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Naturalized:
The Immigrant Experience

The Land of Immigrants

America is a land of immigrants – but the immigrant experience tends to be difficult and traumatic. The images of Border Patrol agents on horseback charging at unarmed Haitian men and women on the Del Rio were painful to watch. Images of families being ripped apart and tearful, terrified children being put in cages is also a reality of the immigrant experience. The Muslim ban was another instance of deeply xenophobic immigration law. And these are just a few of the more recent instances.

Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, by Pritika Chowdhry

Installation view of Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, at Flow Art Gallery, Minneapolis, MN

White Borders

Reece Jones, the author of “White Borders” writes, “The truth is that the mass deportation of nonwhite people and immigration bans based on nationality, religion or race is quintessentially American. From the beginning, the United States was built on the dual foundation of open immigration for whites from Northern Europe and racial subordination and exclusion of enslaved people from Africa, Native Americans, and, eventually, immigrants from other parts of the world, (Jones 2021).”

Naturalization Act of 1790

In fact, the Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited eligibility for citizenship by naturalization to “free white persons.” In practice, only white, male property owners could naturalize and acquire the status of citizens, whereas women, nonwhite persons, and indentured servants could not. Access to citizenship gradually expanded with subsequent changes to the Naturalization Act, however, the racial restrictions were not fully eliminated until 1952, (Naturalization Act of 1790).

Counter-Memory of the Immigrant Experience

Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, by Pritika Chowdhry

Installation view of Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, by Pritika Chowdhry

This racism embedded in the history of immigration is the counter-memory that I seek to excavate. Michel Foucault coined the term, “Counter-Memory” to describe a modality of history that opposes history as knowledge or history as truth. For Foucault, counter-memory was an act of resistance in which one critically examines the history and excavates the narratives that have been subjugated, (Foucault 1977).

Alien Number, A#

When I finally got a green card, I was assigned an A number which stands for Alien number, as in A# 000-000-000. To be honest, it made me feel… not very good. I hope I don’t sound ungrateful, but the immigrant experience did a number on me.

The Unnatural Process of Naturalization

It is a paradox. The word, “Naturalized” embodies the stressful process of becoming a citizen in the US. And it also grapples with the question that if after becoming a citizen one is naturalized, was one unnatural before? Given the racist language and practices that are still part of the naturalization process, it is a valid question. Immigrants feel a sense of alienation the degree of which depends on how difficult the immigration process was for an individual.

Immigration Trauma

Going through the immigration process is traumatic. For example, the Haitian immigrants that congregated under the Del Rio bridge, probably had a very traumatic immigration experience, since they had walked for weeks to get here. They were attacked by ICE agents on horseback with whips. They lived under the Del Rio bridge for several weeks in deprived and sub-standard conditions. And then they were deported right back to Haiti.

 

For other immigrants like me, who come here legally on an H1b work visa and go through the step-by-step naturalization process of becoming a citizen, the trauma is much lesser, but it still is a very stressful process.

Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, by Pritika Chowdhry

Close-up view of Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, by Pritika Chowdhry

The Oath of Allegiance

I hadn’t expected the swearing-in ceremony to be such a gut-wrenching experience - one has to cut all ties with one's birth country, to absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to their birth country.

This is the oath I took -

 

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God,"  (Oath of Allegiance 2021).

Now that I have been a citizen for several years, I have been on the other side of the immigrant experience for a while. I can now look back to process all that I went through. The swearing-in ceremony was a very emotional experience.

Anti-Memorial to Racist Immigration Laws

This sculptural poem is an anti-memorial to the trauma of immigration experiences. James E Young describes an anti-memorial as, “Anti-memorials aim not to console but to provoke, not to remain fixed but to change, not to be everlasting but to disappear, not to be ignored by passers-by but to demand interaction, not to remain pristine but to invite their own violation and not to accept graciously the burden of memory but to drop it at the public’s feet.”  (Young 1997)

Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, by Pritika Chowdhry

I leverage the power of language as a container of emotions and memories to engage with the complexity of the naturalization process. In my sculptural poems, I pick words or phrases that are ambiguous fragments of emotion. The word can be interpreted in different ways based on the subjectivity of the viewer. The words are distillations of thoughts or feelings or experiences that I am mediate through formal concerns such as typography, color, texture, and material significance.

Close-up view of Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, by Pritika Chowdhry

Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, by Pritika Chowdhry

Language feels so inadequate to fully express a traumatic experience. To illustrate the fractured nature of language, the word is broken or interrupted at seemingly random but very intentional points. The Naturalized work is installed broken at three points – natur/aliz/ed. This word plays with the multiple meanings of the word “naturalized” to explore the process of naturalization that immigrants experience to become citizens of a country.

Close-up view of Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, by Pritika Chowdhry

Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, by Pritika Chowdhry

The scorching of the wood refers to cremation rites and death, and in this context, it is about giving up one national identity and taking on another. For me, it was such an intense experience, like a death and a rebirth. I felt like my Indian identity had to die, in order for my American identity to be born. This work is also an exercise in paring down to the essentials, to the core, and an attempt at finding the “more in less.”

Close-up view of Naturalized: The Immigrant Experience, by Pritika Chowdhry

Bibliography

Foucault, Michel. 1977. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, by Donald F. Bouchard, 160.

Cornell University Press.

Jones, Reece. 2021. Opinion | Facing Up to the Racist Legacy of America’s Immigration Laws. October 28. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/28/opinion/race-immigration-racism.html.

2021. Naturalization Act of 1790. August 28.

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Naturalization_Act_of_1790&oldid=1041122031.

2021. Oath of Allegiance. November 3.

https://www.uscis.gov/citizenship/learn-about-citizenship/the-naturalization-interview-and-test/naturalization-oath-of-allegiance-to-the-united-states-of-america.

Young, James E. 1997. "Germany’s Memorial Question: Memory, CounterMemory, and the End of the Monument." The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol 96, no 4 855.