Coming to America

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Esther and Sergio Racig outside Faneuil Hall after his citizenship ceremony. — Photo courtesy of Sergio Racig

Surrounded by portraits of George Washington, Daniel Webster, John Adams, and other giants of American history, Sergio Racig raised his right hand in Boston’s Faneuil Hall early last December and swore an oath to the United States, the oath that confers the world’s most coveted citizenship. Starting with his first visit to America in 2005, it took the Argentine native a decade to earn a spot in a naturalization ceremony. Though faith and diligence factored significantly into Sergio’s success, dance may have been the essential element.

Inspired by Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson, Vermonter Sarah Gruner, a fluent Spanish speaker, took a two-month holiday to Buenos Aires in 2003 to learn the tango and to experience Argentine culture. Tango at that time was only a few years away from being designated an example of a UNESCO “intangible cultural heritage.” That significance was not lost on Sarah, who while sitting on a park bench, trying to determine on a map where the city’s tango venues were, found she was having just as much difficulty determining where she was (she later discovered it was Plaza San Martin).

“The plaza was crowded that day,” Sarah said in an email to the Times, “and I was sharing a bench with a man reading the newspaper. The man noticed my map and asked if I was lost. He didn’t seem like too sketchy a character, so I said that yes, I was indeed lost.”

This man was Sergio. He not only offered directions, he offered to show her around the city, and ultimately, as their friendship developed, he offered to guide her to tango venues. He did not dance the tango, however. But he enjoyed dance so much, he watched as she learned.

After her vacation ended, Sergio and Sarah kept in touch, and eventually mapped out a trip for Sergio where Sarah could reciprocate and act as his tour guide. Coming from summertime in another hemisphere, from a city that rarely sees freezing temperatures, Sergio arrived in New England in the winter of 2005 and saw snow for the first time. From a guestroom in Sarah’s parents’ Vermont home, he could watch an ever-thickening blanket of it.

“Every night it was snowing,” he said in an interview with The Times. “When I would open the curtains in my room in the morning — two, three feet of snow!”

Also seeing Yankee architecture for the first time, Sergio was astounded to learn that the bones of a house could be made of wood. Buenos Aires was a city of masonry buildings with tiled roofs. So he viewed the cedar clapboards and asphalt shingles on many Vermont homes as flimsy, and the underlying structures of those homes as bordering on unsafe. Both Sarah and her boyfriend, Chris, a carpenter, went to great lengths to assure Sergio that wooden houses were sturdy.

Sergio’s English was choppy at the time — he admits he could barely communicate. But it didn’t stop him from seeing Montreal, New York, and Boston with Sarah in the span of 15 days.

After he returned home to Argentina, Sergio continued to correspond with Sarah, and learned more and more about Martha’s Vineyard, where, when not in Vermont, she works as a professional gardener. He found the idea of the Island intriguing.

Despite Argentina’s high rate of unemployment, Sergio had a good office job at a logistics and transportation company. But he remained wary: his country’s chronic economic volatility and high inflation were an ever-present sword of Damocles. His family, like so many others in Argentina, had difficulty building savings or equity because of this near-century-old legacy.

“I was looking at what happened to my grandfather, to my father and to me,” Sergio said. “This is never going to change. The economy does well for a few years then tanks.”

Crime is a pervasive side effect of Argentina’s economic woes. Sergio’s worst experience with it was robbery at his workplace. Armed men in masks burst into his company’s office one day. One of them put a gun to Sergio’s temple and asked where the money was kept. While the rest of the staff went wild with fear, Sergio remained calm. He believes that saved his life. The criminals eventually got the company’s money and fled, leaving everyone, thankfully, unharmed.

Sergio wasn’t game to undergo something like that again. He believed the longer he remained in Argentina, the more likely he was to have a similar experience, though one that might not end as well. Despite Sarah’s warning that it would be a difficult endeavor, he set his sights on Martha’s Vineyard.

“When he first made mention of wanting to come to Martha’s Vineyard, I tried to talk him out of it,” said Sarah. “So many foreigners come to the Island and have a really difficult time. There are teachers, lawyers, policemen, et cetera, who come from other places, and end up working in jobs they are overqualified for, just because they don’t have the language skills needed to get jobs in their field. I anticipated it being a big struggle for him.”

