The path to becoming a citizen of the United States is not an easy one.
It’s even more difficult when you add a language barrier and the need to look after a family of eight. When Walter Topete’s family emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. he was 4 years old and one of six siblings. The high application cost, the mountains of paperwork and his parents’ limited English exacerbated the difficulty of the process of naturalization for his family.
Topete, now 24, became the third person in his family to become a citizen when he was naturalized Friday morning at a ceremony held at the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center in Grand Teton National Park.
“It’s an incredibly arduous process,” Topete said. “And I’m glad it’s over, and I’m glad I’m a U.S. citizen.”
Last December, when he was about to board a flight to Mexico to visit family, he realized his Mexican passport was about to expire and he might not be able to come back to the United States. That’s when he decided he needed to expedite his path from permanent residency to citizenship. He submitted his paperwork in January, and four months later he is officially a citizen.
Now that he’s a citizen he looks forward to voting and even to participating in jury duty.
Topete was among 28 candidates for citizenship, from 13 countries: Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Costa Rica, Romania, Germany, Russia, the Philippines, Ghana, Argentina, India and South Africa.
The sky was gray, but the rain held off and the window of the packed auditorium looked out onto a green clearing encircled by evergreen trees.
Judge Kelly Rankin presided over the ceremony.
“What a long road that I’m sure it has been for you and your families during this process,” Rankin said. “I’m sure it’s also been a struggle at times, leaving your homeland, saying goodbye to loved ones, to friends, traveling to this country at some point, finding a job, adjusting to a new culture and a new way of life. But the good news for all of us is the best of your culture and your way of life is the best of ours. And your traditions enrich not only your family, they enrich America.”
Following a ceremonial opening led by U.S. Circuit Court Deputy Clerk Tammy Hilliker, a presentation of colors by American Legion Post 43’s color guard, and performance of the national anthem by Nicole Madison, Rankin led the petitioners in swearing the Oath of Allegiance to the United States.
Following the oath Rankin presented each of the new citizens with a certificate and shook hands as families and loved ones clamored to take pictures of the special moment.
Victoria Mates, acting deputy superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, also addressed the new citizens and stressed the importance of the diverse stories that make up the United States.
“When you arrived at Grand Teton National Park this morning, you are visitors,” she said “And when you walk out that door, you’re going to be owners of this place. You’ll join all of the other Americans in owning over 400 special places throughout the country that represent the storybook of America.”
All the new citizens also received tote bags with gifts from sponsors, including an annual pass to Grand Teton National Park.
For Leysan Gilmutdinova, the path to citizenship was a windy one that unfolded over the course of a decade. She first came to the United States from Russia as a university student hoping to improve her English language skills. She ended up sticking around after she met her husband, and the two are raising two daughters.
Gilmutdinova said she has long felt like a citizen, but it’s a relief to see that status formalized.
“I’m very proud of it,” she said. “It was a long journey for me. But I am finally here, and I’m a citizen. I felt like a citizen before, too, so nothing changed, really. But my heart is full of pride right now.”
Adriana Morgan is a second grade teacher at Munger Mountain Elementary School, where she teaches Spanish in the dual-immersion language program. Morgan first came to Jackson from Costa Rica on a J1 visa when she was in college.
“I’d never seen snow,” she said. “So I want to come here and see snow.”
Ten years later she is officially naturalized. She said her first step was going to be to visit the park, which has a special significance to her because it’s where she and her husband, Stan Morgan, married. Her husband and the couple’s two young daughters attended the ceremony with her.
But she is most excited to finally be able to vote.
“This is home, and I want to be part of it,” she said. “I want to give back and have a voice, too.”