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For thousands of new Americans, a day of pride and joy

At the Los Angeles Convention Center, 7,160 immigrants are sworn in as naturalized citizens. Diverse are the people and their stories.

August 21, 2013|By Nita Lelyveld
  • Lizbeth Lopez, a native of Mexico, is congratulated by mother Grace Lopez, daughter Damaris Lopez and sister Susie Lopez after getting her American citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Lizbeth Lopez, a native of Mexico, is congratulated by mother Grace Lopez,… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Maybe at times you feel let down by your country — by your taxes, by your Congress, by most everything being made somewhere else.

Maybe those feelings eat away at you as you toss and turn in bed, inch bumper-to-bumper on a potholed freeway, watch the mayhem on the news.

But try to hold onto them at the Los Angeles Convention Center on a day when thousands are there to become U.S. citizens. Odds are the swell of Yankee Doodle patriotism will wash over you and sweep you along.

South Hall H-J is cavernous. An enormous American flag hangs up front. Facing it are many long rows of chairs. On Wednesday morning, in no time at all, nearly every spot will be taken as 3,663 soon-to-be naturalized citizens pour in.

More will come in for an afternoon ceremony. There will be 7,160 in all.

They will come from 133 countries. Some will be young, some very old. Bejeweled, dressed to the nines, in jeans and T-shirts and sneakers, they will be diverse and yet alike.

Each will enter the room with a package of forms and a miniature American flag. Each will hold those precious items close.

They will wave the flags again and again over the course of a 20-minute ceremony, during which a judge will speak of the responsibility and power of citizenship and quote John Quincy Adams, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and Abraham Lincoln.

Luis Enrique Rendon, 33, in the very front row, will tuck his flag in the pocket of his crisp charcoal suit as he thinks back on a journey that started when he left Guanajuato, Mexico, at age 12, and led to a good job as a journeyman plumber, a wife and two boys and a house in San Pedro.

Maria Forbes, 37, who lives in Lompoc, will put hers to her breast as she steps out into the aisle to recite the words she has learned by heart. At "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America," her eyes will fill with tears.

She will speak with wonder of the circumstances that brought her to America as a student and gave her Scott, "the love of my life," her American husband of eight years.

Here, she will say, she has built a happy life.

During the ceremony, yellow tape and staff members on walkie talkies will separate the front of the hall from the back — the new citizens seated up close, their families and friends watching from behind.

Still Yolly Eugenio, from the Philippines but already a citizen, will sneak up front with her mother, Naty, who at 80 is about to become one.

"We moved to this nation because our nation is very corrupt," says Yolly, now a landlord in Thousand Oaks. "I had to move mountains to get to this country. But here, if you work hard, you can reap the harvest."

Nearby a woman born in China will do her best to savor the occasion — to hear the national anthem and watch the "Proud to be an American" music video and listen to what President Obama has to say in a video message on a jumbo screen. But on her lap her baby girl will squirm. And in seats beside her, her boys will need occasional shushing as they fight over who gets to play which cellphone video game.

Before and during the ceremony, the security team is all business. Don't walk here. Take your seats. Clear the aisle.

Afterward, as the new Americans step out on a balcony above the lobby, the guards will call out to them warmly: "How are you folks? Congratulations!"

The lobby is enormous. It soon will be crowded, with mothers and brothers, sisters and wives, children and grandparents and husbands. From vendors on site, some will have bought souvenirs — a flashing American flag pin, a teddy bear tagged with the day's date.

Lucinda Mendoza, 54, of El Salvador, who earns her living cleaning houses, will pose for a commemorative portrait with her 29-year-old, American-born twin sons.

And scanning the sea of faces again and again for her Australian-born mother, Zoe Battaglia, 5, will ride an escalator up and down, up and down.

In a red dress and glittery Mary Janes, a star-shaped American flag balloon tied around her right wrist, Zoe will say to whoever she sees, "Today, my mom gets to be an American."

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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