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Family gets citizenship for Valentine's Day

TAMPA

A married couple and their two college-age sons sat together in a room in a government building, awaiting the moment they'd come a long way to experience.

Eleven years ago, the family left everything behind in Colombia, except two pieces of luggage and each other.

Thursday, they were becoming American citizens.

Pink balloons and hearts filled the large room at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This was a special Valentine's Day ceremony, for 28 couples representing 15 countries.

There was the couple of almost half a century and the newlyweds of one year, the Canadians celebrating the 44th anniversary of their wedding engagement and the Indians, married in an arrangement 17 years ago.

All around were sets of two.

But for the Colombian family, love meant four.

Diana Alcazar, 47, and Manuel Ramirez, 45, grew up in the same neighborhood in Bogota, Colombia, but did not cross paths until Manuel started working for Diana's mother.

Then 21, Diana didn't think 19-year-old Manuel was her type. He didn't appear particularly interested in her baby nephew, and she wanted kids. But he thought she was beautiful, and she was taken by his light eyes, and one day, they went out to eat.

Love came, then marriage, then, Daniel, who looks like her, and Sergio, who looks like him.

Manuel rose in her family business, a transportation company that shuttled high-power oil and technology executives. Diana used to joke that they had access to so many cars, she could color-coordinate them with her outfits.

But in Colombia, success came with danger. Guerillas were kidnapping the rich and the powerful, the very people the family business transported. Who was to say Diana's family wouldn't become targets?

The boys were ordered to not answer the phone. They watched their mother change her hair color, and the car take different routes around town, never establishing a routine.

One day in December 2001, the family left the most populous city in their country for the one place where Manuel had an aunt, New Port Richey.

The pace seemed slower here, the people older.

In Colombia, extended family lived together. Now, it was just the four of them.

Gone was the fortune of a family job; now, Manuel worked on a lawn crew. Now, they would drive a 20-year-old Honda. Now, there was no money for bicycles or video games.

But the couple wanted the boys, ages 10 and 7, to get a good education, and felt guilty about sending them to public school because they hadn't paid into the system.

So they found a private school, and to help pay for it, Manuel started a mechanic business with a single box of tools.

Sergio, the youngest, had just begun learning how to read in Spanish, and now, he needed to learn English. Diana, who struggled to help him, tried to soak in the language any way she could — watching cartoons with the kids, learning the lyrics to a Bette Midler song she had always sung, but never understood.

Now, 19-year-old Sergio and 21-year-old Daniel are studying at the University of Central Florida to become mechanical engineers. Daniel sat through two classes on Thursday before rushing across the state to join his parents for the ceremony.

He sat next to his brother, who sat next to his father, who sat next to his mother, who snapped smartphone photos of them.

Every Valentine's Day to come, Manuel said, his family will celebrate this moment:

The day he'd awaited for his chance to register to vote.

The day she'd see her sons on their way to careers, without the obstacles that come with being born somewhere else.

The feeling of being settled.

They raised their hands and spoke an oath of "true faith and allegiance" to the country.

It was a promise not unlike the one Diane and Manuel made to each other 22 years ago.

This time, at the end, the government told them, "Congratulations, you are now a U.S. citizen."

And the husband and wife turned to each other and kissed.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.

Family gets citizenship for Valentine's Day 02/14/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 15, 2013 12:16am]
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