STOCKBRIDGE — They came from over 10 countries and four continents, but on Saturday morning 17 people became American citizens together at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
"I'm so happy to be a citizen of this country," said Sandra Soasti of Pittsfield, one of the new American citizens.
Soasti is originally from Peru. She has lived in Pittsfield for the past 10 years. Her family looked on with happiness and pride as she took the oath in front of the iconic Four Freedoms paintings in the museum's exhibition hall.
The naturalization ceremony at the museum is in its fifth year. The event is marked by presentation of colors by the Dalton American Legion Post 155 Color Guard and was overseen this year by the Honorable Joan McMenemy, first justice of Juvenile Court.
Also in attendance to give remarks were Norman Rockwell Museum Director/CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt; Luis Chaves, field office director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services; and Ellen Kennedy, president of Berkshire Community College. Present but not speaking were state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer.
Chaves, himself an immigrant from Portugal, said the event is the high point of his year.
"This is the best part of my job," he said. "Portugal gave me a country but America gave me a life."
After remarks from Moffat and Kennedy, Judge McMenemy administered the Oath of Allegiance to the assembled applicants. The hall erupted with applause as the 17 new citizens beamed with pride.
The Berkshire Immigrant Center's Director Hillary Greene delivered closing remarks after the ceremony. The center helps applicants in the naturalization process, including screening for eligibility, application support, disability and fee waivers, legal assistance, transportation, advocacy with USCIS, and English language, history and civics classes.
Greene told the crowd that watching immigrants become new citizens is a moment of joy for everyone.
"Your achievement," she said, addressing the new American citizens, "reaffirms my own pride of citizenship."
After the ceremony's completion, the new citizens greeted supporters in the hall, taking pictures with Judge McMenemey and their families. The happiness in the room was palpable.
Mohammed Zafer of Pittsfield couldn't stop smiling as he held his naturalization certificate. Zafer moved to the US from Pakistan in 2010, and to the Berkshires in 2013.
"It's so good to be a citizen,' he said. "It feels so good."