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    Red, white, blue and citizens too

    A proud father who dreamed of becoming an American and 643 others are sworn in.

    [Times photos: John Pendygraft]
    Leonel Hernandez, who crossed the border from Mexico in 1989, takes the oath Friday at the Tampa Convention Center.

    By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001


    TAMPA -- Leonel Hernandez crossed the border illegally from Mexico in 1989, barely a man. The oldest of five children, he sought work in America to support his parents and siblings. He picked oranges and tomatoes in Wimauma, earning 7 cents for every 5-gallon bucket he filled.

    He dreamed of becoming an American.

    photo
    Leonel Hernandez, 6, practices the Pledge of Allegiance at the naturalization ceremony for his father.
    Friday, after more than a decade in this country, he finally felt like one.

    Hernandez and 643 others were sworn in as citizens during ceremonies at the Tampa Convention Center, an honor granted to more than 800,000 immigrants each year, including 15,000 locally.

    "I always thought about the day I would get here," said Hernandez, 29, now a foreman for a Tampa roofing company and married with a 6-year-old son. "I feel part of this country now."

    The new citizens, some in suits and ties and with children in tow, represented 71 countries, including little-known Cape Verde in western Africa. They also came from India, the Philippines and Jamaica. Mexico had the highest representation.

    They looked at their green cards one last time before trading them in for citizenship certificates. They stood, with their right hands raised, and pledged their allegiance to their new country.

    And, they were officially sworn in.

    Eleanor Douglass waited 90 years for this day. She had thoughtfully selected blue slacks, a blue and white shirt and a red sweater to complete her outfit. The Largo woman arrived in the United States from Italy as a toddler.

    "I feel wonderful," said Douglass, 93. "I'm glad it's over."

    Her daughter, Thelma Young, said it took about four years to complete the process.

    "She wanted to do it before it was too late," Young said. "It was important to her."

    Douglass, the mother of four and a former telephone operator, shrugged and laughed as she explained why she waited so long.

    "Things came up," she said. "I only wish I were a citizen last year. I would have voted in that presidential election."

    Voting is a right reserved for citizens, and Friday, almost every new citizen carried a voter registration form home.

    Among them was Janio Oliveira, who came from Brazil in 1989.

    "It's too difficult to describe my feelings," Oliveira said. "I feel proud, happy."

    When the national anthem played over the speakers, Oliveira got the chills. "It was like being born again under a new flag," he said.

    In honor of their citizenship, one giddy family, the Lteifs, went shopping for red, white and blue clothing. They came from Beirut six years ago, and Joseph Lteif was naturalized in a flag-print tie last month. He wore the same tie to Friday's ceremony in honor of his wife's naturalization.

    With both parents now citizens, the two children became citizens, too.

    "When we came here, they didn't know any English," Rena Lteif said of her children. "They get straight A's, they know English as good as Americans. They are Lebanese-Americans. I am proud, really proud."

    The naturalization process took years to complete for some, but the swearing-in ceremony was a relatively quick two hours. And for one woman, it happened in less than a minute.

    Sharreen Barrett of Tampa arrived before the second ceremony was to begin. She was in labor, with contractions 10 minutes apart. Holding her stomach, she told workers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that she had an appointment.

    "Why are you here?" asked INS officer Kristen Holland. "We could have made you another appointment."

    Barrett, 29, told Holland it was important for her to become naturalized.

    So Holland conducted a quickie ceremony and 30 seconds later, the American citizen was on her way to produce a citizen of her own.

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