BEMIDJI-Thankful ... and relieved.
After six years of paperwork and interviews, Nelson Castillo became a U.S. citizen last week. The 36-year-old Bemidji man was one of 1,015 people from 92 countries to take the Oath of Allegiance in a ceremony at the St. Paul RiverCentre.
Finally, Nelson and his wife, Jodi, can reconnect with his family in Argentina. They will be able to introduce their daughter, Sol, who turns 3 years old this week, to her paternal grandparents and other relatives for the first time.
"What will it mean to him to go there?" Jodi asked rhetorically. "He's been talking about it non-stop. It means a lot to him. For Sol to be able to experience and see her family, that's priceless."
Nelson added, "Family, in the way that I grew up, is very important. When we talk about family it's not just mom and dad or the kids. It's your grandma, your grandpa, your aunts, uncles, cousins. Every Sunday we got together and we would cook pasta and be together. I feel that Sol is losing that, the touching with her family. I wish she could have more of that. My mom and dad are getting old and there is just so much time. I wish she could have a chance to see them and enjoy them a little."
Nelson and Jodi met eight years ago. He was a Spanish teacher at Concordia Language Villages, and she was a mental health professional working in Bemidji. Nelson also taught dance classes for the community through CLV. Jodi was a student in the class.
"He swept me off my feet," Jodi said with a smile.
"She had two left feet and I couldn't make it right," Nelson interjected, "so I made it right in a different way. That's the reason we are married."
"No, it was the dance instructor that wasn't good," Jodi said.
"I don't know, I never had complaints," Nelson answered.
They can joke about things like that now, after the quest for citizenship is complete. Worries about immigration issues in a charged political climate were taking their toll.
"We didn't share our story until after it was said and done," Jodi said. "People didn't really understand the magnitude of what that meant. That was shocking to me. We've had support from family and friends, and we understand there are people who don't. So all these people who are refugees or are fleeing from bad situations, I hope that their communities support them, or embrace them in some way. It makes all the difference in the world."
A new 'home'
Nelson grew up in Buenos Aires and earned college degrees in social sciences and education. He learned about Concordia Language Villages from an Argentinian friend, and came to Minnesota in 2005 as an intern. He kept coming to CLV for a few years before staying in his home country and working in the banking industry. When that job was eliminated, he was offered a full-time job at CLV. He enrolled at Bemidji State University and earned degrees in computer science and math. That led to an internship at Paul Bunyan Communications, where is now employed as a web developer.
Although Bemidji and Buenos Aires are seemingly worlds apart, Nelson felt at home in northern Minnesota.
"What I love about Bemidji is the closeness," he said. "The first time I came to Bemidji I talked to some people and they were so nice, not just like Minnesota nice, but genuinely. Everywhere I went I was well received. Coming from a large city I never talked to my neighbors, but here I talk to them more than I did back home. I love it here."
As for Jodi, who grew up in rural North Dakota, she said her first trip to Argentina was a little startling. Nelson's relatives welcomed her with open arms. Literally.
"He's right, it's very close knit, it's very different," she said. "When I first went there they immediately came up and were embracing me. I was not used to this. There's just a different level of closeness. Not just physically but emotionally and mentally."
Nelson and Jodi were married in 2012 ... twice in 2012, actually.
They needed to have a legal wedding first so that Nelson's citizenship process could begin. That was on April 8. They had their larger wedding on Sept. 15, surrounded by friends and Jodi's family, with Nelson's relatives watching from Argentina via video streaming.
Their last trip to Argentina was in the summer of 2015 when Jodi was pregnant with Sol. After the baby was born, with immigration issues rising, and Nelson going through the steps toward citizenship, they did not want to risk any more trips out of the country.
"We didn't dare going back to Argentina," Jodi said, "for fear that ..." Her voice trailed off as Nelson interjected, "They can say 'no' at any time. It's different for a citizen when they go through Customs because they are always nice, but when you are not from the United States they are not very nice. So you are worried that they may just look at you wrong and they say, 'No, you cannot go through,' and after that I won't see Jodi or Sol for who knows when."
Jodi added, "I didn't want to single parent and explain to our daughter that her daddy is back in Argentina and here we are. I wasn't going to take any of those risks."
That's all behind them now, so they can start making plans for that long-awaited trip.
Nate Nolting has worked alongside Nelson the past few years as a fellow web developer at Paul Bunyan Communications.
"There was definitely some frustration, especially over the last two years," Nolting said. "He was kind of bummed that it didn't happen before the election on Nov. 6." But after the ceremony last week, "he was pretty stoked."
That was obvious when Nelson appeared in a Bemidji Pioneer photograph of the St. Paul ceremony two days after. Friends and co-workers saw the photo and were quick to congratulate both Nelson and Jodi.
"Oh, it was so relieving," Nelson said. "I was smiling. I felt like even my neck releasing. It's like, now I'm good. I can go back (to Argentina) and they cannot say you can't go back in."