July 4 is America's birthday. The 4th of July is the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and a major American holiday. Celebrations across the nation include parades, live concerts, races, barbecues, neighborhood parties, picnics, and fireworks. Today, one in ten Americans is foreign-born. Zlatica Hoke spoke with some of those new Americans in the Washington D.C. area about their first experience with the July 4 holiday and their plans to celebrate this year.
Washington D.C. hosts one of the grandest and best-known Fourth of July celebrations in the United States. The tradition, established in the early 1800s, includes a morning parade followed by speeches, concerts, and many other events throughout the day. Most of the action takes place on the Mall, a huge park-like area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. The Mall gets really crowded for the evening concert with celebrity performers and spectacular fireworks.
Serbian-born Vesna Putic first attended the 4th of July celebration on the Mall 13 years ago. "I will never forget it because that was a very emotional experience for me," she said. "It was the first time I was on the lawn in front of the Capitol and especially when the National Anthem was playing, everybody around me were Americans and I was at that moment thinking who I was and I definitely felt already, even after the first year, as being American. I felt the sense of belonging. I felt good."
Many new Americans have similar recollections of their first Fourth of July holiday. Pakistani-born John Sequeira immigrated to this country about 30 years ago and he still remembers celebrating in the Nation's Capital. "This was just absolutely thrilling and exciting to actually be here finally and it was just a very, very thrilling experience to be part of this great celebration," he said.
Some immigrants come to the Mall to see the spectacular fireworks and then get caught up in the patriotic spirit of the celebrations. Polish-born Wojciech Zorniak experienced his first Independence Day on the Mall 17 years ago.
"When I came to this country, it was 1985, 4th of July was not my holiday. I thought it was something for people who were born here and I didn't celebrate it that much," he said. "But it grows on you somehow and after a while, I really got into it. I thought the firework display … and this is a fantastic holiday so when we went there, on this day, I really was almost ecstatic because it somehow suddenly became my holiday as well."
By the time immigrants become naturalized citizens, they have usually embraced July 4 as their holiday. Vesna Putic said, she has felt that way. "I don't really associate citizenship with the piece of paper, with this certificate of citizenship, or passport," she said. "It's more an inner feeling, how I feel about being accepted and I always felt like I was accepted."
Bosnian Mladen Bosnjak came to the United States six years ago as a refugee. He and his family expect to become U.S. citizens soon after this 4th of July. But he said American Independence Day is already an important holiday for him. "Fourth of July for me is the greatest holiday of one big, big country and a big nation," he said.
Mr. Bosnjak's first encounter with America's birthday bash was in St. Louis, Missouri, under the famous Gateway Arch, the nation's tallest monument. He said it was an unforgettable event, attended by half a million visitors from Missouri and neighboring states. Since then he has moved to Alexandria, Virginia, near Washington D.C. He said he now celebrates the holiday on the roof terrace of his apartment building, which has an expansive view.
"On the evening of that day, I invite my friends to the roof deck of my building, that is on the 18th floor," he said. "You have Alexandria on the palm (of your hand), you have D.C. on your palm and you can see for miles around. And we make barbecue, we listen to our native country music, we listen to the American country music because it is very interesting, a lot of people from Bosnia and Herzegovina like American country music. And we listen to a mix of our countries' music, make barbecue, talk about all and enjoy a lot of fireworks that we can see high, high from our roof deck."
Although not yet an American citizen, Mladen Bosnjak will spend Independence Day as many Americans do: relaxing in the company of friends and neighbors, enjoying good food and watching the fireworks. Polish-Born Wojciech Zorniak said he also used to celebrate on the roof of his apartment building, but a year ago, he bought a house in the suburbs.
"Then when I moved from Georgetown, I discovered that every little place in America has its own celebration, the local celebration, and that that also is very interesting because you belong to a certain community, you know these people, you are part of the community."
So, Mr. Zorniak said, this year he will join his neighbors in Falls Church, Virginia to toast America's birthday.
Pakistani-born John Sequeira said he will do the same for most of the day, but after 30 years in this country, he still likes to go to the Mall for the evening events. "The setting of the mall is just something that is hard to duplicate," he said.
Serbian-born Vesna Putic said she and her husband plan to do something entirely different this year. "It has always been my husband's and my dream to go sailing and watch the fireworks from the boat," she said. So most likely we'll go, that's the plan and I hope it will happen this time."
Whether they plan to spend the day on the Mall, or a roof deck, on a boat or in someone's back yard, Washington area residents, old and new, are getting ready for another great American 4th of July celebration.