Last Thursday the family was up before 5 a.m. and Lydia Martinez Majdišová was pleased the kids didn’t have to be cajoled and hassled to get out of bed like most school days.
Emma, 13, and Sebastian, 9, were sleepy but happily excited and Lydia felt the same. They were all nervous, but what surprised Lydia was her husband, Pepe Martinez. When facing something new and challenging he never shows nerves or expresses his emotions, she said.
But today was different. He was as keyed up as his wife and children and showing it.
They were all in their Sunday best. Pepe asked Lydia more than once if he looked all right, if his tie and coat were right and he was worried about being on time.
Breakfast was a quick stop at STARS café in the Heights, which Pepe and Lydia own and operate. Coffee for the parents and bagels for the kids, with Emma having her favorite bagel with avocado.
Almost every day of the week Pepe is at work at this time, in the basement baking, getting the coffee ground and brewed for the early birds, while Lydia wrangles the kids out of bed, feeds them and gets them off to school.
On North Ferry and the drive to Central Islip, it wasn’t just raining cats and dogs, but hammers and nails were pounding down. The family was early for their 8:30 appointment, battling wind-driven rain across a wide plaza with the federal courthouse looming above them. At security, all electronic devices, including cell phones and cameras, were taken and registered to be picked up later. Lydia, anticipating the security, had left her bag in the car.
On the second floor, the federal courtroom is spacious, high ceilinged, filled with light and warmed by walls of light brown wood. The family separated, with Pepe going forward beyond a low wooden barrier with 152 other people, all scheduled to take an oath and be sworn in as American citizens.
Families and friends made up more than twice that number sitting in rows behind them.
The whole world was in the room. People from 38 countries, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Central Islip, and from every continent except Australia, were present and waiting.
A court official said there was to be no eating or drinking — except bottles of water — no hats allowed except for religious exceptions and no gum chewing. In a soft voice, the official added, “This isn’t a movie theater. This is a federal courtroom.”
It was an atmosphere reserved for far too few public events in American life. People were dressed up for a life-changing occasion. There were no loud voices, but only a hush of people speaking, the massive space and wood walls making it sound like distant surf, punctuated now and then by a baby fussing. No one looked at screens. There were no reversed baseball caps.
The morning dragged on, with those to be naturalized completing final paperwork. Emma and Sebastian, on either side of Lydia, leaned in to their mother. An hour and a half after arriving, an immigration official said it was taking longer than expected and friends and families were told to leave the courtroom and go to the cafeteria on the first floor. They would be informed when the proceedings would begin.
On the first floor, Lydia realized her cash and credit cards were in her bag in the car. Then, above them on the balcony, they heard Pepe’s voice. He’d remembered the family was without cash and dropped down a rolled up bill. Emma retrieved it. “It’s a hundred dollar bill,” she said with some amazement.
Emma paid for breakfast. She had a banana and Sebastian dug into cereal. Waiting was something Lydia and Pepe were used to, she said.
Born in Tampico, Mexico, as a young man Pepe entered the United States illegally to work picking fruit in farm fields. He came to the East End in the 1990s and managed to sort out his immigration status to get a green card to live and work here legally.
Seven years ago, Lydia took the children to Slovakia, her native country, for an extended visit and Pepe went over to spend Christmas and then returned to the states alone, while Lydia stayed on for awhile.
“I’ll never forget that phone call,” she said in the cafeteria. “I was in a doctor’s office with the kids. It was Pepe, who started by saying, ‘I don’t want you to get freaked out.’”
Going through immigration at JFK, he was taken aside, questioned and then told to make an appointment with a judge. When he did, he was taken into custody and held for six weeks in a New Jersey immigration facility.
“There I was, with two little children,” Lydia remembered. The six weeks felt like an eternity “because we didn’t have a clue how long it would take. Horrible. But he had a persistent lawyer who was daily annoying the heck out of the judge and the immigration officers.”
With the financial and emotional support of several Islanders — Marie Eiffel was heroic in helping Pepe — and Island institutions, especially Our Lady of the Isle parish, the family pulled through.
On his release, Pepe immediately began the process of becoming a citizen. The long process was made longer when Superstorm Sandy and a federal government shutdown canceled appointments with immigration authorities.
Emma remembered driving with her father and a CD of a woman instructing applicants for citizenship was always playing. “I couldn’t listen to any music,” she smiled, adding that she grew weary fast of the sound of the woman’s voice.
She also commented on her father’s memorizing the Pledge of Allegiance, and substituting “allegiance” with “alliance,” and how she, who had the pledge memorized from kindergarten, would correct him.
Back in the courtroom it was another wait of nearly two hours before United States District Judge Joseph Bianco entered and told those about to become citizens to rise and repeat the Oath of Allegiance to the United States.
It begins: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty …”
The judge then led the applicants in the Pledge of Allegiance. “Fellow citizens,” he greeted them, to applause. He noted that they must remember and “hold close to your hearts” the countries and culture of their births. “But now, this country embraces you.”
Judge Bianco told a story many Americans have heard in one form or another, of his grandfather arriving from Italy in the 1920s, “with nothing, nothing, and becoming an American, and living an American life. What would he say, if when he arrived, he would be told his grandson would be a federal judge?”
Before he left the courtroom and officials began handing out certificates of citizenship, the judge said, “Now, don’t go to work. Call your bosses and say the judge ordered you can’t go to work but must celebrate.”
Pepe was one of the last to receive his certificate before being reunited with his family in the aisle of the courtroom. They all had their arms around each other. There were tears.
“I’ve never seen immigration people so nice,” Pepe said with a slight smile.
He wished he could have had a chance for a few words with Judge Bianco. “I wanted to thank him,” he said. “I’d tell him this is not just for my benefit. It’s for the benefit of my family.”
They took the judge’s advice and went for lunch at Viva la Vida, a Mexican restaurant in Oakdale. A perfectly named place to celebrate a perfect day.