Following is the keynote address by author Maria Testa for the Citizenship Ceremony held at Portland Public Library, Portland, ME on March 10, 2016
It is an extraordinary honor to welcome new Americans to our country. What we are witnessing today is, in fact, a tremendous gift to our country. You have honored all of us by choosing to become Americans.
Those of you who are familiar with my work as a writer know that I have been exploring the ideal of America – and the question of who is an American – for quite some time.
What does it mean to leave the country of one’s birth?
Do we choose America, or does America somehow choose us?
In my poetic novel, Becoming Joe DiMaggio, Papa-Angelo helps his young grandson begin his search for America without even leaving his own garden. Together, they listen to the radio – and the heroics of their favorite baseball player, Joe DiMaggio – and together, they learn how to turn nightmares into dreams.
Papa-Angelo liked to look at
of Joe DiMaggio’s parents,
old people like him
who had been young
in Italy once.
They were always
always had a hand
on their son’s shoulder,
with sad eyes,
smiling in America.
of Joe and his parents,
smiled himself, and
shook his head
at the wonder of
Look how he has made
their broken hearts soar.
It has always been the right time to dream of becoming an American. And it still is. For all of us.
But now we find ourselves living in an interesting time – perhaps even a difficult time – actually to be an American. We question who we are as Americans, and we question our place in the world and how the world sees us.
We question our sense of pride.
But in the midst of all of these questions, I know one thing for sure: American citizenship knows no quantity. It does not matter if your ancestors were here from the beginning . . . if they came over on the Mayflower . . . if they signed the Declaration of Independence . . . or if they huddled in the hull of a slave ship . . . or a freight ship bound for Ellis Island . . . or if they arrived on a raft drifting across one of our great oceans . . . or on foot, crossing a geographic – or political – border. . .
From the moment you become an American, the moment you declare yourself an American, you are an American, a full American, a complete American. And more.
One of my books for young people, Something About America, explores the relationship of a father and daughter, both war refugees, both searching for an America they can call their own.
Like fathers and daughters everywhere, they certainly don’t agree on everything, but they recognize what they have in common with the people of their adopted country and with one another.
So we stand here today in an American library in an American city like so many others throughout this country. We are a roomful of Americans, citizens of the world, one and all.
I am always happy to be asked to speak at ceremonies like this one, because every time I am asked, it feels like I am being offered a gift. I like to receive gifts.
And I believe that the greatest gift that this country can receive at this time in our history is the promise of a new America.
Now, since I am in a gift-receiving kind of mood, I’d like to ask you for another gift.
There has been a lot of conversation lately about how we as Americans have forgotten how to speak to one another. We have forgotten how to speak to one another with respect, and we have forgotten how to listen. We see evidence of this in our daily lives, and we see it in our ever-changing, ever-expanding media, in all of its forms.
We hear words of breathtaking arrogance and ignorance from our own elected leaders and from those who are seeking elected office.
With that said, there is one thing I would like you to keep in mind:
You have probably heard, and will continue to hear, loud voices that say that America used to be great, that it was a better country in the past – ten years, a generation, two generations ago – that America has changed too much, and we need to stop this change and go back to the way things used to be.
Do NOT believe these voices. The loudest of these voices tend to belong to those who are the cause of the problems we have today.
The greatest strength of America has always been its people and its potential.
The greatest strength of America has always been all of us. No exceptions.
We need new voices – your voices – now more than ever. So – I am asking for the gift of your voice. We need it to be loud, we need it to be proud, and we need it to reflect the best of your cultures and your stories. We need your voice to help us re-define – and, indeed, refine – the collective American voice.
We need you to help us keep America’s promise.
So today, in this room, America is new again, and the promise is reborn. Thank you for choosing to make my country your own. Thank you for joining me in our search for America.
There is more than enough room along the road for all of us.