Ode: A Brazilian immigrant remembers two 9/11s

Jan 11, 2017

On September 11, 1976, my father proposed to my mother just two days after meeting her on a bus in Brazil. He, an Indian scientist working at a Brazilian university, found love when the bus that he was riding came to a sudden halt, causing a woman to fall on his lap. My mother, a young Brazilian woman who happened to be a spectator of this precipitous turn of events, smiled at my father and the lady on his lap. Two days later, he proposed. Four months later, they were married. In 2001, twenty-five years later, I looked forward to September 11. I had taken the day off to accompany my grandmother, who lived with my parents, to San Francisco, where she would take part in the oath ceremony that would make her an American citizen. We would be adding this landmark moment to what was already a celebrated day in my family’s history.

One week prior to the ceremony, my grandmother began to plan every detail of the day. We would wake up at 5 a.m. We would board the BART near our home at 6:30 so that we could arrive at the courthouse in San Francisco at 7:30. She would wear a grayish-blue silk blouse and white linen skirt. She ironed it three days in advance. After the swearing-in ceremony, we would celebrate by having lunch at an Italian restaurant in North Beach, as my grandmother was born of Italian parents who emigrated to Brazil when they were children. We would honor them by eating southern Italian food on this momentous day. Then, we would take the BART home in the afternoon. I imagined I would buy pastries in San Francisco to surprise my parents and celebrate the anniversary of their engagement as well as my grandmother’s citizenship.

The day arrived. My grandmother and I took our trip across the bay. Her excitement was that of her childhood self, which I imagined, for she had told me stories of being six years old, of being envious of her five older siblings enrolled in school. Though still too young to be a student, she snuck her way onto the playground of the nearby elementary school with a shoebox full of pencils and paper under her arm. And so, she gave herself the chance to take part in something bigger than herself—to belong to a world that had already accepted her brothers and sisters. Now, as a woman of seventy, she seemed that little girl.

Upon arriving at the door of the auditorium where the oath ceremony would take place, I wished her good luck, and she said in Portuguese, “When we come together again, I’ll be an American!” She found a seat on the first floor with others who were going to be naturalized, while I climbed the stairs to the balcony where the spectators would sit. I found myself a seat close to the front so that I could glimpse my grandmother’s profile down below.

By the time I sat down, my grandmother had befriended her neighbors. She is always this way. Befriending salespeople, dog walkers, gardeners. I wondered what they were saying.

Meanwhile, I took notice of the woman sitting to my right. She wore a brown fur coat and carried a very large cream-colored purse made of a thick, luxurious leather. Though I am no vegetarian, I found myself wondering how many animals were killed for the sake of her outfit. I sat in silent judgment—a judgment that didn’t close me off to questions of where she was from, who the immigrant was whom she had accompanied to this courthouse, and whether that immigrant was, like this woman, so emphatically wealthy. I wondered if these accessories were bought to make clear that she and her ilk were not the types of immigrants who were desperate; they were not ones who came to this country because they were poor or fleeing something terrible. Then I judged my own judgment. I imagined that my grandmother would have been chatting away, would have been open and warm even if she had sat next to this woman.

The woman-in-fur began to speak loudly to her friend. I added this detail to the caricature I was slowly creating in my mind: even her voice was that of a person who enjoys being overheard. But I found myself giving her the audience she wanted. She was speaking of a plane, of a pilot.

She turned to me. She asked me if I’d heard the news. “What news?” A plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Had a pilot fallen asleep? Was the plane hijacked? We speculated. The balcony began to stir. Its murmurs grew louder. Through the haze of sound, I could hear “plane,” “another plane” and “terrorist” uttered over and over again. The woman-in-fur informed me of the second plane. Panic struck us both. It was an intensity of panic that made her fur fall away in my mind as we became united in fear. The people over whom we were suspended—the ones who were going to be sworn in—were not restless. They had been asked to turn their phones off. I watched them, feeling an urge to get my grandmother’s attention, to somehow make a sign that an attack on our country was underway. But how does one make such a sign?

A man on the stage began the ceremony. He spoke jovially of the honor of becoming an American citizen. Soon he was stopped by an official-looking woman who approached the stage and whispered something to him. As she walked away, he said into the microphone, “Please do not panic. There have been no threats to this building. We are learning, however, that we need to have an abbreviated ceremony.”

The people below us let out a collective gasp. The absence of a threat to the building, being spoken, made the threat present. Within five minutes, the people below us took their oaths, became Americans, and were quickly ushered out of the building, out, into a different cityscape than the one we’d just parted with. This San Francisco’s skyscrapers seemed suddenly to be scraping nothing but our psyches with the threat falling to the ground. Were the people who sat in their offices on the top floors of these buildings looking down at us, the way I’d looked down at my grandmother? Did they know something we didn’t? Or were they even there? Had they fled?

My grandmother and I got into a cab. We headed for North Beach not for our Italian meal now, but only because the buildings there were shorter. I needed to figure out what to do when the cab driver told us the BART was closed. I called my parents from a coffee shop, came up with a plan to take the cab all the way to Livermore, an hour away. It was a long ride across the Bay Bridge, but, later the bridges were likely to close, and if my parents drove to San Francisco to pick us up, we’d likely be stuck there. We finished cappuccinos without tasting them and jumped into a cab. I detected in the driver’s accent, a hint of Portuguese. Some of her “d’s” sounded like “j’s,” and her “t’s” sounded like “ch’s,” giving away her heritage.

As we joined all of America in fear, our conversation returned to our mother tongue. She was not a citizen and was afraid she would never be able to become one now. I felt my own privilege at that moment: I had crossed over to this side of the immigrant’s dream. I was secure enough to have money to pay for this cab ride when it became necessary, and, for a moment, I wondered if I might as well have been wearing the fur I so despised on the woman who sat next to me at the courthouse.

Perhaps I was that woman to this cab driver. But for now, we were united in fear. For many moments that week, I felt deeply connected to all the people I met—I felt, for the first time in my life in this country—as though I was an insider, a real American. It was a brief illusion, broken shortly after it was created. Soon people would ask me if I was Middle-Eastern. They would ask my brother later that week if he was one of the people who did this to our country. Really, the feeling of being an American lasted about a week. Though I’ve been a citizen since I was 10, it took having planes crash into towers—it took absolute terror to feel, for a second, like I might just be on the inside for once.


Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.


The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, February 3 at {be}Studio in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Be Moved: An ode to transitions and transformations.” Tickets are available at kwit.org.

For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.