses with a Bible, but one that provides precise information and solutions and promotes empathy. During my reporting trips, I’ve seen Trump be insensitive, like on his visit to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, but I’ve also seen him be comforting, as he did in going to the Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael.

Now more than ever, we need that comfort — and a message of unity. That means not referring to COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus" or “kung flu,” since that term could encourage hate crimes against Asian Americans; surreptitiously enacting rules that will hurt refugees and immigrants; and calling protesters “thugs,” which literally means "ruffian" or "criminal" and is considered code for a racial slur.

Despite all of these actions and the crises this country is going through, I still decided to become an American because I know this nation is bigger than any of these ills. I am choosing to live under Trump, even though he’s so disparaging of immigrants, because we are more than four or eight years of turmoil. America is still very young!

I have seen the hope the United States inspires in the eyes of all the immigrants I’ve met throughout the years who have come here in search of a better future and found it — immigrants like Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, the 6-year-old girl whose devastating cries from a detention center put a face to the family-separation crisis at the border. I later interviewed her as she was going to school and putting up her first Christmas tree, instead of hiding from the menace of gang violence in her home country.

In my case, I was born with the waters of the Caribbean Sea grazing my feet, just like a certain Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, who grew up to be a hero and scholar. Like him, I came to America on a scholarship to Columbia University. For me, this is the country of Hamilton, of the American promise — not of Trump. I believe it will be immigrants and people from other historically marginalized groups who bring forth the new ideas and renewed optimism this nation needs to move forward.

I pledged allegiance to the flag that day in February surrounded by people from all over the world, people whose differences became blurred in a common cause in that moment: our loyalty to the United States. In retrospect, it seemed like a different country — full of hope and promise (and no face masks!) — than the one we’re living in right now.

But if I dug deeper, I would have seen the cracks; they have been there for centuries — as has the resilience of the American people.

I was in New York City when 9/11 happened. At 17 years old, I saw the bravery, the kindness and the strength pierce through the clouds of debris, hatred and terror. It drove me to choose and love this country more and more every day.

The most powerful part of Trump’s letter states, “Although you and your fellow naturalized citizens hail from many places and come from many backgrounds, as Americans, you all now bear the torch of American history.”

It is immigrants and those from other historically marginalized groups that will bring forth the new ideas and renewed optimism this nation needs to move forward.

In a time when Black Americans are watching their loved ones die in the streets and in their homes, when Latinx families are concerned for the health and safety of those service workers risking their lives to put food on our tables, when the entire world is looking for leadership, let’s light the torch! We can once again, as President Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address, be the "shining city upon a hill." It is our destiny as Americans.

On this first Independence Day as a U.S. citizen, the immediate answer to my friends’ question is undoubtedly: yes. I'm glad I've become an American during this convulsive time, because I'm well aware of what's at stake. In fact, I’m ready to make an informed decision this November at the polls and fight for the American spirit. I understand it is ours to lose.