What can we do for our deeply stressed country right now, when a pandemic has us in its grip and we suddenly have to worry that our votes won’t be counted and our own president won’t so much as wear a mask to keep us safe or talk about one nation indivisible, rather than red states versus blue?
Sometimes in the constant static of us and them, it’s so hard to remember the all of us.
So I am grateful for the reminder that came my way recently from one of our newest citizens.
On Aug. 20, one day after her 65th birthday, Clemencia Isabel Morales, born in Guatemala, put on a polka dot dress and went downtown to the federal building to take a citizenship test that had been twice canceled, leaving her in tears, during the pandemic.
She’s been in the country for 19 years now. She followed the man she loved, who came 14 years before her, in search of better work, which he found for a stretch at a factory. They got married here, bought a little house and built a good life for themselves. She so wanted to put down her roots for real, to be able to vote and to fully engage.
And when she was at last on the verge of the citizenship she longed for, being questioned about whether she would be willing to rise to the defense of our country, she asked her examiner — separated from her by six feet and plexiglass — if she could tell her a story.
In her mind, she said, the story fit the question. I could not agree more.
Early on in the COVID-19 shutdown, Morales, who for the last 10 years has worked very long hours as a nanny and household manager for a Westside family, found herself when she wasn’t working shut in at home in Montecito Heights, antsy watching TV.
She’s a person of great joy and energy who springs up daily at 4:30 a.m. and likes to spend as many of her few free hours as she can on the beach in the ocean air, sometimes going on long walks, sometimes sitting under an umbrella painting clay pottery she brings back from visiting her grown daughters and grandchildren in Guatemala.
But the beaches were closed then. Sitting still didn’t suit her. On a cleaning jag, Morales, who knows how to make her own clothes, unearthed piles of bargain fabric she’d scooped up but had never gotten around to using.
So she started watching the news with one eye and working her sewing machine with the other, until before she knew it she’d made more than 5,000 cloth masks — using hairbands for the elastic to go over the ears.
Those were the early days, when masks were in short supply. She’d seen on the news that a lot of L.A. people couldn’t get hold of them to protect one another and themselves. The family she worked for had spent $300 for two dozen. She knew so many others, herself included, did not have such means. Fancy people, she figured, probably wouldn’t want her plain masks anyway. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, they’re so ugly,” she told me.
She’d once lost her way though and driven through a part of Compton where she’d seen clear evidence of need. So she drove back into that area with bulging trash bags full of masks and looked around until she came upon a line of people three blocks long waiting for food outside a church. She asked those handing out the free food if she could hand out free masks — and they registered both surprise and delight.
Morales didn’t know anyone in Compton. She lives miles away. Her goal in this first foray of several was not to help certain people she knew — people she liked or people who were like her or people who shared her views of the world. She was out to help any fellow human beings in need, in part because of how much she knows others have helped her.
That’s a big reason, she told me, she decided to work toward citizenship, instead of just continuing to renew her green card. As a citizen, she hopes to be able to do volunteer work she told me she’s previously been turned down for because of her legal status. She wants to go into hospitals, for instance, and spend time with sick children, cheering them up by painting their faces or cradling sick babies whose parents can’t be with them.
She sees it as a way of returning kindness.
It’s from the help she received in recent months that I first learned about Morales, who had prepared for her citizenship interview and test through the services of the Los Angeles Public Library’s New Americans Initiative. The city’s library system in 2012 was the first in the nation to team up with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that administers the legal immigration system, to offer information and resources for immigrants and those seeking to become Americans.
Those resources have expanded steadily over the years, with the library, in partnership with nonprofit organizations, offering an ever-growing array of services and classes.
“We are in 73 neighborhoods in Los Angeles. We are where Los Angeles immigrant communities live,” city librarian John Szabo told me of L.A.’s library system. “And the library is a welcoming institution, less intimidating than a federal building. What better place for this help to be found?”
Morales loves the library. Out of work for several months once, she spent whole days in the Lincoln Heights branch, surfing the web for whatever new query popped into her mind.
From an L.A. public library branch, she checked out her first guide to becoming a citizen — written in side-by-side English and Spanish, and she and her husband, Julio Gaitan, studied it together. But she knew she needed more help.
So first at a library branch in Pacoima and then online on Zoom after the pandemic closed all library branches, she’d been taking free citizenship classes, going over everything from the many questions on the complex 20-page application for naturalization to the knowledge of U.S. history and government required to pass the civics test at the interview.
One of the volunteer teachers in her class, which was run by the nonprofit International Rescue Committee, was former L.A. Times photographer Iris Schneider, who knew I’d find Morales’ outlook inspiring. She described her to me as “a breath of fresh air.”
She told me how Morales had cried for hours after her second appointment for the citizenship interview and test were canceled.
“It just meant so much to her to become a citizen. She said that America had made her dreams come true,” Schneider told me. “It sort of restores my faith in my country right now, knowing what it means to people.”
Morales told me that she often cried during the ups and downs of the citizenship process. But she also kept doing for others.
One day during the time when supermarkets were still limiting quantities on certain items, she went to Ralphs and found packages of ground beef on sale for 99 cents — but the sign said she could only buy two. When she explained why she wanted more, the manager gave her five packages for free.
She made a big potful of spaghetti sauce and another big pot of spaghetti and loaded them, along with bread and tortillas, into the back of her SUV. Then she drove to Chinatown, found people living on the street and opened the trunk and welcomed them, asking if they wanted “some food, fresh and yummy.” She served out 89 plates full — and has since gone on to do similar runs alongside freeways in Riverside and Los Feliz, sometimes with more pasta, sometimes with bolillos and black beans and chicken salad.
Morales passed her citizenship test, on Aug. 20, by the way. She took the oath that same day with a few other new citizens — quickly and efficiently without all the fanfare of the usual pre-pandemic ceremonies for thousands at the L.A. Convention Center.
But she made her own party walking down the street waving the flag she’d been given with her certificate, and calling out the good news to everyone she saw. For her the giving to others and coming to their defense is a part of that celebrating, a sort of thank-you card to all of us for accepting and including her.
“I feel like America has adopted me. I used to be a foster,” she told me. “I have nothing to ask for. I have shoes. I have clothes. I have a job. I have food to eat in the morning. I am thankful.”