“Everybody is shocked at my English,” Saul Aguila, 40, of Thebes, said Thursday afternoon.
By that time, he’d been a U.S. citizen for about four hours.
Aguila was one of 78 new Americans naturalized during a ceremony held at the Gateway Center in Collinsville. But he doesn’t sound brand new. He talks more like a cowboy than a vaquero because “I’ve literally been here pretty much my whole life.”
Aguila was born in Mexico. His father, a construction worker, moved to the U.S. for the same reason so many other Mexican nationals have: You can make a better living here than you can there. And when the time was right, Aguila’s father had the rest of his family join him in Hutchinson, Kan.
Saul was 5.
The family moved a lot, Aguila said, going wherever his father’s work took him. “He built grain elevators. By the time I was in seventh grade, I lived in about 13 states,” he said.
But the family knew it wouldn’t be wise to try raising high school-aged kids moving around as much as they had. The family moved to southern Illinois in 1988, and he’s called it home ever since.
“I always thought of myself as a US citizen without the paper. I knew no other culture, I knew no other heritage,” Aguila said.
But the road to becoming a naturalized citizen didn’t start until Aguila met Deana Story seven years ago. According to Donna Story, Deana’s mother, Deana pushed Aguila to go forward with naturalization.
“She wanted him to do this,” Donna Story said.
But Deana never got to see Aguila officially become the American he’s felt like for decades. She died following an illness while on vacation with the family in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Aug. 8, 2014. Among those she left behind was Aguila, to whom she was engaged, and her daughter Faith, who’s now 11.
“Saul and I promised each other the night she passed away that would be our goal in life — to give (Faith) as strong and healthy a life as we could,” Donna Story said.
That’s partly why Aguila happily finished the lengthy naturalization process, and Donna Story is thrilled.
“It just gives me more assurance, more security. He’s given that to both me and Faith. He’s a very strong, stable, secure young man,” Donna Story said.
“I just can’t say enough what an honor it is. It’s something I don’t have to worry about anymore,” Aguila said. But since he’s had 35 years to get used to America, nothing much about Aguila’s life will change now that he’s the new owner of a piece of paper that says he’s a U.S. citizen.
One new privilege, though, is that he can vote. It’s something he’s looked forward to for a long time.
“I always joked that I can’t complain because I could never vote,” he said. And now, when he goes back to Mexico to visit family, he’ll go through a different door at the border crossing.
“I’ll get to go through the U.S. citizen line,” Aguila said.
It’s easy to overlook little things like wardrobe on a day as big as Thursday was for Aguila, but Donna Story pointed out that the American flag tie he wore for the ceremony is something of a family heirloom.
“My brother-in-law had adopted two children, one from Honduras and one from Guatemala,” Donna Story said. “He wore that tie at his kids’ naturalization ceremonies.”
Those ceremonies took place in 1990 and 1994.