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A new American: An elderly man from Peru sets out to become a citizen, with help from a young friend

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 2, 2010 - They sit across from each other at the table. She asks questions. He answers them.

"OK, please stand up," Pamela Vanegas says, and Manuel Torres does. "What did I ask you to do?"

"To stand up."

"OK, please raise your right hand."

He does.

"Do you swear to tell the truth today?"

"Yes," he says with feeling, then sits down.

"Where were you born?" Vanegas asks. She wears jeans and a T-shirt, her brown hair pulled back in a messy ponytail.

"I was born in..." He hesitates.

"Where," she says slowly. "Where were you born?"

"I was born in Lima, Peru," Torres answers. He has sterling gray hair and a neatly-trimmed mustache.

"OK, and when were you born?"

"I was born in July 23, 1929."

Vanegas already knows the answers to each of these questions. She's asked them of him here seated at his table, in his living room, in his small home since March.

For five months the 22-year-old American grad student and the 81-year-old Peruvian man have met at least once a week to study for his citizenship test.

But it's almost over. In two days, Torres will take the test to become a citizen.

Both have learned a lot during their time together -- for him, civics, history, more English and pronunciation. For her, what it really means to be an American and why people value the distinction so.

In the midst of all the debate about immigration, it's easy to forget the simple thing that draws millions here each year -- opportunity.

"What are two rights in the declaration in the Declaration of Independence?" she asks

"Life," he answers. "Speech? No. Life. Liberty, ahh, liberty, life and pursuit of happiness." He chuckles softly.   

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THE MINE BOSS

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Torres and his wife, Maria Esther, live in a small home in the city, with a curtain of wind chimes tinkling outside and paintings of fruit, cabins in the snow and waves crashing against rocks at sunset hanging on the walls of their furniture-filled living room.

He works in housekeeping at the Westin Hotel downtown, where he's worked since coming here seven years ago.

Back then, Torres wasn't too eager to leave his life in Peru. He thought he'd only stay for six months and visit his three daughters, who all live in St. Louis.

Here, though, he found something that made him stay.

"I can work in this country," he says. "In my country, no work for my age."

Now 81, Torres worked as a mining engineer for most of his life in Peru, running an operation inside the Andes mountains for 30 years. During most of that time, he lived on site while his wife and three girls lived in Lima for better access to the schools. The work wasn't safe, the lead and zinc caused many people to become sick, and during the '70s and '80s, the country itself was a dangerous one with terrorism and car bombs targeting the mines.

First, Torres' oldest daughter came to St. Louis to study. Her sisters followed. They urged their parents to come, too, and eventually the Torres did.

"He wanted to stay close to family, that's the main thing," says their middle daughter, Silvia Bowman. "And we always admire his sacrifice."

Her father's a man who smiles often, that's how he's always been, and how it is now, when he's working hard in housekeeping, preparing for his citizenship test several hours a day and suffering from cancer. For more than a year, he's gotten chemotherapy once a week.

But nothing stops him, Bowman says. Nothing phases him.

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TEST YOURSELF

Click here for sample questions that people taking the naturalization test face. Just click "Generate Questions" and begin.

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Because of his age, Torres qualified to get one-on-one tutoring through the New Americans program at Bi-Lingual International Assistant Services, or BIAS, a non-profit that works with elderly immigrants.

And that's how he met the young American sitting across the table, quizzing him about the constitution and explaining to him in Spanish the difference between freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

STUDY BUDDIES

Vanegas, a chemistry graduate student at St. Louis University, first started working with Torres in March to fulfill volunteer hours required for a class on U.S. Hispanic theology during her final undergrad semester at SLU. During the school year, they met two or three times a week. The class ended, but Vanegas kept coming.

"I wasn't planning on staying on for this long, but it's been a really good experience for me," she says.

She speaks Spanish, her grandfather's from Colombia and she learned it in school, but Torres corrects her in his native language nearly as much as she does him in hers.

