On Monday morning, the Minnesota State Fair felt quieter than usual. After a crowded weekend, the parking lots were starting to fill up; lines were just forming at the admission gates.
By 9 a.m., however, a small crowd of about 100 people had already gathered in front of the stage in the International Bazaar, a collection of vendor stalls from around the world, nestled into the southeast corner of the fair. The audience that filled the benches weren’t parked here for a snack break.
They were patiently waiting to watch their loved ones become United States citizens—the first such naturalization ceremony to occur at the Minnesota State Fair since 1996*.
Thirty new citizens from 18 countries assembled on the International Bazaar stage on August 28 to swear an oath of citizenship. One of these soon-to-be-new Americans was Nicolas Valencia, a Colombian immigrant living in downtown Minneapolis. Monday’s citizenship ceremony marked his second-ever visit to the State Fair—and the culmination of a long, exhausting process.
“It feels amazing,” Valencia said. “I’m glad for people to see this and get familiar with the process. A lot of people don’t know how hard it is, how much time it takes, and everything that goes into it.”
U.S. District Court Judge Kate Menendez presided over the high-energy ceremony. As Menendez announced the country-of-origin for each new citizen, she asked the citizens from that country to stand, and encouraged an excited audience to applaud. Then the 30 new citizens stood up, raised their right hands, and took the Oath of Allegiance, the final step to becoming a United States citizen.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota led the event with volunteers from the League of Women Voters in Minnesota. Along with speeches from the hosts, a saxophonist played the national anthem, and children from the audience gathered to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. New citizens and their friends and family received free tickets to the fair in order to attend the event.
Naturalization ceremonies typically take place at federal courthouses, schools, or community centers. For example, each month the League of Women Voters in Minnesota, the U.S. Federal Court System, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services host a large naturalization ceremony at the St. Paul RiverCentre. Last year, 967,500 new citizens became naturalized across the United States.
This year represents the first time new citizens could attend a naturalization ceremony at the Minnesota State Fair in 27 years. New citizens typically receive notice that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has approved their citizenship application; next, they get a date, time, and location for the scheduled ceremony.
‘The State Fair is a very American thing’
The State Fair setting offered a festive reception for Valencia, who was joined by his partner, Jose Valentin, and a friend, Daniela Goncalbes. The first food they wanted to get at the fair were fried Oreos. Valencia said he would head for the Pronto Pups immediately after. Now a new United States citizen, Valencia said he’s ready to branch out at the fair, too
“I want to explore more,” Valencia said. “I’m not a pickle fan, but I’ll probably try the fried pickles since everybody talks about it.”
During the ceremony, Valentin sat in the front row of the audience with Goncalbes, and pointed toward their friend on the stage.
“We were not expecting it, but the State Fair is a very American thing,” Valentin said of the ceremony’s unique setting.
“We thought that it was a great part of starting his official American experience,” Goncalbes added.
Immigrants who are on a path to citizenship can become naturalized citizens after a certain period of time. For example, legal permanent residents, or green card holders, can apply to become citizens after five years of legal residency.
The process to become a citizen can be a long waiting game. After filling out the necessary paperwork, applicants attend interviews, pass a citizenship test, and then take the Oath of Allegiance.
At the ceremony, Menendez named the top three countries for new legal permanent residents settling in Minnesota: Somalia, Ethiopia, and India. New citizens at the State Fair also came from Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Myanmar, and more.
A right to vote, plus doughnuts
By the start of the ceremony, workers had set up five rows of chairs, a podium, and an American flag. Yair Carvajalino, from Colombia, sat in the front row on stage and excitedly smiled at his family as they took photos of the ceremony. Soft music, coming from a speaker, replaced the upbeat polka bands that usually blast fairgoers in the International Bazaar.
Carvajalino was joined by his wife Sally, son Leonardo, and Sally’s parents. The whole family was dressed up in red, white, and blue.
“It feels great. You feel a sense of belonging and ownership,” Carvajalino said. After he got off stage, Carvajalino filled out a voter registration form: his new right as a U.S. citizen.
Carvajalino described his family as State Fair regulars, who attend every year. And what’s their favorite State Fair food? Leonardo, Carvajalino’s young son let out a quiet “doughnuts,” and giggled.
“It means a lot to us that this ceremony was here for the first time,” Sally said. “We have a bench in honor of my sister who is no longer with us. So at the beginning of the fair, we find the bench, like a scavenger hunt, and then we share it with our family and friends.”
After creating another special memory at the State Fair, the family left to search for their bench.
The Minnesota State Fair will host another naturalization ceremony at the International Bazaar stage at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, August 30.
*Correction: A previous version of this article said the Minnesota State Fair held its first-ever naturalization ceremony. The story has been updated to reflect that the State Fair held its first naturalization ceremony since 1996.