After 13 years of waiting, Patricio Aravena is finally an American citizen.
Aravena, a 36-year old music teacher at Windsor Elementary School in Richland County, stood with his hand raised Tuesday reciting the pledge of citizenship.
“It was very emotional,” Aravena said of the ceremony in Charleston. “I was there with 25 people from throughout the world. Lady Liberty was welcoming us with open arms.”
Though Aravena was born in Curacautin, a town of about 12,000 in southern Chile, he’s about as southern and as American as you can get. The practicing Methodist plays conga drums in his church band. The father of three is still close with his family even though they’re far away. He graduated from the University of South Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in music and loves the Gamecocks.
He likes sports, particularly soccer, or fútbol. He likes “Star Wars.” And even though the bread here is sweeter than he’s used to, he talks about America with a tone of voice that sounds like he just won the lottery.
“The moment I left Chile I knew it was not temporary,” Aravena said. “Columbia makes me think of southern Chile. The people are very hospitable, the families very close together.”
When Aravena returned to school Wednesday, a group of teachers and students greeted him out front, congratulating him. As he walked through the hallways to his classroom door, newly decorated with American flags, students gave him high fives and his colleagues whooped and congratulated him.
“He is one of the absolute most passionate educators I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” said Windsor Principal Denise Quickel. “There’s this kind of connectedness of things he brings to the table.”
Matt Estes, the Richland 2 school’s physical education teacher, said he could sum up Aravena in two words: “energetic” and “positive.”
Aravena came to America because he fell in love with an American missionary who was stationed in Chile in 2003. In 2005, they moved to America. In 2006, they got married. Today, they have three kids.
And they’re still active members of the church. Not only does Aravena play drums during worship services, he also helps repair the internet when it goes down. He helps church members translate during mission trips to South America, said the Rev. Tom Wall of the Methodist Student Network at USC.
“He’s worked with us on staff ever since he got here on campus,” Wall said of Aravena. “He’s a very lively, energetic, creative guy — very talented musically.”
Aravena has taught music at Windsor since 2015 and began applying for citizenship in September 2018. He fits in with the diverse school, which is predominantly African-American, but also where 18 to 20 percent of students’ first language is Spanish.
“Sometimes I have to use Spanish when I have students who don’t speak English,” Aravena said. “I try to incorporate my heritage into my lesson plans.”
Quickel said the school embraced discussing Aravena’s new citizenship as a “positive path to citizenship.” That includes teaching students about what it means to be a citizen, such as the right to vote.
It’s “critical that students see diversity in our educators,” Quickel said. “It’s kind of a critical, integral part of who we are as Windsor.”