San Francisco Chronicle
Women in science naturalized as citizens
For a chilly and overcast morning in San Francisco, the mood on the ground floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Roberts Family Gallery was anything but.
More than 40 soon-to-be U.S. citizens — all of them women with ties to science and technology — were invited Saturday to a one-of-a-kind naturalization ceremony, the first to be hosted at the museum. The featured speakers included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, SFMOMA director Christopher Bedford and NASA Ames Research Center tech area lead Anupa Bajwa.
The women came from 17 countries: Belarus, Canada, China, Denmark, France, India, Iran, Ireland, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, South Korea, Taiwan, United Kingdom and Vietnam.
Most had moved to the Bay Area for opportunities in science and tech — which held a particular significance given that the ceremony coincided with International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
“Immigration is what we’re celebrating here today,” Pelosi said before reading a lengthy quote from Ronald Reagan’s last presidential speech. “Know your power in your country. Your vote is your voice.”
Almost every seat on the floor’s Roman steps was occupied by proud family members and friends. Even people who didn’t know the ceremony was happening but stumbled upon it couldn’t resist experiencing it, too.
Fathers held cooing babies as joyful partners listened intently to a group of San Francisco high schoolers sing an incandescent rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Any sense of hurry, or worry, seemed to stop as people watched their loved ones swear the Oath of Allegiance before Diego Rivera’s towering, 10-panel fresco, “Pan American Unity,” which seemed to serve as its own kind of American welcome.
“I’m in clouds,” said former Wuhan resident Ying Cai, 45, who has had her green card for 11 years but wanted to “truly” become part of America just like her three children. The older two are about to graduate from high school in San Francisco. Her son is a proud Boy Scout too, she said.
Cai, who works in pharmaceuticals, spoke of feeling blessed by the people she’d had
the chance to meet in the U.S., even just in passing, like a retired physician at a busy COVID vaccination center who took the time out of his day to explain every possible side effect of the vaccine to her.
“I told my kids, these are the pillars of society,” she said, cradling her 2½-year-old daughter, Angelica, who earlier had clutched a star-spangled teddy bear but now had moved on to her mother’s
new mini American flag. “This is where I want to belong.”
Many of the ceremony’s new citizens described how hopeful they felt about being in the U.S., and the dreams they had, in particular for their children.
Elena Brown, a 41-year-old manager in pharmaceutical science, came from Moscow but landed in San Francisco a few years ago, after living for some time in Switzerland. Her 6-yearold daughter was born there.
“I’m super excited,” she said, turning to smile at her daughter and American husband, who had come to cheer her on. “It was a big journey. I just want to have my kids raised in this country, to have lots of doors.”
Wilma Pinnick, who immigrated from Nigeria, took the stage during the ceremony to lead her fellow citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance. Before she received her citizenship, 35-yearold Pinnick had already achieved so many milestones: She and her husband bought a home in Oakland and welcomed a now 10½month-old daughter, who she said was smiling more than usual Saturday.
“This was a long time coming,” Pinnick said, holding her daughter. She added that she was particularly grateful to experience her citizenship ceremony at the museum, and to hear from all of the speakers. “We have to go to a wedding today, and we’re going to party extra hard.”
For a few new Americans, the ceremony elicited more mixed emotions.
“It’s bittersweet, I guess I’d say,” said Haiyan Wu, a 37-yearold engineering manager who was raised in a small town in Southeast China. “It feels like the end of an era, almost, and it only hit me when the ceremony started that I’m the only one getting naturalized in my family.”
Wu, who has lived in San Francisco for 10 years, is the only person in her family who lives in the U.S. The rest are in other parts of Asia, and she hasn’t been able to return to China since the pandemic began. She came to the Bay Area to complete her master’s degree in computer science and never left, believing it to be the best option for her future.
But that realization — that she is leaving her motherland behind and is thousands of miles away from the family and friends she grew up with — felt potent Saturday morning, especially after the hubbub of the morning’s ceremony quieted down, as Wu stood in line to complete the final steps in her citizenship process. Her friends patiently waited for her on the steps, holding a bouquet of flowers.
Despite her wistful feelings, Wu said she felt thankful to be able to have experienced such a beautiful ceremony, even if her family members couldn’t be there with her in person.
“My friends are excited,” she said. “They wanted to do something very American. So I think we’ll watch the Super Bowl tomorrow, grab some pizza and some beer. I’ve watched it before, but it’ll be extra special.”