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Citizenship Day: A reflection on my journey and responsibilities

U.S. Airman 1st Class Karla Parra, 60th Air Mobility Wing broadcast journalist, poses for a photo

U.S. Airman 1st Class Karla Parra, 60th Air Mobility Wing broadcast journalist, poses for a photo Oct. 6, 2020, at Travis Air Force Base, California. Constitution Day, also known as Citizenship Day, is celebrated Sept. 17 to commemorate the signing of the U.S. Constitution. The celebration encourages Americans to reflect on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and what it means to be a U.S. citizen. Parra, currently a senior airman assigned to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, became a U.S. citizen April 17, 2018, and joined the Air Force April 2, 2019. (U.S. Air Force Photo by 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs)

332nd AIR EXPEDITIONARY WING -- After years of struggle and overwhelming months leading up to that day, I finally stood among hundreds of people from different parts of the world, holding a mini-sized American flag with my left hand, as I swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States with my right.

A few months prior, when I learned my naturalization application for citizenship was denied, I instantly regretted taking on my own case as if I were some kind of lawyer. The truth was I couldn’t afford one. Receipt of that denial letter instantly triggered a ticking-time bomb. I had 30 days to prove my residency was rightfully issued six years before or risk having my naturalization application terminated and potentially face deportation.

My residency had granted me temporary permission to reside in the states. While I was not granted political rights such as the right to vote, I knew that I wanted to stay in the U.S. and obtain my citizenship. This meant I had to get naturalized, but the process was a nightmare.

As my naturalization application deadline approached, I visited the nearest Department of Homeland Security office nearly every day. Eventually, with fewer than ten days before the window for my application closed, I was told the evidence I provided for my residency was accepted and my application for naturalization was approved. I finally did it.

That moment of relief didn’t keep me from fearing another call or letter saying there was another mix-up or issue with my residency. To get a call saying there were any other issues would mean further delays in my naturalization.

My naturalization ceremony date was scheduled out a few months later, and I did nothing but worry until that day. But, despite my worries, my day finally arrived.

I figured my struggle for cultural assimilation and months of anxiety leading to that day would be a thing of the past when I became an American citizen on April 17, 2018.

As Ronald Reagan stated in his last speech as president, “Anyone from any corner of the Earth can come to live in America and be an American.” Even before my legitimate approval, I knew I was an American because I had American customs, traditions, and values so deeply ingrained in me.  However, it wasn’t until April 17, 2018, I could legally identify as an American.

What had changed? Nothing really. My love for this country was as strong as ever. All that made it “official” was a piece of paper delineating my right to vote and my responsibility to defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

I felt relieved to finally be recognized by my country. I’d figured that the continuous pressure of auditioning to prove my patriotism would be over once I became a citizen. Yet, the pressure didn’t go away.

Discrimination and racism don’t automatically disappear once you become an American citizen.

In my desperate attempt to feel accepted and fully embraced by my country, I decided to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. I figured this country had done so much for me and my family, it just felt like the right thing to do.

While I had considered enlisting before I initiated my naturalization application, I wanted my reasons for serving to remain genuine—without any incentive or strings attached.

About a year after becoming an American citizen, I answered my Nation’s call. On May 31st, 2019, I once again promised to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. Just as I had nearly a year before, I stood raising my right hand, reciting the same promise. Only this time I was among other individuals I called wingmen.

At that point, I was no longer just an American citizen. That day, I became an American Airman.  I took my love for this country to another level and I embraced a new set of responsibilities the moment I recited the Airman’s Creed at the end of my basic military training ceremony.

The Airman’s Creed laid out a new set of responsibilities for me. I was whole-heartedly devoted to this country without any reservations and at that moment, I realized that my willingness to sacrifice my life for this country was the ultimate act of loyalty. I no longer felt a desperate need from others to recognize me as an American. My own recognition was enough.

While my identity as an American Airman is one of my biggest prides, if not the biggest, I am also Mexican. I took the enlisted route despite having a bachelor’s degree, but I have no regrets. I was not ready to consider commissioning as it would have forced me to renounce my Mexican citizenship and strip away a part of who I am. It’s that aspect of my identity I undervalued in my struggle to assimilate. I ignored it for fear of not feeling American enough.

However, it is now one of the aspects of my identity I’ve learned to love. I get the best of both worlds. I get to enjoy both Mexican and American music, foods, humor, culture, etc. Most importantly, I bring the best of both worlds to the Air Force and contribute to diversity of thought, experience, and knowledge. I believe all these attributes set our service at a competitive advantage on the global stage.

“We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world,” said President Reagan. “And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation.”

Just as we pride ourselves on being the land of opportunities, the city on a hill, as President Reagan famously said, we must also fully embrace and capitalize on the diversity of our Airmen.

It isn’t pure coincidence that we are the world’s best Air Force. We extract only the best of the best and lead the way because we understand that change is accelerated by those who embrace, generate and encourage diversity of thought.

Our Air Force is enriched by the knowledge, experiences and cultural uniqueness every Airman brings to the fight. It is our set of differences that fosters new solutions and promotes innovative tactics to strengthen our warfighting capabilities. Diversity is undeniably a warfighting imperative.

Along with the rest of my wingmen, American-born or not, I am critical to the mission because I too bring my own set of views and philosophies that contribute toward a wider perspective in the Air Force.

As I stand on foreign soil, deployed, on Citizenship/Constitution Day, I realize I wouldn’t want to change a thing. My life experiences have molded me to the person I am today and continue to prepare me for tomorrow’s challenges.

Aside from protecting and defending the U.S. Constitution, as an American Airman, it is also my responsibility to ensure my wingmen feel empowered, respected and accepted, regardless of where they were born. As an Airman, I have a role in nurturing a culture of diversity, respect and inclusivity–all which foster a stronger force.