keeps a woman at home but not from realizing her dream of becoming a
Zulamita Wickum became an American 181 days after an oncologist gave
her three weeks to live.
On Friday afternoon, the native of Uruguay raised a thin right arm to
take her oath of citizenship as she lay in a hospital bed in her
Northeast Portland home. Through a haze of pain and brain damage caused
by an incurable cancer, Zulamita, 63, smiled broadly as an Immigration
and Naturalization Service officer presented her with a citizenship
"You've wanted this for so long," her husband, Bron Wickum Jr.,
said. "How do you feel?"
"Very happy," Zulamita said. Then, turning to the INS officer,
she motioned toward a plate of sandwiches in the dining room: "Did
The dozen or so family members -- her four children, in-laws,
grandchildren -- who had gathered for the special ceremony laughed. She's
always the grandmother, they said.
Zulamita was diagnosed with a brain tumor last October, after she had
been experiencing strokelike symptoms for several months. Despite a grim
prognosis, she has endured four rounds of chemotherapy and one of
radiation treatment. She's currently in remission, but the cancer and
treatments have taken a toll on her body and mind. No one knows for sure
how much longer she has.
Through it all, she has wanted to become a citizen. She first arrived in
the United States from Montevideo in 1959. She became a permanent
resident but never found the time to apply for citizenship. The summer
before she became ill, she had sent in her application.
About a week ago, Bron contacted the Portland district INS and told them
about Zulamita. Ed Sale, community relations officer, said he was moved
by the request.
INS officials arranged for a waiver of the U.S. civics test and helped
her family complete the paperwork. On Thursday, just four days after her
63rd birthday, they went to her house to tell her that she would be sworn
in the next day.
"You should have seen the smile on her face," Sale said.
The Portland district performs about five special-request ceremonies a
year in which officers make "house calls," he said. Not all
cases involve terminal illness. For example, last fall officers went to a
nursing home to swear in someone who could not travel to the district
Cancer has given Zulamita an economy of expression. She rarely says more
words than necessary.
Ask her why she wanted to became a citizen, and she says, "To
She grinned when she found a Multnomah County voter registration form in
the packet the INS officers gave to her.
Ask her why she came to the United States, and she says,
Zulamita was an accomplished synchronized swimmer, once an international
champion. In 1961, she tried out to perform at a bar with an indoor
swimming tank in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Bron, a conservatory-trained
musician who sold pianos and organs for much of his life, was playing
"I took a look at her and said, 'She has gorgeous legs. I've got to
meet that girl!' " Bron recalls. "The maitre d' said he'd set
me up. When I met her, she was looking at me funny. I didn't realize she
didn't speak English. None of my lines worked on her."
Nevertheless, Bron and Zulamita got to know each other, and in 1963 they
They moved frequently, living in Florida, California, Massachusetts, New
York and Spain, among other places. Zulamita took various jobs in sales.
She shared her husband's love of gardening. When they moved into their
Portland home 15 years ago, they landscaped the yard together.
"She designed all of this," Bron said, his arm sweeping across
the expanse of a fish pond, waterfall, vegetable garden and corn plants
that have grown higher than his head. "Gardening is therapy for
So it was fitting that he went out to the garden, tidying up the
fishpond, lamenting that the garden had become overgrown in recent
months, before Friday's ceremony.
Calls of "Dad! They're ready," brought him back into the house,
where family members encircled Zulamita's bed. Cradling her shoulders,
they adjusted her so she'd be comfortable.
Dana Clemens, an INS adjudications officer, asked Zulamita to raise her
right hand, and he read the Oath of Allegiance out loud. The last words
were: "I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation
or purpose of evasion, so help me God."
"I do, so help me God," Zulamita said. Bron stroked her elbow.
As Clemens handed her an American flag and certificate, her family
applauded. Bron leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.
Zulamita asked her daughter Melisa Griffo to read a letter to new
citizens signed by President George W. Bush to her. She did and then
asked her mom, "Do you feel American?"
She looked up and smiled. "Yeah, I do."
You can reach Angie Chuang by phone at 503-221-8219 and by e-mail at
Copyright 2002 Oregon Live. All Rights
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