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Sunday September 24, 2017

American, I am!

Posted on: February 7th, 2017

Northeast Mississippi resident gains citizenship

By Judy Smith

America—“Land of the Free” and “Home of the Brave.” It is often some people’s lifetime goal to become an American citizen and break free from tyranny or injustice. Juan Carlos Barcia considers it an “ultimate privilege” to be an American citizen, but it was true love that brought him to the United States—a story worthy of the big screen.

The love of his life, Stephanie Rhea, has lived in Mississippi her whole life, spending just a year in Boston for a photo internship. Born in Manta, Ecuador, Juan Carlos’ mother moved her family to the capital of Ecuador-Quito so that they would receive a better education. During his twenties, Juan Carlos lived for two years in Los Angeles where he learned English and Graphic Design.

But it was an act of God or Fate, if you will, that brought these two soulmates together. In the summer of 2004, Stephanie Rhea was on a mission trip to Quito with The Orchard UMC. Juan Carlos worked as the network administrator for SEMISUD, a South American Seminary. “Our mission team worked with the seminary on local missions, and they hosted our team as well in the dorms,” Stephanie Rhea said. “Juan Carlos was the English translator for our group, so we spent a lot time with him on our trip.” The two were rarely seen apart.

“We first connected on a creative level,” Stephanie Rhea said. “I am a photographer, and he is a graphic designer. We had much in common—similar ideas and professional goals.”

While the relationship began on common skills and goals, there was something more powerful there. God’s hand was definitely working in this relationship, and the sparks soon flew. The romance and love between the two was undeniable, but like any drama or romance story, there were obstacles placed in true love’s path. Stephanie Rhea returned to America, and Juan Carlos remained in Ecuador. But the lines of communication were never broken.

“After leaving Ecuador, we kept in touch via AIM and Skype. I guess we’re telling our age,” Stephanie Rhea said. “I returned to Ecuador six months later, and he asked me to marry him. I said yes, and once I returned stateside, we started the paperwork for fiancé visa.”

The paperwork process, which turned out to be a long, grueling, and expensive process, but one that Juan Carlos was determined to achieve, happened in a transitional time for the couple. After just landing the photography internship in Boston, Stephanie was joined by Juan Carlos in July 2005. By October, the loving couple was married by a Justice of the Peace that Stephanie Rhea found on Craigslist in Sudbury, Massachusetts. The couple returned to Stephanie Rhea’s home state and set up their photo business in Tupelo in December 2005. In the summer of 2006, the couple had an intimate, romantic wedding ceremony in Juan Carlos’s home of Quito. For many, the story would end there by saying “and the rest is history,” but you know that this upwardly-mobile couple was not going to set on their laurels just as their life began together.

Although Juan Carlos’s background is in graphic design and network administration, he currently remodels houses and works as a second photographer for Stephanie Rhea Photography. But more importantly, he set his focus on becoming an American citizen like his wife.

“It’s not something he dreamed of, as in his case, it was an impossible feat,” Stephanie Rhea said. “It was a complete twist of events that led him to this place. However, he does consider it the ultimate privilege to be an American citizen. Things that most take for granted, such as the freedom to travel to other countries will be less complicated for him now.”

On September 16, 2016, at The W.O. Benjamin Fine Arts Auditorium on the Itawamba Community College campus in Fulton, 60 new citizens from 22 different countries joined together to take the “Oath of Citizenship.” His ceremony was also one for the history books as it was “the first Naturalization Ceremony to happen on a community college campus in Mississippi,” Stephanie Rhea stated. Another point of distinction is that September 17 also happens to be the official anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787 and a day for Americans by birth or naturalization to reflect on the rights and privileges of citizenship.

The event occurred during “Constitution Week” which celebrated the 229th Anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. About 240 naturalization ceremonies took place across the country that week. The ICC auditorium was filled with guests of the internationals, several area high school civics classes which attended the event for a real-life experience lesson in government, among others attendees.

“It was a special treat for Juan Carlos that his niece, who is a college student in Quito, was on summer break and was in town visiting,” Stephanie Rhea said. “She was able to attend the event, and that was really special for both of us.”

“I was so proud of him,” she said. “It takes patience, dedication, a lot of studying American government and civics and all in his second language. I’m extremely proud.”

Juan Carlos’s family and friends were just as proud. Close friend Amanda Hayden celebrated the occasion clad as the Statue of Liberty as the strains of Lee Greenwood’s very moving and patriotic song, “God Bless the USA” filled the night air as Hayden climbed atop a Blue Canoe bar booth and was joined by several friends singing the poignant words of this song in honor on their newly-named American friend Juan Carlos Barcia. The irony of the event was certainly not lost on Hayden as she pondered how many people take their citizenship for granted by just being born within the states. Her friend, Juan Carlos Barcia, worked very hard for the privilege to be an American citizen, and she and her friends were extremely proud of him. They knew they would be remiss if they did not give the occasion the pomp, circumstance, and celebration that all Juan Carlos’ hard work deserved.