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Pursuing the American dream: Greenport woman becomes U.S. citizen at 61

During her lunch breaks at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport, Yolanda Miranda would sit in the lobby and study. There were questions about the Constitution, Congress and U.S. history dating back to the Colonial period.

Here she was, 61 years old, nearing retirement from her housekeeping job, and cramming American history like a high school student preparing for the upcoming Regents.

As the days crept closer to the date of her naturalization test to officially become a U.S. citizen, Ms. Miranda’s co-workers made it a mission of their own to guide her to the finish line. They would help by looking up answers to questions and quizzing her. They’d offer words of encouragement. She recalled that her boss, Ray Eble, vice president of the support service division at ELIH, kept reassuring her: You will pass, you will pass. “Everybody in the hospital helped me,” she said.

At home, her daughter, Ramona, kept pushing her.

“Thank God for my daughter,” Ms. Miranda said.

The journey that landed Ms. Miranda at the federal courthouse in Central Islip on a recent September morning was decades in the making. A private woman who values her family above all else, she kept a low profile in Greenport Village, where she’s made a home for three decades with her husband, Jose, and their four children, all now adults.

“Greenport is very nice. It is my town,” she said.

A native of Nicaragua, which sits in Central America between Honduras and Costa Rica, Ms. Miranda survived two harrowing trips of thousands of miles, traversing the Rio Grande to bring her children to America. She dedicated her life to providing them with an opportunity to succeed. She never worried about herself. It was always about family.

So how did the journey begin?

“That is a good question,” Ms. Miranda replied as she sat on the couch in her home, where the walls are decorated with photos of family members.

In Nicaragua, Ms. Miranda’s husband had worked as a chemist. The Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979, causing upheaval that spiraled into civil war. An altercation in 1985 with a Sandinista soldier put Mr. Miranda’s life in jeopardy. He was threatened and faced no choice but to flee the country.

He traveled to America and was granted asylum by the Reagan Administration in 1986, his daughter said. At the time, the couple had two boys, Oscar and Mo, and Ms. Miranda was pregnant with Ramona.

As time passed, Ms. Miranda was torn by seeing her family separated. One day, more than a year later, she called her husband and said that somehow, they needed to be reunited.

“My daughter, she needs a father,” she said.

A coyote, or smuggler, brought Ms. Miranda and her 1 1/2-year-old daughter with a group of 14 and began the journey on foot from Nicaragua to America. She was forced to leave her two boys behind with her mother, knowing the trip would be too challenging with three kids. Her first goal was to bring the youngest child.

“I was scared leaving my two boys,” she said, knowing that, at ages 10 and 9, they weren’t far from potentially being recruited into the armed conflict.

After Ms. Miranda’s mother died in an accident in 1990, she needed to return to Nicaragua and prepare for a second trip to rescue the boys. Once again, she endured hunger and sleep deprivation and at one point was assaulted, Ramona said.

“This is the purpose coming to this country — my kids,” said Ms. Miranda, who lived in the U.S. under resident status.

Oscar Aguilera (from left), Mo Aguilera, Ramona Miranda and Joseph Miranda. (Courtesy photo)

Oscar Aguilera, 38, who now lives in Pittsburgh with two children, was 11 when he began the journey with his mother. They left in June 1991 and arrived in the United States in late July. Much of the trip was on foot and, when possible, they’d hop on a train or board a bus. They were deported three times from Mexico, he recalled, and once from Guatemala, which forced them to keep starting over.

He was old enough to understand why they needed to leave, but said it was still tough to comprehend the process and “how hard and difficult it would be.”

Having grown up so close in age to his brother Mo, the two formed an inseparable bond.

“Every chance we got we were able to just be grateful that our mother was doing something great,” he said. “She was sustaining the family while she was over here, sending us money.”

When Jose Miranda arrived in the U.S. in 1986, he landed in Dallas and first worked as a carpenter. It wasn’t for him, and he moved into Louisiana and worked on the Gulf aboard a boat. After one trip during a wicked storm, he realized that wouldn’t work out either. He soon met a man who offered him a job in New York working on a party boat that docked in Port Washington. That job lasted until the boat got a new captain, who didn’t speak Spanish. From there, Mr. Miranda made his way east, eventually landing a job he’s held for 22 years at the IGA on Shelter Island, where co-workers and customers helped him learn English by pointing out all the different items in the store. He became an American citizen in 1995.

