In New York City this morning, 100 immigrants from 35 different countries received a special welcome to America. They were naturalized at the Festival PEOPLE en Español in front of a crowd of hundreds, including some Latino pop culture icons.
The ceremony kicked off with a moving rendition of America’s national anthem, sung by 11-year-old powerhouse Jonael Santiago.
After that, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administered the Oath of Allegiance to 100 soon-to-be-citizens standing with their hands raised, as their loved ones watched on, cameras raised. The group was naturalized in the presence of Outstanding Americans by Choice honorees Thaléa and Mariano Rivera. The Mexican-born pop singer and former Yankees pitcher were honored because of their dedication to this country and to serving others. They accepted their awards and gave inspiring speeches to the new batch of U.S. citizens.
“I became naturalized after my daughter Sabrina was born,” Thaléa told the audience. “It was an organic step for me and it was an opportunity to represent a Latin woman who works and takes care of her family and is an active part of this society.”
However, Thaléa has no intentions of letting go of her Mexican pride. “I am and I will always be a Mexican girl in my heart in my soul.”
The singer and telenovela star and her husband, Tommy Mottola, have blended Latin and American traditions. “Now the traditions and celebrations of this country are also becoming the traditions and celebrations of my own, especially as I began building and raising a family that immediately became bicultural and bilingual. It’s funny to think that now we are going to celebrate Halloween but we are also going to celebrate Déa de los Muertos in my home.”
Thaléa wasn’t the only superstar singer on site. Gloria Estefan also made an appearance at the festival, and spoke to PEOPLE about her own father’s naturalization.
“Well, I remember because my dad was in the U.S. army and we went to Winnipeg, Canada, because he had to step out of the country [as part of the naturalization process], and we couldn’t to back to Cuba, he was a Bay of Pigs veteran,” the Grammy-winning singer explained. “So we went there and I remember it as a wonderfully fun trip. I was a little kid and we made it like a little family vacation; a couple days in Canada for my dad to finally get his naturalization papers,” recalled Estefan, who produced and is the subject of the new Broadway musical On Your Feet!
And now, thanks to this special ceremony, 100 more new Americans get to look back on their naturalization day fondly. “It’s very special just because I’ve been here for so long. It makes you think about what your family has done to get you here and your nationality, so it felt really great,” Danixa Cristina Molina Leon, who moved to America from Ecuador in 2006, told PEOPLE.
Private First Class Sheldon Barnes, who’s served in the U.S. Army for two years, was honored at the ceremony by being asked to lead the group in the Pledge of Allegiance.
“They put me on the spot,” Barnes told PEOPLE, laughing. “But I appreciate the opportunity of everything, just being here. That’s what America is. It’s a big dream. So when you accomplish it, it’s like that hurdle is overcome and you push towards the next dream.” Moving here from Jamaica in 2002, Private First Class Barnes says he will feel more confident and proud now that he is officially an American citizen.
The ceremony ended with the presentation of the naturalization papers to each new citizen in front of emotional onlookers.