TAMPA, Fla. — Many natural-born Americans never think about how lucky we are to be born in America. But, for the lucky few who can immigrate to the United States and pass their citizenship tests, it's a moment in their lives they'll never forget.
To kick off the start of Hispanic Heritage month that runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska sat down with two students who recently passed their citizenship tests to see what becoming an official U.S. citizen means to them.
"I want to be part of this country to stay here to dedicate my life, you know, living in America, to adapt of the country to adopt the culture, everything," Aquiany Lopez said.
Lopez passed her test in July. She was born in the Dominican Republic but moved to California in 2016. The language barrier and culture shock in California was too much, so her mom moved to Florida, and her life changed. She met Maria Garcia-Nuñez, the citizenship teacher at Jefferson Adult and Community School, a program run by Hillsborough County Public Schools. Lopez said Garcia-Nuñez pushed her to improve her English and pass the test, and she did.
"When the office say congratulation, you pass I say, boom, here I am this my new home, this is my country. I'm here, and that makes me feel completely good," Lopez said. "Now, I feel more. I mean more part of the United States as I can vote, I can only, I can do a lot of stuff. And I feel it, felt it felt good, to be honest."
For the past 15-years, Garcia-Nuñez has worked to help thousands of adults reach their goals.
"I love it, I love it," Garcia-Nuñez said. Born in Cuba, she immigrated to the United States when she was 42-years-old. She told me she didn't speak English and was thrown into her current role by another educator who recognized her talent.
"(She said) 'so, you're not an American citizen. Good. You don't have to study. So start to teach the class. And then you take the citizenship exam.' So I said, 'well, okay.' And that was the beginning."
Garcia-Nuñez is now one of the most popular teachers in the program. Currently, she has more than 60 students in her night class at Jefferson High School teaching the ESOL Program, English for Speakers of Other Languages.
"My experience is everybody's experience. They were all in my shoes at one point," Garcia-Nuñez said. "It's hard for, for immigrants and to work hard to accomplish things here for the family. And on top of that, to come to school, learning English, learn about American history, and go and pass the citizenship exam. But they want that so bad; really, they really want to become an American citizen because they are very grateful for this country."
We talked to another student who passed her exam in May. Carmen Larrinaga is also from Cuba. Isolated in Cuba, she decided to leave to be able to visit her son. We learned her struggles are similar to other students, feeling embarrassed to speak English.
"This is important because here all people speak English, so it's very important the communication among the people," Larrinaga said. "If people speak very fast, I don't understand."
Leaving Cuba meant something more for Larrinaga, a life where she is free. She told me in Spanish, becoming an American made her "feel a love of freedom" she never felt before.
Becoming an American citizen changed Garcia-Nuñez's life.
"From my experience, I accomplish here in five years, what I was not able to do in my whole life in Cuba, living in Cuba for 42 years," Garcia-Nuñez said. "So, that means something. So you have to say thank you. Thank you to everybody that contributed to, to reach those goals that you know, and to accomplish all that."
Lopez is now studying culinary arts at Hillsborough Community College. One day, she hopes to open a restaurant honoring her Hispanic roots and future as an American.
"I love my country; to be honest, I love my country. It was a great country, and every single day I am grateful to be born there, but I am more grateful to be here," Lopez said. "I would like to. I want to open my own restaurant. But I also would like to have a menu from my own country, the Dominican Republic, with a mix of America."