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In the beginning, Torres seemed nervous, she says, but over time, he's mastered the material and only gets hung up now and then by small distinctions or confusion over pronunciation. During each session, he records everything with a small cassette tape recorder, and says he typically studies about three hours a day.

Vanegas thinks he's ready for the test.

And his chances are quite good, if the program's history says anything. The New Americans Program, which receives state funding, works with immigrants who are over 60 and have been in the state for five or more years.

In St. Louis, the program works with about 100 immigrants and refugees a year, according to John Meyer, citizenship coordinator at BIAS. Of those, about all become citizens, either from taking and passing the test or from requesting a waiver from taking the test for health or psychological reasons.

"The largest population we help is from Bosnia," Meyer says. "Other than that we have sizable populations from places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, China, Korea, Vietnam and a few from Latin America."

Right now, a woman from Liberia is in the program, Meyer says. She's over 60, homebound and can't read or write in her own language. But Meyer says she's working with a tutor, and he's confident she'll be able to pass the verbal part of the test and may get some leniency from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services with the rest.

There's also a couple from Cuba who are refugees and have been working with a tutor. The wife will take the test in English and the husband, who is over 55 and has been a legal permanent resident for more than 15 years, can take the test in Spanish.

The guidelines are different depending on an applicant's age, Meyer says.

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There's one rule, for instance that states that if you're 50 years old and have been a legal permanent resident for 20 years, you can take the test in your native language. Similarly, if you're 55 and have been a permanent resident for 15 years, like the man from Cuba, you can take the test in your native language.

If you're 65 or older and have been a permanent resident for 20 years, you're given a shortened list of civics and history questions to study -- from 100 to 25.

Also, instructions are given to the officers who give the exam to exercise due consideration. Basically, Meyer says, it asks them to take into account a person's background, if they're illiterate in their own language, for instance, or have no formal education, when choosing the difficulty of the questions asked.

"It's not defined," Meyer says. "You can't sue somebody for not giving you due consideration, but it is something that the officers are instructed to give."

In 2009, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics with the Department of Homeland Security, 743,715 people became citizens. The majority apply, may choose to attend group study sessions and then take the test.

Through the New Americans Program, the majority request the medical waiver so they don't have to take the test, Meyers says.

But not Torres.

If he passes, Bowman hopes that her father will be eligible for Medicare to help him continue his medical treatment, which is his largest expense. She'd like for her father to stop working, but she doubts he'll stop completely.

"It's helping him, too, coping with all of this."

If he doesn't pass, Torres will be sent home with instructions to return in 45 days and retake whatever part of the test he didn't pass. If he still doesn't pass, he'll have to go through the entire application process again.

It typically takes six months and costs close to $700.

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THE BIG DAY

The night before the test, Vanegas heads to the Build-a-Bear at the Galleria. There, she makes a present for her student -- a light brown bear wearing jeans and tennis shoes. His name is Uncle Sammy. She buys a small American flag bandana for him, too.

The next day, Torres and his daughter, Bowman, head to the USCIS building downtown to take the test. To Bowman, he seems a little nervous, but once he gets started, he answers almost everything with ease. A few questions even trip up his daughter, who sits in the room listening, but not Torres.

That afternoon, Vanegas, who's teaching a class while her student takes his test, gets a call as her class nears its end. It's Bowman, Torres' daughter.

Vanegas calls her back after class and gets the news -- he passed. She's so proud.

In her time with him, Vanegas been able to look at her country from a new perspective, something she'd never had in her 22 years. She often reads about taxes and politicians and how awful everything here is. But from Torres' perspective, she says, this is a country of opportunities. She'd forgotten that.

A few days after his test, Vanegas stops by his house to give him Uncle Sammy. He has a gift for her, too -- a silver handmade bracelet with an Incan design. Torres brought it back with him from Peru.

Later this month, he'll officially become a U.S. citizen with a swearing in ceremony. Watching the new American will be his wife, his children and their spouses, his four grandchildren and his young tutor.

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