What So Proudly We Hail: Embracing the rights and responsibilities of citizenship

Isaac Rivery and FamilyDoes the intensity of freely expressed political speech in the United States sometimes feel overwhelming? Just imagine the opposite:  a place where you could be sent to prison for sharing viewpoints outside the privacy of your own home:  Cuba, for instance.

Though Cuba has changed over the past few years, the changes have been limited. According to a recent article in The New York Times, “The Castro government has not allowed professionals like lawyers and architects to work for themselves. And its efforts at political repression have focused over the past few years on innovative young people seeking space for civil discourse in public and online – the blogger Yoani Sanchez, or Antonio Rodiles … who was arrested in early November … .”

Like these young people, Isaac Rivery, born in Cuba and now a student at GCC, knows freedom of speech is more than just a concept. Now 28, Isaac has worked hard to earn that cherished freedom. In December 2012, in an emotionally moving ceremony at the Sandra Day O’Connor United States Courthouse in downtown Phoenix, Isaac became a U.S. citizen.

He’s building his success from the ground up, bit by hard-won bit. Since enrolling at GCC in 2008, Isaac has worked a full-time job during the day and attended school at night, taking one or two classes at a time. “My schedule is tight, but learning is not an option, he said. You find the time if it’s important, and my education is important.”

“When I left Cuba in 2007, I thought I knew English, but there was still so much to learn,” he said. Family members who had taken classes at GCC encouraged him to enroll in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

“My first day in the classroom was terrible,” said Isaac. My head hurt for two weeks. After that I got used to it, and everything has been fine since then.”

Isaac credits some of his success to GCC’s wide range of classes and helpful instructors. “They never say “no,” but always “yes, what do you need?” he said.

After improving his English-language skills, Isaac enrolled in general-studies classes. He is now taking prerequisites for mechanical engineering, and eventually plans to transfer to continue his education.

Why all of this work, so far from his country of origin? “As a child, I always wanted to be in the U.S.,” said Isaac. There were so many things that attracted my attention; I wanted to see Las Vegas, New York, the lights.”

But bright lights and big cities were only the beginning. As he matured, Isaac understood what was needed for a better life, and central to that were the privileges of democracy. In Cuba, he was unable to vote, because they don’t have free elections. “I don’t want to just talk about my positions on the street corner; I want my vote to count,” he said.

He also wanted a stable family. “I didn’t want to be jumping around, dealing with immigration processes — one day here, and then another day gone,” he said. He is well on his way; he and his wife, who was born in Phoenix and who teaches photography in a local high school, have a seven-month-old daughter, Akira – Japanese for “intelligent.”

Edward James, who taught Social Work 292 (“Social Work in a Diverse World”), said Isaac’s experience as an immigrant from Cuba added an important dimension to class discussion by bringing concepts to life for students who have grown up in the U.S. and have had little experience with oppression, for instance.

“I could see light bulbs go on when Isaac described seeing Cuban police arresting a homeless person –  not because of any crime, but simply because the person was considered a nuisance to society,” said Edward. As Isaac described the arrest to his classmates, one student started to cry.

When Isaac arrived in the U.S., he wrote down goals he wanted to accomplish in his first 10 years in the U.S. Securing citizenship was one of the first. “I wanted to get married, to have a child, a house, a car… I wanted to be living the American dream,” said Isaac. Through dedication and persistence, Isaac has accomplished all of these goals according to schedule, and is embracing the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship with gusto.

He continues to focus on his career, and on another big goal:  seeing his mother again. The last time was in 2006. Since Isaac cannot legally return to Cuba, the only opportunity to reunite is to bring family members here. Now, as a newly minted citizen, Isaac is raising money to help his mother and stepfather immigrate to the U.S.

“My mother is eager to see the new baby, who is her first grandchild,” said Isaac. He and his wife have a running joke that it took Isaac many years to become a citizen. He had to learn the language, study U.S. history and civics, pay the fees, take the exam, attend the ceremony at the courthouse, and finally, take the oath of allegiance.

While his tiny baby girl, Akira – who doesn’t speak a word of English (yet!) – is already a citizen, simply by birth.


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