For Venezuelan native, upcoming election is momentous occasion
By Julia Green
Tuesday will mark a momentous day in United States history.
It’s also a momentous day in the personal history of Margaretville resident Gaudys Sanford. The Venezuelan-born Sanford, 37, will be voting in her first election since becoming a U.S. citizen in February of 2007.
When Sanford’s daughter, Genesis, now 14, was in the fourth grade, she started asking questions. “‘What is a citizen?,’ she asked. ‘What is an immigrant?’” Sanford says her decision to seek U.S. citizenship was a result of those questions.
“I did it more than anything for her,” she says. “She felt she was a part of this. I wanted her to be proud of me. She was three when we came here, and she feels that she belongs here.”
After passing a citizenship test administered in Albany, Sanford’s citizenship swearing-in ceremony took place Feb. 2, 2007 in Binghamton. Genesis, as a minor, automatically acquired U.S. citizenship with her mother’s naturalization.
“I was really happy,” Genesis says. “For me to get my citizenship was… it was great. It was a great thing and I know she didn’t do it just for herself she did it for me, too.”
“Genesis was sad she couldn’t be there – she had a lot of tests at school that day,” Sanford remembers. “But she was excited. She said, ‘Mom, we’re citizens now. We’re not just immigrants anymore.’ It was very important for her at school, I think – to be able to say, ‘This is who I am.’ And my husband was very proud – he looked at me like he did on the day we got married.”
Sanford moved to Fleischmanns from Tovar, Venezuela, a small, mountainous town she describes as roughly the size of Oneonta, in October of 1998. A single mother, she was encouraged by a childhood friend who had emigrated from Venezuela to the United States.
“It was not an American dream for me like so many others,” she said. “But Daria, my friend, was already in the U.S., saying, ‘You have to come.’”
Despite her hesitation, she applied for a visa at the encouragement of her parents. “I didn’t think I’d get it – I was missing half the paperwork,” she said. “But three weeks later, they said yes.”
Shortly thereafter, Gaudys and Genesis relocated, and Daria set up a meeting with Peggy DiBenedetto about the possibility of Sanford working as a home health aide for DiBenedetto’s mother, Ruth Reynolds.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Sanford said. “They were like my family. Ruth was my teacher, my companion.”
She acknowledges, however, the challenges that were borne of her lack of English proficiency. “It was a big challenge – it was not easy. For a couple of months, I didn’t know what she wanted. She loved to bake; she would ask for sugar and I’d give her a spoon.”
Gradually, though, she began to adapt.
“You have to have faith and belief that everything will be OK,” she says of the difficult transition. “You have to believe you left everything behind for a reason, and you have to believe it’s a good reason. I couldn’t drive, now I can; I couldn’t speak English, now I can. My family is very proud of me in Venezuela.”
The first time Sanford returned to her native country, five years after her emigration, a group of 150 people were on hand at the airport to welcome her back: a crowd that daunted her husband, Margaretville native Dalton Sanford, and some of whom she didn’t even recognize.
“They make fun of me because everywhere I go, I wash my hands, and that’s not part of Venezuelan culture,” she says. “They laugh and tell me, ‘You’re not Venezuelan anymore.’ I believe I became an American citizen and an American person. You grow and change.”
Not only will Tuesday mark Sanford’s first time voting in an American election, it will be her first time voting in any election.
“I never voted in Venezuela,” she says. “I wasn’t interested because I didn’t think the system worked. In my country, we have a leader who wants to be a dictator. I went back, and everyone is so afraid to speak. Here, you have the freedom to say what you want, do what you want, and the freedom to just be you.
“I feel very glad to be able to go, cast my vote, and the system works – my vote will count. It’s really important, and it’s a relief as a mother that I have my kids growing up not worrying about what my family is worrying about. We’re here, and it’s nice to be here because we’re free.”
Genesis echoes that sentiment.
“I’m thankful for the freedom that’s here, definitely, and the safety,” she says. “It’s a lot safer here than Venezuela. I’m just so proud of her for making that move to come here. I know my future will be so much better here than it would be in Venezuela. I can get a good job here and in Venezuela I might not get that chance.”
Sanford likens her excitement to the exhilaration experienced by a teenage girl buying her first prom dress. “It’s special because it’s your first. And for me, it’s really the first time. I never voted in my own country. That’s how much I love this country. I’m an American.”