'Great, funny' New London couple, 78 and 74, become U.S. citizens

New London — If you sat with them for an hour, you might believe that the tale of the Tejedas, grayed but vibrant, is too good to be true.

It begins in a small town in the Dominican Republic, where Patricio Antonio Tejeda Diaz and Candida Arias de Tejeda, 78 and 74, respectively, played together as children.

It weaves on through adversity and triumph, taking the Tejedas from their island nation to Massachusetts, South Carolina and ultimately this diverse, small city by the water.

And, though it hasn’t ended, it hit another high point April 5, when each became a U.S. citizen after a yearslong effort complicated by botched documents and poor communication.

Speaking through a translator this week, Candida laughed when asked what she would say to people who think becoming a citizen is easy.

“It’s hard,” she said. “But if you put love and respect into the process, you’ll be able to accomplish what you set out to do.”

Ups and downs

The Tejedas came to the United States in 1996 as legal permanent residents after one of their daughters, a U.S. citizen, petitioned for them.

Candida, a teacher, and Patricio, a police officer, were sad to leave their professions and their other two children behind. But they had visited the United States before and knew they wanted to call it home.

After seven years in Massachusetts, they moved to South Carolina on a whim, buying a house and finding new jobs — Patricio worked for the United Parcel Service, Candida became a certified nursing assistant — only to lose it all during the Great Recession.

They came to Connecticut out of necessity — Candida’s sister was here with her niece — but fell in love with New London.

"There's no other place like it," Candida said. "We don't want to move anywhere else."

They were content with their legal status until about 2016, when they decided to apply for citizenship.

Asked what changed, Candida’s response was simple.

“We wanted to vote,” she said.

The process

The Tejedas gathered the documents required by the Department of Homeland Security — proof of entry, marriage certificate, tax returns and mortgage history, to name a few — and sent them to a nonprofit that had promised to help.

But when the nonprofit began missing deadlines and became difficult to reach, the Tejedas looked elsewhere, ultimately finding the New London-based Immigration Advocacy and Support Center.

There, Executive Director Joseph Marino, employee Angela Florez Penilla and volunteer Angela Flores worked tirelessly to gather and file the necessary paperwork.

“We’ve become close,” Marino said, referring to himself, Florez Penilla, Flores and the Tejedas. “We have all bonded, each in our own way.”

The test of their efforts came last month, when the Tejedas each went to an interview in Hartford to determine their fate.

Patricio got along well with his hearing officer, who was born in Puerto Rico.

But Candida’s officer was throwing question after question her way, making Marino nervous: What if Patricio passed but Candida didn’t?

Then she noticed a photo on the wall and asked the officer about his family.

“He just started talking about his kids and calmed down,” Candida said.

“She used her knowledge of psychology on him,” Patricio said, chuckling.

A great, funny couple

Sitting at a table at the Washington Street immigration center, the Tejedas playfully picked on each other.

They were reminiscing about the town where they grew up, for example, when Patricio spoke.

“She fell in love with me right away,” he said.

Candida smirked.

“You were fearless when you were younger, but not anymore,” she said later to her husband of 56 years, smiling. “Who’s old now?”

Each weekday morning they bring that same energy to Harbor Elementary School, where they have been volunteering as foster grandparents for about two months.

Through the program, run by Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, they provide help with homework, mentoring or simply support to a handful of handpicked youth.

The program has been around since 1965 and operates all over the state, coordinator Rosalin Alcantara said. At Harbor, five “grandparents” work weekly with at least four children.

“It gives them a purpose outside of their homes ... and a small stipend,” Alcantara said of the volunteers. “But the children benefit also. Sometimes the children don’t receive that love at home, that support and extra help.”

The Tejedas said they already feel close to the children, who daily run to greet them with hugs.

“If you don’t hold on, you will fall with the child,” Patricio said, laughing. “But we love it. We love kids.”

“They are so sweet,” Alcantara said of the Tejedas. “They’re such a great, funny couple.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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