In an evening class at Jefferson High School, 30 adult immigrants study U.S. civics. Diligently, they come together four nights a week. Who is the chief justice of the Supreme Court? John Roberts, of course, although most citizens are more familiar with the judges on American Idol. But here, the stakes are higher than in the average home. These students soon plan to take the naturalization test, or have, to earn their citizenship, meaning security from anti-immigration laws and deportation. It allows for long trips outside the United States and the unquestioned right to return. Citizens can vote, bring other family members, pass citizenship to their children and apply for public benefits. "Why do you want to become a citizen?" asks teacher Maria Garcia-Nunez, reading from the application form. Women from Colombia seated up front practice answering to each other: "This is my home country now." They came from around the globe and settled in local neighborhoods, often with tales of hardship to get here. We asked a few of them to tell their stories.
Antonio Augusto Sampaio Guerra, 57, West Tampa:
As a boy growing up in Brazil, Guerra dreamed of coming to the United States. As a young man living in Uruguay, he worked in rice fields, starting his day at 5 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m., he said, stopping only to eat. He was paid $100 a month.
Five years ago, he came here on an immigrant visa, following his wife, whose father had been a U.S. citizen. He says he has worked at the Cheesecake Factory and Whole Foods Market. Now living in West Tampa, Guerra plans to take the test this month. He says coming here was God's answer to his prayers. "I love this country from my heart," he said.
Gabriel Adarve, 48, Town 'N Country:
He came to Florida in 1996 on a tourist visa from Colombia. He and his wife, Luz Mary Perez, 46, worked in sales in Colombia, but the economy was so bad, they barely got by. Adarve, a tailor, visited first for a handbag show in Miami. The second time he came he decided to stay. "I like this country," he said. "No more Colombia."
They left their parents, brothers, sisters. They came for good 10 years ago with their son, who was 13. They wanted an education and a career for their son, who hopes to become an architect.
Zenaida Rodriguez Fernandez, 51, West Tampa:
In Cuba, she worked for a transport company, but said she had "mucho" problems because she spoke her mind. Her mother worried about her safety.
"The police were coming for me all the time," she said. "In Cuba, everything is government." They searched her house, she said, and told her: "You no good because you talky talky."
In 1998, she applied for the Cuban lottery, which grants immigrant visas to the United States. Two years later, she won. Here, she most values her freedom of expression. She got a job with the school district 10 years ago and now is the head custodian at West Tampa Elementary School.
Reynaldo Cruz, 45, Clair-Mel:
After taking the ongoing class at Jefferson awhile, Cruz passed the naturalization test last week and went right back to work, operating a machine at Comres, a company that makes restroom partitions.
"There was no time to celebrate," said Cruz.
Job opportunities brought him from the Dominican Republic, where he says he worked as a motorcycle mechanic 25 years ago. He now lives in Clair-Mel with his wife and two sons. He still relies on the boys to translate English to Spanish sometimes. His eldest, Reily, 20, (at right in photo above) came here when he was 5 and started first grade at Bing Elementary School. Reily recently graduated from Bloomingdale High School and plans to apply for citizenship, after he saves up the $595 application fee.
Araceli Cabrera, 38, Carrollwood:
Students often share their culture through food, and Cabrera brought a heaping plate of homemade tamales to share with her classmates. She came to the United States 13 years ago from Mexico. She stayed with a cousin in Tampa at first and later married a man from Puerto Rico. They have two children. But she says she is the only one in the family without citizenship. She works at a uniform company, G & K Services.