Southern California resident Jovita Mendez doesn’t speak English. She can’t read or write, in any language. But she longed for a better future for herself and, this week, she achieved that by finally becoming a U.S. citizen.
“I didn’t think that I would be able to accomplish this, but I did it,” Mendez told NBC 7 in Spanish, holding back tears after being naturalized in a ceremony alongside 700 immigrants in downtown San Diego on Thursday.
“I did it because my kids are here. They told me I needed to do this for myself, to have a future here,” she added. “I’m happy.”
Mendez, originally from Mexico, has lived in the United States for 20 years. She has always wanted to become a U.S. citizen but illiteracy and the language barrier have held her back.
“I don’t know how to read, I don’t know how to write,” Mendez explained.
Until recently, she had never had the confidence to take the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization test, which consists of 10 civics questions randomly selected from a list of 100 questions.
To pass, applicants must orally answer correctly at least six out of the 10 questions. The only way to effectively do that is to study all 100 civics questions, which cover everything from U.S. history to politics.
Mendez, encouraged by her children, decided to take the test. She took classes led by local Maribel Solache.
“She’s a special case – she doesn’t know how to read or write,” Solaches told NBC 7. “When she came to me, she was filled with insecurities and fear. She didn’t know how to tell me that she couldn’t read or write.”
Solache said Mendez also didn’t know she could qualify for special accommodations for the oral test given her age and time spent living in the U.S. Per USCIS rules, if you’re over the age of 50 and have lived in the U.S. for 20 years or more, you can take the civics test in your native language. This also applies to those age 55 and older, who have lived in the U.S. for 15 or more years.
Solache told Mendez that the language barrier and not being able to read or write didn’t mean she couldn’t become a citizen. She just needed to be sure of herself.
“My job was to empower her and make her believe that she could do it – that her limitations were in her head. It wasn’t the language barrier; it wasn’t that she couldn’t read or write, it was her own insecurities,” Solache said.
With that, the women got to work.
Mendez said Solache would read the civics questions to her several hours each week, and she would repeat each word three to four times until she memorized everything.
Solache said she started with the easiest, timeliest questions on the test: the political parties, the name of the President of the United States and other political topics. The teacher also downloaded an app to Mendez’s phone where she could listen to the questions.
At home, Mendez’s husband would quiz her, too. On the weekends, she repeated the words to herself, keeping them fresh in her mind.
Eventually, she memorized all 100 civics questions and the answers.
“I learned the words,” she explained.
Mendez was ready to take her test.
On her first try, she failed.
But she didn’t let that get her down. Solache and Mendez’s children pushed her to keep studying.
On her second attempt, she passed.
And, for Mendez, Thursday’s naturalization ceremony was the culmination of hard work and a lifelong dream.
“I am a U.S. citizen now,” she said, crying, while proudly holding up her naturalization certificate. “I wanted something more for myself, and I did it.”
Mendez’s family and three children attended the ceremony.“I’m happy that she’s now free to live her future,” Mendez’s daughter said. “She’s done so much for us.”
Solache was there to support her too. She said Mendez’s story is an example of the story of many immigrants who have arrived in the U.S.
“People came here to work hard and make a good life for their families and their children. This test, today, is an opportunity for them to do something for themselves; to feel the satisfaction of becoming a U.S. citizen,” she said.