From Chihuahua to Steamboat: A woman’s journey to becoming a US citizen
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — April 4, 2008, is like a birthday to Margarita Hernandez Burciaga. She remembers the day each year, reliving details with as much clarity as when they actually happened.
The date marks when Burciaga first arrived to the U.S., taking a Greyhound bus from her hometown of Chihuahua City, Mexico, to Colorado on a visit to see her brother, Carlos.
The bus arrived in Denver at midnight. Carlos picked her up at the station as a heavy storm flung snow over the streets. Burciaga had never seen snow before and stood on the sidewalk, letting the flakes sting her cheeks and nose.
They drove west along Interstate 70 at molasses speed, rarely exceeding 20 mph to avoid careening off the side of the snow-slick road.
“It felt like another world,” Burciaga remembers. “I was scared.”
After seven hours of driving, streetlights shone through the storm, then an illuminated face of a rabbit on the left side of the road. Carlos told her they had reached Steamboat Springs, the town where he worked.
Burciaga could not have predicted it then, but this strange, small town would become her beloved home.
A ceremony for new citizens
On Wednesday, she was one of 34 people to become a U.S. citizen during a naturalization ceremony at the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction.
Deborah Cannon, a public affairs officer with the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, described these ceremonies, which occur throughout the year and across the nation, as emotional moments for many of the immigrants.
“I’ve seen people kiss the ground, dance and sing in their native language, lots of crying and hugging, lots of joy,” she said in an email.
As Magistrate Judge Gordon Gallagher handed Burciaga her certificate of citizenship, she thought of all the freedoms and opportunities that humble piece of paper would bring her.
“I feel like now I am part of the U.S,” she said.
Last year, the United States knit 756,000 naturalized citizens into the fabric of this nation, according to statistics from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Many of them came to seek safety from atrocities like war, gang violence and persecution.
Burciaga was among those who came to the U.S. out of curiosity, not desperation. She meant to return to Mexico after just two weeks, but her brother’s roommate, Manuel, urged her to stay. The two had fallen into the lightning-fast sort of love that seems only to come true in movies.
Burciaga was still in college at the time, studying software engineering. She had goals to start her own company and become her own boss. But there was something charming about the young man begging her to be with him that she could not give up.
Burciaga decided to stay, dropping out of college and getting an American visa. She found work with a cleaning company in Steamboat that paid enough for her to support herself.
Though the work was not as meaningful as her studies, she kept telling herself, “God has something for me later.”
Far from home
But carving a life in a new country was not easy. Burciaga remembers the first time someone asked her to come over for Thanksgiving dinner, and she returned the invitation with a quizzical look.
“What do you need to do?” she asked, having never heard of the holiday.
Burciaga eventually applied for a green card to become a legal permanent resident, but the process took years. During that time, she said she was not allowed to leave the U.S.
Being so far from her family in Mexico exacerbated her homesickness. With nine brothers and sisters and many more cousins, uncles and other relatives, Burciaga always had a large, tight-knit group of loved ones to turn to.
“I was crying because I had no one here,” she said.
In 2012, she and Manuel got married. Shortly after, they had a daughter, McKenzie, now a third-grader at Soda Creek Elementary School.
She is a confident, curly-haired girl with her mother’s brown eyes. Occasionally, she translates for Burciaga or helps her mom remember particular American phrases.
“I’m used to speaking English more than Spanish,” McKenzie said.
This worries Burciaga, who wants her daughter to remain close to her Mexican heritage while also being an American.
“I feel like she doesn’t know how important it is to be bilingual,” Burciaga said.
But her daughter also motivated Burciaga to gain fluency with the English language, one of the requirements for naturalization, and to better understand American culture.
After getting her green card and establishing permanent residency in 2015, she had to wait an additional three years before she could apply for citizenship, according to federal regulations.
In that time, Burciaga was able to get a higher-paying job at the UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, where she now works as a phlebotomist, collecting and testing blood samples.
She took English classes outside of work, learning new words and unusual idioms every day.
The test that determined her future
By April of this year, Burciaga was able to apply for citizenship. Officials scheduled her naturalization test for September, which gave her the summer to study 100 civics questions on American history and government.
She reviewed them obsessively. During her breaks at work, Burciaga quizzed herself, sometimes with the help of coworkers. At home, she posted notes around the house to remind her of answers particularly hard questions, such as in which war President Dwight D. Eisenhower served as a general. (It was World War II.)
Her strenuous hours of studying have allowed Burciaga to pursue the goals of independence she had as a college student. She wants to continue her work at the hospital and eventually return to school to become a nurse.
“I want to finish what I started in Mexico,” she said.
Until then, she continues to take English classes with the local nonprofit Integrated Community and at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs.
Burciaga seldom has leisure time to herself, but she prefers the busy schedule. While much of her family remains hundreds of miles away, the U.S. — more specifically Steamboat — has become home to her.
“I feel free,” she said. “I feel safe.”
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The Routt County Board of Commissioners is back in the hearing room it vacated when the pandemic sent the world home in March 2020 — and the public is welcome to attend, too.