Twenty-one people from 12 countries became U.S. citizens in Napa on Thursday — a day that also honors Mexican-American activist Cesar Chavez.
The new citizens, who included four Napans, two people from St. Helena and a Calistoga man, read the Oath of Allegiance and waved their little American flags with pride. A couple even snuck a kiss among the celebrating crowd in the Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center.
Most people had been waiting years for this moment.
Fiona Shelton, 43, of Napa has been living in the United States for 25 years without citizenship. Shelton’s family is originally from England and she is the first among them besides her children to become an American citizen.
“It feels good,” she said. One of the things that motivated her to finally take the oath was the desire to vote. “I’m just so happy to be able to contribute in that way,” she said.
Her kids, Zoe, 16 and Zachary, 12, took the day off school for the occasion. “I felt like it was important that they come and their teachers agreed,” Shelton said.
Before they headed back to class, Zoe and Zachary both said that they were excited for her. The family planned on celebrating by going out to dinner.
Heriberto Herrera Gonzalez, 35, who works in St. Helena, said that he has been in the U.S. since he was 8 years old. He spent 28 years living here on green cards, but is happy to finally be a citizen. “It feels great,” he said.
Following the ceremony, Candace Westgate, 35, of St. Helena said, “Such a weight has been lifted off. I’ve always felt a part of the U.S., but now I can really say that I am.”
Westgate has lived all over the United States including New York, Missouri, Oklahoma, Louisiana and now California. Originally from South Africa, she explained that she finally met criteria to apply and that it was especially important for her to do so now that she is a mother. It makes things easier, she said, like travelling.
But more importantly, “I believe in this country and everything that it stands for and I want to make a good life for my son here.” Part of that is being a citizen, contributing to society, being able to vote and “have a say,” she said.
The naturalization process took a lot of time, paperwork and money, but it’s worth it in the end, Westgate said. To have everything finally completed is “amazing,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for this a long time.”
Janejira Sutanonpaiboon, 42, of Santa Rosa, originally from Thailand, said that she was excited the entire night before the ceremony. “I dreamt I wore flip-flops through the whole ceremony,” she said, laughing.
When she woke up, she thought she had to buy new shoes since participants were asked to dress appropriately (and everyone did). Now that it’s over and she is finally a citizen, Sutanonpaiboon said that she feels like she is a part of the community.
“I’ve been living here for many years and I feel blended in quite well but today … officially, I’m a part of the country. I’m American.”
This was the first time a naturalization ceremony conducted by the U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Services has taken place in Napa County. In past decades, local naturalization events were conducted by local judges.
The event was hosted by UpValley Family Centers, One Napa Valley Initiative, On the Move, Puertas Abiertas and Napa Valley Community Foundation.
Over the last two years, an additional 394 Napa County residents have become citizens with the help of the nonprofit One Napa Valley Initiative. Those individuals swore the Oath of Allegiance further from home in places like Oakland and San Francisco.
“Their [new citizens’] desire to build a better future for themselves and their families is at the heart of today,” said Manbin Khaira Monteverdi, who is on the board of directors for Napa Valley Community Foundation.