Fifteen new citizens celebrate what it means to be American at Bandelier ceremony

July 5, 2018

BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT — Valerie Atiano moved to the United States for love almost 20 years ago.

“Only a French person would be a romantic to do that,” she said.

On the Fourth of July, Atiano became one of America’s newest citizens during a naturalization ceremony at Bandelier National Monument. There was a romantic element to that, too.

While Atiano, 42, said her decision was driven by the need to pick a country rather than “sitting between two chairs,” as a permanent resident, Wednesday’s naturalization ceremony gave her more than just peace of mind. It gave her a new last name.

Almost three years ago, Atiano married her wife, Amy. Instead of using either of their last names, the pair decided to choose a new name to share: Atiano.

But because her new surname didn’t match the name on her green card documents, Valerie Atiano hasn’t been able to officially adopt her married name.

That is, until Wednesday.

“It’s a big day,” Atiano said following the naturalization ceremony. “I became someone else. I not only became a citizen, I changed my last name.”

At times during the ceremony that saw 15 people become citizens, Atiano teared up. It was more emotional than either she or her wife expected.

“Having my wife share my citizenship, I didn’t know it would be oddly, and very profoundly, moving,” Amy Atiano said.

The naturalization ceremony at Bandelier was the eighth annual citizenship ceremony held at the national monument on Independence Day. Citizenship applicants from a dozen different countries, including Russia, the Philippines and Australia, sat in folding tables beneath a large canvas cover spread out behind the Bandelier National Monument visitors center.

Over the course of an hour, the group listened to speeches, watched a video recording from President Donald Trump, sang along to tunes like “This Land is Our Land” and pledged their loyalty to the U.S.

After shaking hands with Senior U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo and snapping photos with family, they walked out of the tent as Americans.

Song Li Morris, a 20-year-old who grew up in Los Alamos, led the Pledge of Allegiance for the new citizens and became an extra, honorary participant in the naturalization ceremony.

Morris, who is studying nursing at a university in Texas, was born in China but was adopted by an American couple and brought to the U.S. as a citizen when she was 1. After the ceremony, she wished the new Americans congratulations and clutched her own reward — a folded American flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol, a present gifted to each of the participants.

“Of course I knew what it means to be a citizen; it’s more to reaffirm that I am a citizen,” Morris said. “It was a really incredible opportunity for the Fourth of July. So patriotic.”

Speakers at the ceremony, including Bandelier Superintendent Jason Lott and Armijo, urged the citizens to get involved with their communities, to vote and to use their new status to make the best possible future for their families — specifically, their children.

“We need to always remember that they are 100 percent of our future,” Armijo said.

After the ceremony, Jesus Varela, an AT&T technician, stood with his wife and adolescent daughter on the patio behind the Bandelier visitors center. Varela, born in Mexico, has spent 35 years in the U.S., the last four of which have been in Bernalillo.

Family, he said, was central in his decision to become a citizen.

“To me, it’s very important. We have more opportunities,” Varela said. “It feels like I have completed something that was missing from my life in the U.S.”