Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Flanked by flags of the United States and New Mexico, Barcelona Elementary School teacher Shirley Barreto on Friday stood before hundreds of students crammed into a multipurpose room, her hand raised as she repeated the Oath of Allegiance.
“Mrs. Barreto, you are now America’s newest citizen,” Jesse Mendez told her after she had recited the oath. Mendez, the Albuquerque field office director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, then shook her hand.
Barreto, a first-grade teacher, then led the room in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag – her first time as a U.S. citizen. Students, in pre-K through fifth grade, clapped, yelled, waved U.S. flags and held signs.
“We love you, Mrs. Barreto,” they volunteered. “Congratulations.”
Barreto, 45, began teaching in her native Ecuador when she was 20. Since coming to the United States, she has taught in the Albuquerque Public Schools for 10 years, eight of them at Barcelona Elementary School. Her husband and daughter are U.S. citizens.
“It was important to do this in front of the students,” said a tearful Barreto. “They are my life. I come every day from Tijeras, because of the love they give me every day, the way they treat me every day and how hard they work for me every day.
“I have been teaching for 25 years, and these kids remind me why,” she said as one child after another lined up to give her a hug.
Barreto said she was aware that many of the parents in this far South Valley neighborhood are fearful because of their own immigration status, “but I wanted them to see the other side of the coin and know that the immigration officials are not their enemy,” she said. “If they follow the law and the process, they can also become citizens. It’s important for them to learn that they can do it, too.”
Addressing the students, Mendez explained that to become a citizen, a person must first become a permanent resident, then after waiting three years or five years, depending on circumstances, they can apply for naturalization. They must also be able to speak and understand the English language and pass a civics exam, which consists of questions related to how government works, the history of the United States, American geography, holidays and national symbols.
“We live in a wonderful country with liberties and freedoms not often found in other countries,” Mendez told the students. “What makes this country especially great is that it’s a melting pot of people, ideas and customs from all over the world. And it doesn’t matter where you came from or who you are, in the United States. You can aspire to be anything you wish.”
While many of the younger kids said they weren’t exactly sure what the swearing-in ceremony was all about, the older kids were clear about its significance.
“Mrs. Barreto is becoming a full-fledged citizen, so she’s a new part of the United States,” said 10-year-old fifth-grader Cristian Barjas. “I learned you don’t have to be born in the United States to be a citizen.”