Living the Dream
Immigrant journeys come full circle as longtime locals become new Americans
By Stephanie Case
On a late July morning, two weeks after Independence Day, the Los Angeles Convention Center is decked in red, white and blue.
Vendors sell patriotic trinkets and T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Proud to be American.” A life-size cut-out of President Barack Obama stands tall, arms crossed and smiling, as throngs of people rush by. Some wave flags, others carry celebratory bouquets of roses. But a few thousand of them clutch an even more prized possession: their new United States citizenship certificates.
These are L.A.’s newest batch of Americans. By the end of the day, more than 8,000 immigrants from 180 countries — El Salvador, Iran, South Korea and India, among many — had taken their naturalization oath, officially linking themselves to their adopted homeland.
“It’s a powerful sentiment,” says Veronica Elizondo Yzaguirre, a Playa del Rey resident who finally traded in her green card after more than a decade in California. “You look around, and everyone here is achieving the same dream.”
It’s a dream that took Noelle Noe, a Ukrainian turned Westchester local, decades to reach.
Noe, who in becoming an American citizen also legally changed her name from Tetyana Kucheruk, was born in Kiev at the height of the Soviet Era. As a child, she’d eavesdrop on her parents’ hushed anti-Communist conversations in the kitchen.
“When they realized I was there and that I was listening in, they’d get really scared and say, ‘Please don’t tell this to anybody,’” Noe recalls. “I remember this time very well, when we couldn’t even speak with freedom. You can’t be who you want to be. You have limits and lines you can’t cross.”
At age 7, Noe asked her mother to tell her about the United States, a place she’d only seen in a film. Her mother described a “free country, built by people from all walks of life” across religious and political spectrums.
“That’s the exact picture I had — and still have — in my mind,” she says.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became independent, but it took a dozen more years until Noe got the chance to cross the Atlantic. She still remembers the exact night she landed in Los Angeles, her young daughter and then-husband in tow.
“It was like a movie,” Noe gushes. She stepped out of her plane at LAX, eyes wide, as busy travelers bustled past her.
“Maybe in a past life I was American,” Noe muses. “This is exactly what I feel — like I came back home from a long trip.”
The same year as Noe’s arrival, Yzaguirre was about to make a similar big move about 1,500 miles south of LAX.
She was a 30-year-old graphic designer working in Monterrey, Mexico, an industrial city circled by mountains. Eager for a challenge, she applied to Miami Ad School, got a three-year student visa, and found herself studying advertising in Florida.
As a kid, her family would take quick trips to the U.S. — a summer vacation in Corpus Christi, a shopping spree just across the border —always returning home soon after. As an international student, Yzaguirre figured her experience at school would be similar.
“My plan at that time was to come here, stay three years, then go back to Mexico,” she says. “But you can’t plan. Life always surprises you.”
Her first surprise was an offer: a one-year internship with Conill Advertising, an El Segundo firm focusing on the Hispanic market. A year later, the firm offered her a full-time job, and she found herself entrenched in the California creative scene.
One night at an industry party she met Claudio Martinez-Valle, an ad man with Mexico City roots. They fell in love, married and built a life together in the South Bay.
“Mexico’s my home country. It’s where my family lives. It’s my blood. The culture, the stories — I love it. It’s something I can’t put into words,” Yzaguirre says. “But now, I have two homes.”
The cross-border balancing act isn’t hard for Yzaguirre. Monterrey and Mexico City are each a quick four-hour flight away, and Los Angeles isn’t a cultural far cry from her homeland either.
“Here in California, there’s a lot of Mexican culture,” Yzaguirre says. “We haven’t had a chance to miss it yet.”
For Noe, pieces of Ukrainian culture were harder to find in Los Angeles. Outside of the rare flight home, Kiev largely exists through memories.
One of those memories happened when she was 11. Her aunt took her to her first church — “a special place,” she remembers — but the outing was shrouded in secrecy.
“We had to hide our faith,” she says. “Nobody could see us, because praying to God was a crime in the Soviet Union.”
Thousands of miles and decades later, Noe found a similar church on Melrose Avenue. Inside she heard the sounds of people speaking her native Ukrainian.
“I started to cry,” Noe recalls. “This is what I miss. This is something inside me, deep, deep in my heart.”
With a new tie to her past, Noe is now free to look forward. She relishes every opportunity to speak her mind.
“Here, it doesn’t matter if you’re someone from the government, or you’re a movie star, or you’re a home support worker: you have a voice.”
Last year, the Los Angeles District of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services swore in 86,000 new American citizens — about 12% of 729,995 new citizens nationwide.
Mexico was the most common nation of origin at the July ceremony in Los Angeles, followed by the Philippines, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran, China, South Korea, Armenia, India and Vietnam.
For Yzaguirre and Noe, the final step to becoming an American was overcoming a very American hurdle: testing and paperwork.
Yzaguirre worked with a lawyer to submit her documents and studied for an English reading and writing exam. Her husband helped her memorize 100 American history questions —“Who was president during World War I?”; “Why does the flag have 13 stripes?” — that could pop up during her interview and make or break her chances.
The fateful test took place in a government building downtown, where dozens of other hopeful citizens waited.
“I was nervous,” Yzaguirre says. “The one person interviewing you has the say: Either you pass, or you don’t. You’re ready, or you’re not.”
In 2013, Noe was told she wasn’t ready.
“I felt like my dream ran away from me,” she remembers.
But this year, she and Yzaguirre both passed the test.
At their naturalization ceremony, the two women stood side by side at the front of the crowd as “The Star-Spangled Banner” rung through the hall.
When they exited the L.A. Convention Center, it was with certificates in hand.
They’d been Angelenos for years; now, it was on paper.
“It’s an accomplishment,” Yzaguirre says. “It’s a responsibility. This country embraced me, so now I have to be a good citizen.”
Their new designation comes with some new civic opportunities — for one, to vote in the upcoming presidential election.
“These elections are obviously very relevant to me. Everybody knows that one of the candidates, Donald Trump, is just a little bit vocal against Mexicans and women,” Yzaguirre says, with a wry laugh.
“I am a Mexican, and I am a woman. Now, I can speak my voice,” she says. “Before, I couldn’t do that. So I’m very happy that, especially in this election, I can vote.”
Noe plans on voting, too — but she’s set her sights on one aspect of citizenship that’s a little less glamourous.
“Before my [citizenship] interview, I got a letter,” she says, happy to see two words most people dread: jury duty. “I gave the answer that I could not do it; I didn’t have American citizenship,” she says, laughing with a tinge of regret at her missed opportunity.
“I feel very grateful. I really want to do something good for our country, our nation — even something simple and little.”
Next time, that won’t be a problem.