(This story originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald)
MANATEE — Alexandra Pena sat in a car two weeks ago while on her way to Tampa for a moment she had patiently waited years — to take her oath of allegiance.
Pena, who was born in Colombia and grew up in Manatee County, would soon realize her dream of becoming an American citizen after years as a permanent resident.
Then came the labor pains.
Pena’s firstborn, who she didn’t expect to arrive till July 28, was nearly a week early.
“It was a contraction that I had never felt before. … the pains began but we were already halfway there at that point,” the 27-year-old recalled from her home Wednesday evening as she held her son, Nicholas Gabriel Pena. “I said ‘I can’t go back.’ I have waited so long for this.”
Her husband, Ivan Pena, timed the contractions on his watch as Pena’s face twisted in pain.
She tried stretching in the backseat.
The contractions grew closer.
Her grandmother and mother-in-law, Astrid Ruiz de Pena, pulled out their rosaries and began praying the “Our Father” in Spanish.
“I knew the baby was coming. … but at what moment knowing that we were so far?” Ruiz de Pena said in Spanish as she recounted the frantic ride. “I told Ivan: ‘Let’s do a Plan B, a hospital in Tampa, because we can’t risk the baby being born in the car.’
Ivan told me: ‘Mom, relax, relax, we will get there.’”
The family arrived at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Tampa field office, where officials agreed to administer Pena’s oath alone so she wouldn’t have to sit through the full ceremony. A video recorded by Pena’s husband shows her with her right hand raised in a small office before an official. Pena’s face remained calm as her left hand cradled the bottom of her stomach.
“You are now a United States citizen,” the man told Pena.
“Thank you so much,” she responded with a smile. “So happy. I’m so excited.”
The family then rushed to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, where Pena had planned to give birth. The new mother said it was the longest hour of her life to reach the hospital.
Nicholas, seven pounds, 13 ounces, was born hours later at 8:20 p.m. July 22.
As his mother spoke about her long road to citizenship, the infant slept peacefully in her arms. Dressed in a white shirt with fox print, Nicholas rustled a few times but never woke up.
“Mi orejon (my big-eared boy),” said Nicholas’ father softly as he bent down to kiss the baby’s ears.
“For us as immigrants, it’s a dream to become a U.S. citizen. Five years had passed. There’s been sacrifices. I’ve had to be far from him,” Pena said, pointing to her husband, who lives in Colombia.
“We always talked about doing things right, doing things the legal way,” Ivan said. “If we are trying to form a future, or a better life, the idea is to do it properly.”
In the couple’s bedroom is a neon green poster filled with Alexandra’s dreams and aspirations. There’s an illustration of a happy bride and groom, a photo of a woman studying for her master’s degree, “Dios (God), Jesus, Maria,” and a photo of a dog’s paw on a human hand symbolizing Alexandra’s love for animals.
“One of them was becoming a U.S. citizen,” she said. “And getting married, having kids.”
“Like a wish list,” her husband added.
“So now I just have to take those off because those became real,” she said. “I feel that I couldn’t be happier. … this is like the best time of my life.”