Reluctant American

For 47 years he waited to make it real.

Now that it’s real, he feels nothing.

No pride, no accomplishment – he returned to work the next day.

José Brito is a 64-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant who has lived in the United States for 47 years, and only in 2018 did he become a citizen. 

In those 47 years, Brito married a woman with five children who he helped raise, had two children of his own, and became a grandfather several times over. 

Brito wasn’t longing to be considered an “American,” nor did he feel like an outcast. 

So, why now? Why wait?

Brito just wanted to be covered. Things are changing, and he doesn’t even want to entertain the notion of being sent back to Ecuador. Home is here for José.

Brito was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador in 1955 where he lived with his parents, two younger sisters, and his brother. Life was quiet, but life was good. 

Brito and his family were middle class. They had all they needed, and wanted for little. But still, José’s father wanted more than Guayaquil could offer them. And so, in 1968 his dad left for New York City. He would send for his wife and children once he had a place for them to go.

When all was said and done, it took six years for Brito’s whole family to make it to the United States and be together once again. 

A year passed, then two, then three. Four years after he left, Brito’s father sent for him and one of his sisters. In May of 1972, José and his sister boarded a flight to New York City where their father already arranged for their permanent resident status.

“All I remember is, ‘OK, I’m ready to come, this is the date,’” said Brito, “and then you know you’re coming, and then you just separate from everybody.”

Brito’s father was a cook at a college in Upstate New York. For the first few days, Brito and his sister stayed with their dad at the college before moving into a coworker’s house for a few weeks. 

Then through some friends, the three managed to find a spacious two-bedroom corner apartment in New York City for $250 a month in a quiet neighborhood. All the while, José’s father was preparing to send for his wife and remaining children in Ecuador.

In 1974, the family was finally reunited – mother, father, and all their children together in Manhattan, all permanent residents. Life could once again resume. 

Brito was 16 when he arrived in America, right in the middle of high school. However, because of the language barrier he couldn’t just pick up where he left off. Brito would later get his GED after learning English and getting a foothold in his new country. 

But what of Ecuador? Was it hard to leave home?

“For me, no,” said Brito. “I don’t know about anybody else, but for me it was fine.”

High school was out of the question, but José needed to work. No less than a month after moving to the city, Brito landed a job at a factory in Secaucus, New Jersey where he worked in shipping and receiving for quite some time. 

In 1981, José moved to New Jersey. He was 27, had great hair, flashy boots, and the world in the palm of his hands. He went out a lot, partying and meeting people. Then in 1983, Brito’s friend introduced him to Marise, and everything changed.

Marise had five children from a previous marriage when she met José, but that didn’t bother him. He was 27, and not necessarily in the “kids” mindset, but he liked Marise, and her kids were part of the deal so he had to get with it or move on. 

He got with it.

“As kids they were always shy,” said Brito, “and then I started to be more around and stuff. So yeah, that’s how we pretty much became a family. It’s pretty cool now that you take me back.”

And so, José became a father to Marise’s five children, who would come to call him “dad” in time. 

Five kids were not enough. In 1983, Marise gave birth to Stephanie, her sixth child but José’s first. Life was good, but they still weren’t married. Much like citizenship, marriage didn’t matter much to José. He was with Marise for years, they were raising a family, they were together, and they were happy – they didn’t need a courthouse to give them that. No courthouse can give you that.

But Marise’s parents were devout Catholics. They didn’t like their daughter “living in sin” with a man to whom she wasn’t married. In 1990, seven after Stephanie’s birth, and nine years after starting their life together, José and Marise were married.

“We made it legal first, but then I wanted to get married in the eyes of God,” said Marise. “My mother and father were the witnesses, we didn’t have a big wedding because all of my kids thought we were married already. My mother and father were very religious. It was scandalous, we were living in sin. They were very traditional, hardcore traditional, they went to mass every day.”

“She [Marise’s mother] was on us all the time,” said José.

A year after the wedding, Marise gave birth to her seventh and final child, Joseph, named after his father. The family was complete – there was Marise and Jose, and their children Karina, Janine, Jennifer, Christopher, Daniel, Stephanie, and the youngest, Joseph. 

Their lives went largely unimpeded. Children move out, get married, move on. The house was sort of like a school, kids matriculated out once they were ready to move on. There was no time when all seven children were living under the same roof – their ages were too far apart. 

But, in 2007, Jennifer, one of Marise’s eldest children, died of unknown causes just before Joseph’s 16th birthday. The family was set adrift, but they were adrift together. Those wounds never fully heal, but as a family they forged ahead. 

After more than 40 years in America, a lifetime, José finally decided to get his citizenship. But once again we ask: why now?

“It started to become a pain in the ass,” said José. “You renew it every 10 years and I didn’t want to go through the process. And then the laws started to change.

“Trump got into it. I said, ‘I don’t think I’m any different from anybody else, and he might start picking on it.’”

José felt like he was under President Trump’s microscope, and he wanted an insurance policy that he would be able to stay in America with his family. The only way to do that was to become a citizen.

Once again, Brito was pushed into making things official. He didn’t feel the need to get married until his mother-in-law made it a sticking-point, and he didn’t feel the need to become a citizen until it became imperative that he do so.

Brito went through the typical application process with no real issues to speak of, but he still had to take the test. He hadn’t had to study for anything since he got his GED, and so he was a bit intimidated. Brito didn’t study the first time he took the test, and he failed. Luckily, you’re afforded two chances to pass the test. 

I was born here, so I never took that test, but I wanted to know if I would pass. I have a hunch that many people born here wouldn’t pass, so I set out to test that, at least on myself. I took the test and scored an 85%. A few questions tripped me up – the number of amendments and James Madison writing the federalist papers, just based on my not-knowing. However, a question that not only tricked me but disturbed me was one asking what Ben Franklin was most famous for, which is a bit subjective. None of the given answers were what I knew him for, so I got it wrong. Apparently, he is known primarily for being a diplomat – go figure.

José didn’t like studying, but he knew he had to pass, so he memorized the material and took the test again only to find out it was the same. Needless to say, he passed and was ushered into a small ceremony for himself and the other new citizens.

“To me it was something that I had to do,” said Brito. “It was like going to get my license for the first time. But I can say that I was relieved because I wanted to do it just to protect myself, so I did it. I don’t think what’s going to be the next step, I don’t think it’s one more. But, that should be it.”

José Brito isn’t alone. The Washington Post reported that the same year José got his citizenship, the number of people who got their citizenship climbed to the highest it’s been in five years. 756,800 people were made citizens in 2018, a figure that’s up 16% since 2014. People are being scared into citizenship. People like Brito who were fine with their permanent resident status are starting to conclude that it might not be enough, it might not save them.

In 2018, José Brito became a citizen, an American at last. Did it change him? Did “becoming an American” bestow upon him the gravitas that the President’s supporters hold in such high regard?

“No, not really,” said Brito. “I’m the same.”

Published by Christopher Goodlof

Writer, Visual Artist, Musician

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