It’s fair to say that Mammoth local Claudia Molina really wanted to be a U.S. citizen. After all, it took her three attempts and the better part of 17 years to make it happen.
Molina, who emigrated here from Chile, arrived in Mammoth on July 17, 1995. Half of her family, on her dad’s side, still lives there; the rest on her mom’s side are in this country. She came to town to live with her Uncle Pedro, the first arrival in the U.S. from her family, who’s been here for 30 years (and is almost a citizen now himself). “I was young, single, and that’s how we are, family connections are important,” Molina said. “I didn’t like [Mammoth] at first. I was 18, and it was hard, dealing with both Mexican and American cultures. I spoke Spanish, but I had to learn English, and Mexican and Chilean cultures are quite different.”
She moved to Reno, Nev., for a time, where the admittedly people-shy Molina got her first work experiences dealing with the public, in person and on the phone. Soon, she moved back to Mammoth and worked at a reservation company before going to visit Dr. Byron Sansom.
“I went to Dr. Sansom as a patient when he had just opened his practice here,” she recalled. “I left with a job. I was Spanish speaking, and he started me helping out with administrative things around the office.” Later, she found the dentistry profession very much to her liking, and has since gone on to get her license and is now going for her American Dental Association certification. Many locals will know Claudia from her work assisting Dr. Sansom in his operating room environs.
It was around the time she started working at his office that she decided to become a U.S. citizen. Of course, at the time Molina had no illusions it would be easy, but she also thought it would go a bit faster than it did.
“I spent 15 of the 17 years I’ve been here trying to become a citizen,” she explained. The first five years she spent meeting her residency requirements, but she also got married, and her then husband encouraged her efforts. “I got the papers I needed, got a lawyer and got a case number, but I didn’t have a sponsor to cosign for me, so the case was closed.”
A year later, she got another lawyer, but this one ended up bilking her for fees, and didn’t file paperwork in a timely manner, and after 18 more months, that case was also closed. “Everything you do is money and time,” Molina pointed out. “A lot of people get scared and upset. The process can be hard and expensive, especially if you are just getting by.”
Molina herself was frustrated, until about six years ago, when she talked to an aunt who referred her to Los Angeles attorney Kevin Levine. “He got me on the right track. He took my case and was amazing,” she enthused. “He didn’t even have to tell his assistant what to do; the assistant would listen and then everything was just ready.” Levine, she added, has been spending time in Mammoth helping other clients with accessing President Obama’s Dream Act and other immigration needs.
“Americans have to understand what they have because they are born here,” Molina noted. “I love Chile, but we come here for better lives, and economic opportunities my country doesn’t have. Here you can work your way up, but there I wouldn’t have the same chances at a career like I have with Dr. Sansom.”
In the almost two decades since, she now thinks of both Chile and Mammoth as home. “I went to Chile for six weeks recently, and I discovered both places are home. I grew up as a kid in Chile and those are my memories from there, but I’ve lived my adult life here,” she said.
Becoming a citizen is the end of a long, arduous journey, Molina said, but one she thinks is essential and should ultimately be rigorous. “I think I deserve to be a citizen now,” she stated. “I went through the exams, fingerprints, background checks, driving to Sacramento, L.A. and Fresno, studying … if you’re a resident you have to do it. We live here, we have to be a part of what this country means.
“A lot of people come here to work and be part of the community, and some mess it up for the rest of us, but [the path to citizenship] shouldn’t be easier. Those who get it are the ones who deserve it, who work for it. I don’t want bad people here.”
Molina, along with 1,584 others, was sworn in during a ceremony on Sept. 20 and has already performed one of the most solemn civic duties of being a U.S. citizen: she voted in her first election.
“At the ceremony, they said, ‘Look back and remember how hard you worked for this.’ I was very emotional. The other day, I filled out an application and they asked my status, and for the first time I checked the box marked ‘citizen.’ I love being part of this community, this town, this country.”