Greenport became home.

Fast-forward three decades, and now, the question Ms. Miranda hears is: Why wait 30 years to pursue citizenship? Now was simply the time, she said.

“I think Mom worried about her family before she worried about herself,” Ramona said.

Oscar Aguilera, center, served in the Marines through 2013. (Courtesy photo)

She had actually tried once before, years earlier, to pursue citizenship. In 1999, when her son Oscar graduated from Greenport High School, he told his parents he planned to join the Marines. The news shocked Ms. Miranda. She had sacrificed so much to keep her children safe and out of harm’s way, and now she was seeing her son volunteer to serve.

For Oscar, it was an easy decision.

“I’ve always been inspired by the fact that I was given a second chance to overcome and get past these struggles that I had,” he said. “I didn’t think there was a better way than to serve the United States. That took a toll on my mother.”

She lived in fear that one day, a knock on the door would bring the news every parent dreads.

Oscar served multiple tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait as a staff sergeant and would ultimately spend 16 years in the Marine Corps until 2013. Serving in the Marines also helped him fast-track becoming a U.S. citizen.

It was not long after he first joined the Marines that Ms. Miranda began to pursue her own citizenship. 

But she failed the written portion of the test. 

“She couldn’t write properly ‘My son is in Iraq,’ ” Ramona said.

Miranda’s co-workers at Eastern Long Island Hospital celebrated with a cake after she passed her naturalization test. (Courtesy photo)

On Sept. 18, the day of the test, Ms. Miranda, her husband and her daughter arrived at the courthouse in advance of the 10 a.m. start. Ramona, who works in Riverhead as a bilingual family advocate while pursuing a master’s degree, took off from work to support her parents. The schedule was running behind, so they waited more than 90 minutes before being called.

As Ramona waited with her father, she noticed he had brought his passport with him. She wondered why he would have needed that. When Ms. Miranda went in for the test, he revealed his reasoning to his daughter.

“In case they deported your mom, I was going to go straight with her,” he told her. 

They laughed at it afterward. After all, Ms. Miranda had never had more than parking ticket, at a beach nonetheless, in her decades in America.

The naturalization test has 100 possible questions and the interviewer asks up to 10 of them. The applicant must answer six correctly. The moment she saw her interviewer, Ms. Miranda’s heart sank. It was a woman they had heard was notoriously tough.

But one question after the next, she answered correctly, straight through the 10. 

“She kept going and made her answer all 10,” Ramona said of the interviewer.

Back at ELIH, Ms. Miranda’s co-workers threw her a party with a cake decorated with American flags.

“The cake was amazing,” said her granddaughter Aly. 

As much as she had loved her native country and all its beauty, the time had come for Ms. Miranda to fully embrace her life as an American. For her children, it had become a running joke whether their mother would stay in America or go back to Nicaragua. Her priority was always to care for her kids first, Mr. Aguilera said. 

“My mother, first-generation Latino here, she’s really grounded to her roots,” he said. “I know that in her mind, it’s like kind of giving up a piece of her roots. But at the end of the day, she’s been here long enough, sacrificed enough. So I was really happy for her.”

Ramona echoed those statements, praising her parents for what they accomplished. 

“You found the American dream — a family, a house,” she said. “And then you put kids through college. It’s not about becoming rich. It’s about family. I think that’s the fundamentals that we all have now.”

When they reflect back on the past three decades, the family is grateful for the open arms that received them in Greenport. When they arrived in the village, very few people there spoke Spanish. The four children — the youngest, Joseph, was born in America — all graduated from Greenport High School and have gone on to successful careers.

“We were part of [the community] and they were able to learn from us just the way we learned from them,” Mr. Aguilera said.

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Photo caption: Yolanda Miranda of Greenport poses with her certificate after passing the test to become a U.S. citizen. (Courtesy photo)