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Man's Dream to Be a U.S. Citizen Comes True--in Encino Hospital

April 13, 2002|GARRETT THEROLF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although citizenship will do little to change his day-to-day life, a Mexican native and hospitalized quadriplegic on Friday achieved a goal he set for himself five years ago.

Candalerio Garcia became a naturalized U.S. citizen in the activity room of his subacute care unit at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center in Encino.

A hospital social worker, who helped him make the arrangements, looked on with other hospital staff members and friends as U.S. Immigration Court Judge Thomas Y. K. Fong officiated at the ceremony.

''This goes well beyond the scope of what I usually do, but he wanted it so badly,'' said social worker Jeanette Mai Ta.

Garcia, 44, has required nearly constant care since a 1995 car collision in Temecula left him largely unable to move his arms and legs.

The native of Jalisco, Mexico, has lived in the United States since 1983. Before his accident, he was a permanent U.S. resident and a farm worker.

Because of his injuries, he was unable to return to his job. About two years ago, he was admitted to the Encino hospital for a tracheotomy. He has been there since, unable to live alone because of his medical needs, Ta said.

''I feel real happy,'' Garcia said on Friday, struggling for breath. ''I live here.''

''Congratulations, sir, you are the newest American citizen,'' Fong said.

Garcia said he hopes his citizenship will make it easier for his three children, who live in Jalisco, to visit him. His son, 13, and two daughters, 16 and 21, stay in contact by telephone.

Several months after he arrived at the hospital, Ta began helping Garcia with the naturalization process. In his motorized wheelchair, Garcia would look for Ta several times a week, asking for updates about his case, she said.

''I bugged her too much,'' Garcia said, smiling.

Garcia, who is divorced, said he has no family in the United States. The medical staff, many of the other 27 patients in Garcia's unit and their families have stepped in to fill the void and were with him to celebrate his U.S. citizenship.

When someone asked if any family was present, Matilda Katz rose from her seat and said, ''I'm here!''

Katz, 67, the mother of another patient, arrived early to cut Garcia's hair and dress him in a formal shirt for the ceremony.

''He's sort of adopted,'' Katz said.

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