Since she was 7 years old, Donatila Leticia Munoz Orantes has wanted to become a U.S. citizen. On Wednesday, her 100th birthday, her wish came true.
Munoz Orantes, a native Nicaraguan who lives with her daughter in Germantown, came to the United States from El Salvador in the 1980s and never left.
"It's a wonderful country," Munoz Orantes, who was joined by family and friends at her naturalization ceremony in Baltimore, said during a recent interview at her daughter's home. Because Munoz Orantes speaks only Spanish, her daughter interpreted for her.
Munoz Orantes wasn't able to become a citizen until now because she doesn't speak English, a requirement until a resident reaches a certain age and number of years in the country.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, she is the oldest person to be naturalized in Maryland in a decade.
In El Salvador, Munoz Orantes owned a successful store and worked as a seamstress, said her daughter, Marie Ward. In the U.S., Munoz Orantes feels safe from the fighting and gangs in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
"I feel very secure," she said.
Munoz Orantes likes "everything" about the U.S. and is excited to have become a citizen on her birthday, which she calls a "gift," after two previous efforts since she arrived in the country more than 20 years ago.
Ward and Munoz Orantes turned in her application for citizenship in April and asked the government to approve it in time for her birthday. Immigration officials went to her daughter's house June 26 and administered the citizenship test in Spanish.
"We are very pleased we were able to receive her application and give her the U.S. citizenship she so wanted," said USCIS spokeswoman Joanne Ferreira.
Citizenship is a personal decision, but USCIS encourages people to apply when they meet all the requirements, so they can receive all the benefits of citizenship, Ferreira said.
Munoz Orantes is most excited to be able to vote and said she will vote in the presidential election for "the Clinton woman."
Ward came to the United States on a student visa when she was 22. About 10 years later, her mother followed to help Ward care for her daughter, Lety Macias, who is now 33 with three children of her own.
Macias said her grandmother is her "whole life," and tells of Munoz Orantes teaching her to sew and making her clothes, costumes and even her prom and wedding dresses.
"She's always been such a strong woman and done anything she set her mind to," Macias said. "She's been determined. This is one of her biggest dreams. It's the American dream."
When she was 7, Munoz Orantes met Americans who came to work in Nicaragua and "saw they were very good people," she said. The Americans taught Munoz Orantes' brother to speak English.
Since then, she's been determined to be a U.S. citizen.
"I think probably another person would say, 'Oh, why do I have to be an American citizen?' She says, 'I know I can do it,'" Ward said.
At the age of 100, Munoz Orantes does everything for herself and is very alert, Ward said. She gets up early to have breakfast with her daughter before work and then goes back to bed. Later, she cooks for herself, watches old movies, and sews and presses Ward's clothes.
The two have lived together since 1986, and Ward says it's a blessing to have her mother with her.
"She's my friend, my sister, my everything," said Ward. "I am so proud of my mother."