LOS ANGELES (AP) — A 102-year-old Filipino man who came to California as a teenager in 1928 to pick lettuce and cabbage became an American citizen during a touching naturalization ceremony Wednesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
"I'm happy," Philippines-born immigrant Joaquin Arciago Guzman said in Tagalog after Wednesday's ceremony, where about 7,300 joined him in taking the citizenship oath.
Nationwide, only 27 people older than 100 have become U.S. citizens in at least the past 50 years, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"It's extremely rare to see anyone over 100," said Nancy Alby, the agency's field office director for Los Angeles County. "We get a handful in their 90s and 80s. It's more common to see people in their 70s."
The oldest person ever to become a U.S. citizen was Manik Bokchalian of the San Fernando Valley community of Van Nuys. She was 117 when she took the oath in 1997.
At the downtown ceremony, Guzman's niece and caregiver helped him out of a wheelchair to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Guzman put his hand over his heart, next to a small American flag in his suit pocket, the Los Angeles Daily News reported.
"It's hard to believe that he first came to the U.S. in 1928 and didn't become a citizen until he was 102 years old," niece Julie Guzman said in Tagalog. "I'm happy for him. There are no words."
Guzman's daughter-in-law Elizabeth Guzman regretted that Guzman's wife, Paz, did not live to see the ceremony. She was 89 when she died in 2007.
"It's sad because she waited many years for him to become a citizen," Elizabeth said in Tagalog. "But I believe she's looking down on us now, and she's happy."
Guzman, who now lives in North Hollywood, was 18 when left the Philippines to harvest lettuce and cabbage in the fertile Salinas Valley fields south of San Francisco.
He returned to the Philippines after more than a decade of toiling in the fields and he fell for Paz Irene Gatchalian, the daughter of a mayor. They were married on New Year's Day 1940.
Guzman returned to the United States before the birth of the first of their six children, and he supported his family by farming property he bought with his earnings.
Guzman brought his wife and two of their adult children to the United States in 1984. They all became American citizens, but Guzman waited to submit an application for reasons that aren't clear.