Woman completes journey to citizenship

The brakes screeched as the dust-covered Greyhound stopped at California's southern border so officers with "la Migra" could hunt for illegal immigrants.

The federal agents pulled off two men who had no papers. Nine-year-old Maria Maldonado cowered in her seat, knowing she could be next.

Her mother assured her they'd get to Livingston, their destination. After seeking a better life in the United States, her mother had returned to Mexico to retrieve the daughter she'd left behind.

Looking out the window, Maria knew these men could force her back to her aunt's house in Mexico, the hovel that didn't have electricity or running water, if they discovered she was sneaking across the border.

She glanced at the immigration officers as her mother handed them the residency card she had been issued two years earlier.

"Is that your little girl?" one of them asked.

"Yes," the mother told them. "She's with me."

The agents walked away, the bus lurched forward and Maria looked ahead to America.

Now, 18 years later, she's taken the final step on her journey to become a U.S. citizen. Alongside 34 other immigrants Friday, she swore her allegiance to the Constitution during a ceremony in Kings Canyon National Park.

"Even though I was born in Mexico, I have nothing to do with it," she said. Now known as Maria Razo, after taking her husband's last name, she still lives in Livingston.

Razo is one of the estimated 700,000 immigrants who will be naturalized this year and celebrate Citizenship Day on Monday. President Harry S. Truman established the day in 1952.

"There's nothing happier than making new citizens," said Sharon Rummery, a spokes- woman with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. "We're the ones who help people get their dreams."

As the debate about immigration policy rages across the country, residents such as Razo are joining the United States' representative democracy. Their stories will become part of the national dialogue, and the ballots they cast will speak even louder, affecting local, state and national policies.

"I want to be part of the process," said Razo, a bilingual teacher's assistant for the Merced County Office of Education.

She's not sure what political party she will claim, but she said she's proud and thankful that she will be heard in the upcoming presidential election.

One by one, the family comes

Twenty-six years ago, Razo's mother fled Mexico with other family members to pick fruit and vegetables in California's fields. From time to time, she would return to her village; one by one, she brought her six children across the border.

She originally had left Mexico after her husband was shot and killed in a hunting accident. Razo never knew her father and was sent to live with her aunt at age 2, when her mother headed north.

Without warning one morning in May 1989, Razo's mother appeared to take her to Livingston to join the rest of the family. Razo hurriedly stuffed a backpack with a change of clothes, leaving behind her toys, photos and friends.

As she stared through the bus window at the pink and white oleanders whizzing by along California's highways, the little girl dreamed about living in a bigger house with running water and wearing better clothes.

She started fourth grade at Selma Herndon Elementary School, knowing only how to say "Thank you." Her teacher, whom she remembers as Mr. Gonzalez, spent an hour each day teaching her English. She picked up the language in about a year and was helped by her friends, who would correct her mistakes.

Although she was driven to excel in school, she spent one summer picking apples and strawberries with her mother. She was 16 and wanted to experience the pre-dawn chill and the afternoon sun that her mother faced every day.

This is not the job I want, she decided.

In high school, she enrolled in the Regional Occupational program and worked with kindergartners. The connections she made and skills she learned eventually led to a part-time job at Schelby School for developmentally disabled children.

She now works with teachers in the county education office's Early Head Start program.

Most days, she's in Los Banos translating for Spanish- speaking families with infants who need early attention because of learning disabilities. She believes her scholastic triumphs pushed her to help people who are struggling with change.

"Sometimes, you don't have opportunities when you need them the most," she explained.

Taking a day off from work Friday, she stood beneath the Gen- eral Grant tree, the third-largest sequoia in the world, and pledged allegiance to the United States, just as she had done in Livingston classrooms as a child.

Her husband and two sons watched. But her 6-year-old daughter was back at school in Livingston. She doesn't like missing class.

That apple didn't fall very far from the tree.