My Smithsonian internship, my American identity

Vanessa Chicas, an intern in the museum's Program in Latino History and Culture, reflects on the unique experience she had as a Smithsonian intern, just in time for Citizenship Day on September 17.

Words cannot explain how happy I was when I found out that I had been given the incredible opportunity to join the Smithsonian as an intern for the Program in Latino History and Culture. I learned new things about Braceros, Latin food, and music. But I never expected that it would help establish a deeper connection to my identity as an American.

This summer, I helped commemorate the song that became the U.S. national anthem, marveled at seeing a First Lady, and held back tears while 15 people became U.S. citizens. These experiences not only improved my resumé but also changed my outlook on life.

Vanessa sports her "Raise It Up!" t-shirt
Vanessa sports her "Raise It Up!" t-shirt

If you asked me a few months ago whether I truly considered myself American, my answer might be different than it is now. I had adopted the U.S. as my home for the past 14 years, but my sense of patriotism leaned towards El Salvador. At the museum, I began to feel part of something bigger.

Every week, I participated in planning meetings for Raise It Up!, our celebration of the bicentennial of "The Star-Spangled Banner." In addition to managing logistical tasks (distributing flyers and directing museum visitors), I also discussed how the program would connect with a diverse audience. I began to see the growing strength of my own connections to American history and I was glad to be part of this immense, national celebration.

Chorus America was a part of our star-spangled celebration
Chorus America was a part of our star-spangled celebration

As I pondered this change I felt, I also worked on another project in which the core question is literally "What does it mean to be American?" Realizing this question has many, many answers, I began to think it could be okay for me to have my own definition—whether or not it matched someone else's.

It all came together on the morning of June 17. All summer, I'd looked forward to the special naturalization ceremony for citizenship candidates because I would get to see former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in person.

Clinton delivered the keynote address during the event as the Smithsonian honored Ralph Lauren with the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal.

John Gray, director, National Museum of American History; Sarah Taylor, District Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; Jeh Johnson, Secretary, Department of Homeland Security; Hillary Rodham Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State; Ralph Lauren, chairman and CEO, Ralph Lauren Corp.; G. Wayne Clough, Secretary, Smithsonian, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
John Gray, director, National Museum of American History; Sarah Taylor, District Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; Jeh Johnson, Secretary, Department of Homeland Security; Hillary Rodham Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State; Ralph Lauren, chairman and CEO, Ralph Lauren Corp.; G. Wayne Clough, Secretary, Smithsonian, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

Although it was cool to see these famous faces, what truly affected me were the citizenship candidates. Fifteen different people of 15 different nationalities came that day (one for each star on the Star-Spangled Banner), accompanied by their families. They repeated the oath proudly, reveling in this big moment. At the end of the ceremony, they held their certificates and waved small U.S. flags excitedly as onlookers applauded and snapped photos.

Official U.S. citizens with their certificates in hand, waving their flags
Official U.S. citizens with their certificates in hand, waving their flags

I almost felt like crying at the excitement I felt for them, but also at the reflection of my own family's journey to the United States—our struggles, our blessings, and everything in between. It was also a realization that after an agonizing 13 years waiting for our permanent resident cards, we could apply for citizenship in a few years and be in their shoes. It made me excited to not only be a part of this wonderful museum, but a part of this amazing country. I finally felt like a legitimate part of the American family—we may not all be the same but we can come together to celebrate this country and what it stands for.

Vanessa Chicas was a summer intern at the National Museum of American History. She is a senior at Johnson C. Smith University. Learn more about our internship opportunities.