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A long journey to the voting booth

The moment was captured by Times photographer Gary Friedman in August, when Maria Reyes, an 86-year-old native of El Salvador, became a U.S. citizen.

“Look at this,” Friedman said at the time, dropping a copy of his picture on my desk. He had been at the ceremony working on an unrelated assignment but was struck by this scene.

I could see why. The picture of Reyes holding her small U.S. flag has an Ellis Island quality to it, tinted with loss and hope. I’ve watched new citizens being sworn in, and it’s impossible not to be moved by all the people who have escaped hunger and war, united by the desire for a second chance.

As election day approached, I wondered whether Reyes intended to exercise her new right to vote. Yes, her family told me by phone, she was studying the ballot and eager to go to the polls.

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And so Friedman and I headed down to Gardena, where Reyes lives with her family in a tan stucco house with brown trim. A campaign poster, Dan Medina for City Council, was stuck into the front lawn, and the yard was adorned with pumpkins, ghouls and goblins.

Inside the home, there were enough candles, crucifixes and sculpted angels to ward off evil spirits in six counties. The walls were covered as well with photos of young promise -- generations of kids in mortarboards and gowns at graduation ceremonies across Southern California, and one photo of a grandson who died of kidney disease just before entering college.

“I’m dancing,” Reyes says, greeting me in her living room, her arms and legs jerking uncontrollably.

It wasn’t really a dance, I learned, but the loss of muscle control from 10 years of Parkinson’s. Reyes was unable to hold up her hand during the citizenship oath. That’s why in the photo her daughter, Elvia Ramirez, is holding it aloft for her.

“Oh, my God,” Ramirez said of that moment when her mother became a citizen. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Ramirez fled El Salvador in 1978, just ahead of the bloody civil war and two years before her mother. Like tens of thousands of refugees, she came illegally, found work and later sent for the rest of the family. One of her brothers didn’t make it out. He was killed in the Salvadoran war in 1982.

There’s a Barack Obama sign on a living room desk, and that’s who Ramirez and Reyes say will get their votes on Tuesday. The family believes Democrats better represent their interests, Ramirez told me.

But if there’s a political hero in this household, it’s Ronald Reagan, who in 1986 granted amnesty to tens of thousands of immigrants -- including this family -- who had fled nations in war-torn Central America and elsewhere.

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Ramirez left the living room and returned moments later with an old copy of Time magazine, with Reagan on the cover. Historians have mixed views, to the say the least, on Reagan’s policies in Central America, policies blamed for much of the bloodshed.

But in this house, there’s no dispute on the nation’s 40th president.

“I love Ronald Reagan,” Ramirez said, hugging the picture. She said she prays for the late president every night, and for his wife, Nancy.

Reyes, who has trouble speaking because of her illness and so reverts to the more comfortable Spanish, had not decided on the entire raft of propositions and other matters on Tuesday’s ballot when I spoke to her last week. But she is discussing them with her daughter one by one, Reyes said, because she considers voting a matter of pride and duty.

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“I’m praying for this country every night,” she said, and for the welfare of 14 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, one great-great grandchild, and a great-nephew now serving in Iraq.

At times she has missed her country of birth, Reyes said, but in El Salvador there would have been no walls full of graduation pictures, and no chatter like that which she hears from three great-grandchildren now visiting from Georgia. One wants to be an artist, another a chef and the third not just an attorney but a judge.

I noticed that not everyone in the gallery of living room photos appeared to be part of the family. Ramirez explained that there were also photos of the family of movie producer and director Edward Zwick, whose latest film, “Defiance,” is a story of World War II refugees.

Ramirez has been the Zwicks’ nanny for 15 years in Santa Monica, and a graduation photo of their son hangs with all the others, as if he, too, were a son to be proud of.

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“They’ve definitely shown us what a loving, committed, hardworking family is,” said Liberty Godshall, Zwick’s wife.

The Zwicks took the whole Reyes-Ramirez clan with them on a Colorado vacation a decade ago. Godshall said Reyes’ spirit was in full blossom.

“One of the most memorable moments was when we played capture the flag. She must have been 75 then, and she was running up and down the mountains.”

That freedom of movement is gone now for Maria Juana Reyes, but come Tuesday she’ll express herself in a new and different way.

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When I asked to see her citizenship certificate, which Reyes keeps in her bedroom, Ramirez retrieved the package and pulled the documents from an envelope. Included was a letter from President George W. Bush.

“Americans are united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals,” it said.

“The greatest of those ideals is an unfolding promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, and that no insignificant person was ever born. Welcome to the joy, responsibility and freedom of American citizenship.”

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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