Héctor Belmonte proudly became an Irish Citizen on June 20, 2022, after a long wait due to lockdown. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, he wanted to share his reasons for choosing to make Ireland his home.
My family moved from Mexico to California in 1986 when I was 4 years old. While the image of the Golden State is that of Hollywood, San Francisco love fests, and beaches, the northern agriculture city I grew up in was a melting pot of diverse, albeit conservative and religious, people. Since we spoke Spanish at home and didn’t have a lot of contacts, for me television and films were my connection to the rest of America. In many ways, the entertainment industry was a teacher as much as our Bible class teachers.
When I started to become aware of my sexuality, our President signed the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” bill while other entertainers like Madonna were telling America that there is more to life and love than heteronormality. As a teenager, I cheered along when Ellen DeGeneres came out on the Oprah Winfrey Show. A few months later, Matthew Shepard was violently murdered for being gay and that story flooded the media.
My classmates’ reactions were mixed from shock to applauding the murderers for doing the ‘right thing’ as they claimed in 1998. As soon as I graduated high school, I embarked on a gap year in Germany, living with a beautiful family who welcomed me for who I was. They embraced my uniqueness and even encouraged me to talk about my crushes. In many regards, I was more myself with them than in my entire life with my biological family. I do not mean that in a disrespectful way. I felt that the European people were far more open-minded and welcoming than my fellow Californians. I wanted to stay in Europe but returned to start college at UC Berkeley.
I met Robert (my now husband) when I was 21 and he was 51 in 2003. We moved in together almost immediately and have been a couple since then. Our first vacation was a European tour, and that’s when I bought a souvenir ring that I continue to wear, but now as my wedding ring.
A few months after California voters blocked marriage equality in 2008 (despite the liberal reputation) Robert read that Ireland granted citizenship to grandchildren of Ireland. His grandmother had moved to America in 1909 from County Down. He applied for his citizenship, and we celebrated the novelty of it, but we were not in earnest thinking of moving at that time as we had careers and a mortgage.
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While some states permitted marriage equality and partnerships, it took the supreme court to permit marriage equality throughout the country in 2015. That same year, Irish voters approved marriage between two people regardless of their sex. We saw and felt the energy from the campaign, and we were both touched by how a country with a vastly Roman Catholic population could look beyond its religious beliefs and allow others to love who they love. Is California that progressive? Or does California just have a more robust PR machine?
In 2016, we visited Ireland as tourists again and fell in love with Galway. That was also the year that saw a very divisive and violent election. We decided to give Ireland a try and weather out the upheaval.
The move gave me the chance to hit the re-start button on my career and I enrolled in nursing school at NUIG. I was afraid of being Jerri Blank in Strangers with Candy (a “forty-six-year-old high school freshman”). To my surprise, I was genuinely welcomed by my classmates despite being a mature student (nearly double their age). They would invite me to their nights out and to social events.
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My husband and I initially thought that we would move back to America where nurses are paid more than in Ireland. However, the more time we spend in Ireland, the more I realized that I want to be part of this society that is friendly, embracing and knows how to have fun, and becoming an Irish citizen seemed the natural way to take hold of this.
I am a big believer that when we become part of a group, we take on the good and the negative events of that group experience – both present and past. While I will never know the pressure of studying for the Leaving Cert, nor will I ever know why people say ‘bye bye bye bye bye’ when ending a phone call, our authentic selves have become a part of Irish society.
The pandemic marred our time in Ireland but also highlighted a major difference between Americans and the Irish people. In the states, we saw governments give people conflicting messages about the pandemic and people became angry and sometimes even violent.
Despite being the wealthiest country in the world, the pandemic showed how flawed access to healthcare was in the states. Ireland has a lot of room to improve as well when it comes to healthcare access, but healthcare in Ireland is far more accessible and equitable than in America. People in Ireland seemed to understand and respect the gravity of the situation when America was still fighting over it.
The gun violence in America is another reason why I wanted to become an Irish citizen and live here permanently. While I have never been a direct victim of gun violence, my brother lost his best friend to a gun, and I have been far too close to shootings and violent acts. I simply do not understand the American mentality that gun ownership is a right while healthcare is a luxury.
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On June 20, the in-person citizenship ceremonies started after a pause due to the pandemic. I was lucky enough to take part. My husband was thinking of his grandmother from Ireland, and I was thankful for her journey to the other side of the world so I could meet him. I said a thank you to her after the swearing-in ceremony. The Ireland that she knew is so different from the Ireland of today. When she left Ireland, her father had $6 and was illiterate. Today Ireland has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. I also thought about my parents and how difficult it was for them to migrate from Mexico to the United States – and how my leaving America for Ireland is not an unthankful act, but more of an extension of their bravery to abroad for a better life. And I thought about my colleagues who are waiting for visas to leave Ireland.
A few years ago, I did a DNA test that showed my ancestors were from a variety of places, along the Mediterranean and my grandmothers were of indigenous descent. I wondered why they moved across oceans and crossed deserts. Perhaps they were also seeking a better life with a group of people who understood them and loved them for who they were. Or were they fleeing conflicts and debates much like my husband and I did when we left America?
I can proudly say that I am an Irish citizen and a member of the European Union. I am honoured that my new country has welcomed my husband and me as we are. I am proud to bring our experiences and share them with the people of Ireland. I full-heartedly embrace my new nationality the same way the Irish people have embraced us.
If you would like to find out more on how to apply to become an Irish citizen by naturalisation click here.
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