A man waved a small American flag and then performed a backflip on the sands of South Beach to celebrate becoming a U.S. citizen.
“It was a long process, but I made it,” said Felix Galera, who was born in Colombia. His wife, Brittany Kaylor, filmed his joyful outburst on the beach.
Galera was one of 100 immigrants from 25 countries who became U.S. citizens Wednesday morning under the blazing sun at Eighth Street and Ocean Drive, one of the many events staged this week as part of Miami Beach’s centennial celebration.
The group of men and women, mostly dressed in suits and cocktail dresses for the occasion, are immigrants from Argentina, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Iran, Spain and Germany, among other countries. There was a loud cheer as 35 Cubans got up from their seats as their country of origin was called.
Besides swearing allegiance to the United States, the new Americans listened to remarks by Leon Rodriguez, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that processes immigration documents.
Rodriguez, son of Cuban immigrants, is the fourth director of USCIS and also the fourth Cuban American to lead the agency. Born in Brooklyn, Rodriguez and his family moved to Miami Beach when he was 4 and grew up in the city alongside Jimmy Morales, the Miami Beach city manager and the son of a Cuban mother and a Puerto Rican father.
Rodriguez noted that while he has attended several citizenship ceremonies as USCIS director, the one Wednesday in Miami Beach was special.
“This one, of course, was particularly special because it’s my hometown,” said Rodriguez.
Morales, who was at the ceremony, introduced Rodriguez to the new citizens. The two not only attended school together, but became lifelong friends.
“We met in kindergarten at Biscayne Elementary,” Morales said of Rodriguez in a separate interview. “We grew up as childhood friends and have kept very close. We have been at each other’s major events, weddings, respective 50th birthday parties.”
Both graduated from Miami Beach High.
In the ceremony, Rodriguez administered the Oath of Allegiance to the citizenship candidates and congratulated them on achieving a milestone in their lives.
“Immigration is part of what makes America the beacon that it is. The great country that it is. Many of those immigrants, like my parents, came here seeking refuge from conditions in their own countries that were intolerable,” Rodriguez said. “We come to America and we are able to make dreams come true. The hard work of parents becomes the successes of their children.”
Yvonne Alvarez, born in Ecuador, celebrated her new citizenship with her family. After the ceremony, she rushed over to her husband, Pablo Calisto, kissed him and held their 7-month-old baby, Matias. Their dog, Max, jumped up on Alvarez’s leg.
Preschool teacher Johanna Larreal celebrated with her two daughters, 11-year-old Loureen Soto and 5-year-old Loren Soto, who are on spring break this week. All three were wearing party dresses and captured the special moment by taking a picture with a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty at the end of the ceremony.
“It all came together quite nicely,” Larreal said.
While some new citizens relocated to South Florida for their families and new opportunities, others came for a temporary business venture and then never wanted to leave.
Enrique Juarez, vice president of NBCUniversal in Latin America, has been living in South Florida for more than a decade and could finally call South Florida his permanent hometown.
“I travel a lot and there was a moment when I was coming back from a trip that, as the plane was landing, I felt like I’m home,” said Juarez, who is originally from Mexico. “Now I know it doesn’t matter if I go anywhere else, I can always come home.”
Elliot Stares, from the United Kingdom, relocated his PR firm from Europe to the U.S. after he came to South Florida for a project and fell in love with the place. He runs major accounts, including Rolex and Adidas, and lives in South Beach.
“I met my wife here,” Stares said. “She’s Colombian and became a citizen seven years ago. Now I am following her footsteps.”