Sergio was undaunted. He arrived on Martha’s Vineyard in 2008, and with Sarah’s help, secured a small third-floor walkup apartment on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. There was no heat in the room (it radiated from the adjacent hallway), and it sported a broken window and no fire escape. He didn’t complain. He was delighted it was near Reliable Market. The food was affordable and much of the staff could communicate in Portuguese, a language that along with his native Spanish, he was fluent in.

When he was able to talk with his friends back in Argentina, he had trouble describing the Island. He told them it was close to Boston, but that did little to help them envision the place. When he discovered Jaws was filmed on the Island (the film is called Shark in Argentina), he knew it was something they’d all seen. After he told them this, the place became vivid to them.

Sergio began what would be a series of odd jobs, all the while honing his language skills through classes at the high school. To ease the loneliness of winter and satisfy his urge to dance, he began attending Saskia Vanderhoop’s salsa classes at Island Cohousing’s Common House in West Tisbury. Esther, a 20-year resident of the Island originally from the Albany area, also attended the classes. One night Saskia asked if somebody might give Sergio a ride back to Oak Bluffs, and Esther volunteered. She wanted to be kind, but she also had an agenda.

“I thought that because he was from Argentina that he could teach me tango,” she said to the Times recently.

She quickly found out he did not dance tango. But tango once again was a catalyst for Sergio. He and Esther hit it off immediately — they were both devout Catholics and dancing addicts. They tried to tango together in Esther’s spacious home, guided by DVD lessons. When that proved too difficult, they returned to salsa, and romance blossomed. Sergio moved into an in-law apartment in Esther’s house, and the two took up ballroom dancing. They loved it so much, they gradually went from taking classes to teaching them, both at the P.A. Club and at Esther’s house.

In love with dance and each other, they married in 2011.

A year earlier Sergio had started a housecleaning company. A friend he’d been working for had moved from the Island and dissolvedher company. She handed over her clients to him.Through a flinty work ethic and good referrals, his client list has doubled every year since then. Summers are now so busy, the couple’s dancing has been relegated to the winter months.

“He’s been successful from hard work and strong focus,” said Esther, during a January interview at the couple’s Oak Bluffs home.

“If you are a good worker you might have success on this Island and, I think, in any part of the country,” Sergio said.

With the aid of attorney Frederic Hite, and later, attorney Maria Lawcewicz, along with a great deal of prayer and support from his wife, Sergio started the process of naturalization soon after marriage, first receiving his two-year green card and later being granted his 10-year green card. When the time came to apply for full citizenship — a process that culminated in a test of civics, history, and English grammar in the JFK Federal Building in Boston — the calmness he invoked when faced with a gun years earlier was harder to summon: “I was nervous during the test.”

But he found that in the end, he nothing to be nervous about. He’d paid his taxes in a timely manner, avoided any criminal record, and applied himself as rigorously to studying as he did to running a business. He passed. This allowed him to give up his green card and receive his certificate of citizenship — receive it in the same venerable building where Samuel Adams decried the Intolerable Acts and Frederick Douglass fumed against slavery.

“The oath-taking ceremony itself is very moving, and should be witnessed by all,” said Maria. “It reminds us — who are fortunate enough to be blessed with U.S. citizenship — to not take for granted that which others have worked so hard to obtain. That the site of the ceremony was historic Faneuil Hall made the occasion all the more moving. This is where many years ago in Boston, other immigrants met to plan their freedom, and fought to become America’s first citizens.”

“In the line of people waiting to be let in,” said Sarah — who along with her boyfriend Chris, and Maria and her husband, accompanied Sergio and Esther to the ceremony — “there was every imaginable face from every imaginable background. It was like a little United Nations. The excitement was palpable. Many, like Sergio, had worked so hard to be there, and had waited so long for that day. It was very moving.”

“I was so proud,” said Esther.

“This country, more specifically Martha’s Vineyard, has been enriched by gaining a citizen such as Sergio,” said Maria. “He is hard-working, ambitious, talented, friendly, helpful and honest.

“You could see the emotion in the faces of today’s new citizens as they left the building, proudly holding their citizenship certificates, wearing smiles, and some tears in their eyes. Sergio was no exception, as he posed for a photo together with his Esther, wrapped in an American flag outside Faneuil Hall.”