Thursday, July 2, 2015

Lorena Bonilla and Felix Valanzasca - Journey from Immigrant to U.S. Citizen: Two Voices

“Remember, remember always, that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
- Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Journey of Lorena Bonilla
(As told to Mary Burns-Klinger)

As Franklin Roosevelt stated, “all of us” living in the United States are or have descended from immigrants. Lorena Bonilla, who is the chef for the Humanities Center events venue, recently sat down to share her personal journey to citizenship with this writer and our blog readers.

Lorena was born in Mexico and immigrated—at age 5—with her parents, and an older brother and sister, to California where they hoped to find work and, as a result, a better life. She spent her formative years growing up and attending school in California. Then in 2001, at the urging of her brother and sister who had moved to Minnesota a few years prior, Lorena traveled to Minneapolis-St. Paul to continue her life journey in the Midwest. Although she had no specific plan to pursue a career as a chef, circumstance brought her into the right place at the right time. In 2003 she came across a job posting for a cleaning position at the Minnesota Humanities Event Center. When she applied, however, that position had been filled but she was offered a position as a kitchen assistant. Lorena took the job and, even though she had no formal training, proceeded to learn by watching the then–current chef and by doing the work. She is now the head chef and a 12-year employee of the Humanities Center. For those who have not had the pleasure of eating a meal or attending events with food prepared by Lorena, you can be assured that she has found her career niche and it is delicious!

When asked about the specifics of becoming a citizen, Lorena noted that both she and her brother took their citizenship exams in 2007. According to Lorena, the decision to become an "official" citizen was easy for her on many fronts: she grew up in the U.S., almost all of her family now lived here, and—not the least of her reasons—renewal of a “green card” on a regular basis was costly and complicated. Lorena shared that although the citizenship exam was hard (applicants needed to memorize the answers to over 100 questions, but were only asked to answer 6), she did only have to take it once!

In answer to my query as to what being an “American” now means to her, Lorena immediately noted that being able to vote is probably the best benefit. She added that it “feels good to be an American,” but knows that not every immigrant chooses that path – including her mother and older sister, who are continuing to hold tightly to their Mexican heritage and citizenship, despite the urgings of Lorena and her brother.

Nearly all Americans have ancestors who braved the oceans – liberty-loving risk takers in search of an ideal – the largest voluntary migrations in recorded history… Immigration is not just a link to America’s past; it’s also a bridge to America’s future.” - George W. Bush

The Journey of Felix Valanzasca

Felix Valanzasca was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he graduated from the Catholic University of Argentina, Law School. He is licensed to practice law in Argentina, as well as in the U.S. Since receiving his second law degree in 2007 from William Mitchell College of Law, he has focused his law practice to help the growing Latino community in the Twin Cities. Felix is a current member of the Humanities Center board, and was also involved with the Latino Economic Development Center and the Volunteers Lawyers Network, where he provided free legal advice for small companies and lower income families. In 2008 he taught the first International Law course at the National American University. During the past few years he has also hosted radio shows on different Latino stations to inform the Latino community on different legal issues. Felix became an American citizen in May 2015.

The experience of becoming a United States citizen has been difficult, but surely rewarding. From the moment I got my green card and became a U.S. “Lawful Permanent Resident,” to the naturalization ceremony, the process would not have been possible without the support and patience of my family and friends, both in Argentina and the United States.

In spite of the obvious differences, this journey was roughly comparable to the decision of having our children. Just as in our pregnancy and the births of both of our sons, Luca and Jax, sometimes the path to citizenship was not an easy one.  There were obstacles and times when I wasn’t at all sure things would work out, but in the end, both the births of our children and the closure of the naturalization process felt like a big relief and a new start with lots of benefits as well as new responsibilities.

Going through this process also helped open my eyes to people who don’t do something because they have to but because they are good people and want to help. The clearest example of one of those "good people" for me is the person who trusted me and became my sponsor when I needed it most. Without this person I would not have been able to gain my citizenship.

As an added bonus, obtaining citizenship finally gave me the chance to reunite my family by bringing them here to Minnesota and also provided the opportunity to fully engage in my local community and U.S. society. Last but not least, it also provided me with the tools necessary to better care for my family in the place I have decided to call home.

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