By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — When Francheska Montas raised her hand to take the Oath of Allegiance, she took a deep breath and smiled to finally be naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
“I’m honored to be a citizen,” said Montas, who moved to Lawrence at age 14. “This is where I’ve received my education, my job and been able to raise a family. This is a big blessing for me.”
Montas, a 1998 graduate of Lawrence High, was one of 25 men and women who became naturalized U.S. citizens in a ceremony at Campagnone Common yesterday. Judge Frank J. Bailey, Chief United States Bankruptcy Judge, administered the oath.
The new citizens came to the United States from Cambodia, Canada, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Iraq, Portugal, Russia, Uganda and the United Kingdom. They now live in Andover, Lawrence, Methuen, Rowley, Lowell, Acton, Hudson and Worcester.
The ceremony in Lawrence is one of 180 such events across the country through Sept. 23. During this period, 18,000 people will become U.S. citizens as part of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ annual celebration of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.
Constitution Day and Citizenship Day is commemorated every Sept. 17 in honor of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. In 1952, President Harry Truman signed a bill formalizing the celebration of Citizenship Day. In 2004, Congress established Sept. 17 as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.
Students from Lawrence and Andover had several roles in yesterday’s ceremony. Members of the Lawrence High School Junior ROTC made the presentation of colors, Priscilla Brito of Lawrence sang “God Bless America” the 15-member Lawrence High School Girls Choir sang, the “Star Spangle Banner” and “America the Beautiful” and students from Esperanza Academy recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Hannah B. and Hannah C. fifth-graders at Thomson School, North Andover alternated reading the countries where the new citizens had immigrated from.
The candidates for citizenship listened to remarks from Bailey, Quinn Gonell, history teacher at Lawrence High School and president of Greater Lawrence Young Professionals Network, and Susan Grabski, director of the Lawrence History Center.
Grabski gave a brief history of Lawrence from the first wave of Irish immigrants, Eastern Europeans to Hispanic and Southeast Asians.
“Lawrence has always been and continues to be an immigrant city,” Grabski said. “By being here, you add to the fabric that makes the U.S. of America.”
Many of the speakers encouraged the new citizens not to give up their culture, heritage, traditions or food.
Lawrence Field Office Director Luis Chaves came to the United States from Portugal at age 10 and recalled his teacher talking about America as a melting pot. He thought it was a cooking pot that had been left on the stove unattended and it melted. His teacher then explained that America is made up of people who bring their different cultures and make it part of the mainstream.
“You bring the newest ingredients that makes this soup taste better because we come from different countries, ethnic groups and religions,” Chaves said.
They even heard an audio message from President Barack Obama, who told them, “It’s an honor and a privilege to call you a fellow citizen of the United States of America. This is now officially your country. Your home to protect, to defend, and to serve through active and engaged citizenship.”
During the taped message Obama told them with citizenship comes “great responsibilities.”
“Always remember that in America no dream is impossible. Like the millions of immigrants who have come before you, you have the opportunity to enrich this country through your contributions to civic society, business, culture, and your community. You can help write the next great chapter in our American story,” Obama said in his taped message.
They were told they were eligible to register to vote as soon as the ceremony was over; apply for a U.S. passport and their biological or adopted foreign born children under 18 are also citizens through them.
Nancy Colby, 41, came from Canada 18 years ago to work as a nurse. She purchased a citizenship book to practice for the exam.
“I never studied U.S. history and it was a challenge, but my daughter Emily helped me study and kept me on a schedule. I thank her for that,” Colby said. In addition to Emily, she and her husband Tim have a second daughter.
“My family is here and this is where I’ve made my home,” said Colby, who lives in Rowley. “I’m excited and emotional about becoming a citizen because it’s easier to vote and do things that other things citizens do. I’m proud to belong to a country as the U.S.,” Colby said.
Carmen Guerrero of Methuen also a nurse, agrees.
“As an immigrant, we all want to go back to our home countries, but after having our families and our professions here, this (the U.S.) is home,” said Guerrero, 37, who came from Quito, Ecuador 20 years ago. She studied English as a second language at Northern Essex Community College and later graduated from the school’s nursing program. Montas, Colby and Guerrero mentioned having the right to vote as one of the reasons for becoming citizens.
No sooner did the ceremony end, Montas walked across the North Common to the Elections Office at City Hall to register to vote in today’s election.
“I’m so thrilled and so happy that I could do that. It’s such a big deal for me,” said Montas, mother of Leah E. Montas, 1, Mikhail Reynoso Montas, 9 and Dante Reynoso Montas, 6.