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VERY FIRST PERSON

Small Acts, Big Rebellion

When She Signed Up for Citizenship, Karla Perez-Villalta Got a Bigger Prize: the Right to Shake Things Up Via the Ballot Box. Karla Perez-Villalta, 27, will cast her first vote as an American citizen on Nov. 7 at California Lutheran Homes in Alhambra, precinct number 0150065A.

October 22, 2000|KARLA PEREZ-VILLALTA

People say they won't vote in November because there aren't enough choices; U.S. democracy is a hoax. In response, I think of people in my country, Nicaragua, who waged war against their government to end a dictatorship and be able to hold elections, I also think of what I gave up so I could vote here, casting my ballot for the first time this year.

I became a U.S. citizen on Jan. 5, 2000, at 9:31 a.m.--the first L.A. naturalization ceremony of the century. Famous first words? I slam-dunked my voter registration card into a mailbox and cursed, "Now I can vote the INS out of existence!" I had asked that my name be shortened on the naturalization certificate, but the INS had printed it in full: Karla Marina Del Socorro Perez Villalta. Amen. Longer than a rosary. It added to my anger at a system that had made me renounce my country. But it had to be done so I could vote.

Since my 17th birthday my mother had been trying to talk me into citizenship, but I rebelled at adopting a country when I didn't feel a part of it. I was the last of my family to take the oath. My grandfather pleaded with me, but I imagined that he did it out of an exile's bitterness. He had managed a ranch for the slain dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whose family had ruled Nicaragua from 1937 until the Sandinistas seized control, defeating Somoza's National Guard on July 19, 1979, the night of el triunfo--the triumph. My grandparents came to the U.S. a few weeks after Somoza's fall. But I, then 6 years old, and my mother stayed behind for several more months with my father, four brothers and my older sister in the war zones of Nicaragua's Pacific coast. My father and brothers came years later but, never happy, returned to Nicaragua. My sister never even considered coming.

As the years went by, Abuelo was poetic about America's greatness. But I was unmoved, missing my homeland. My grandfather was a hopeless Somocista, predicting throughout the 1980s, "The Sandinistas will fall by the end of the decade." They fell in 1990.

A college journalism advisor was another thorn. She'd return from journalist round tables and warn me to become a citizen to protect myself from anti-immigrant legislation. "Stay away from reporters," I'd mutter in response. Then came propositions 187, 227 and one relevant to people of college age like me--209. I couldn't vote against them because I was not a citizen.

Still, I upheld my loyalties to Nicaragua. "You're holding on to a child's memory of Nicaragua," my advisor said. Memories were all I had. We had survived the civil war because of my father's friends. His university students had become Sandinistas and kept his car from being set on fire during protests. Other friends found us refuge, extra food rations and, often at the last moment, helped us escape the National Guard's "cleaning operations"--in which they randomly killed boys and men. I drank water out of Sandinista soldiers' canteens, wore their bandannas, yelled with them and held their hands as they led me to my parents once when I was lost. At the political rallies, they put me, now thoroughly caught up in the cause, in the front lines.

Two of those soldiers, Carlitos and Calavera, died fighting. On the night of el triunfo, we heard a thundering as we lay on the floor, dodging machine-gun fire. My 13-year-old brother kept repeating, "It's the tanks, we're all going to die, we're all going to die . . . ." I lay still and waited. They were Sandinista tanks, followed by hundreds of neighbors in an impromptu parade, using pots and spoons as noisemakers to celebrate. My mother later found me on the street, dressed in Sandinista colors--black shorts, a red shirt and a black beret--clanging pots and shouting slogans. Despite my age, I knew this was an all-important change. It was literally a new dawn, because the sun was rising.

In the U.S., I wanted to remain Nicaraguan but felt the uncomfortable tug of biculturalism. Part of me assimilated into the dominant culture and learned its rituals and slang. The other part found solace in the Nicaraguan shops of L.A.'s Pico-Union district.

Twenty years have passed, and I haven't returned. I saw death there and experienced sounds I still hear in nightmares. Then, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch severed my nationalistic umbilical cord. My romantic loyalties and secret fantasies of becoming Nicaragua's president were gone with the wind that so disrespectfully changed the landscape. Nicaragua became the dysfunctional relative I loved but would avoid.

I was as ready as I could be for citizenship but still the rebel. I passed the government history test but delayed my application for two years. "A lot of good it did me to bring you to this country," my mother would say. "You turned out to be a Communist anyway."

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