11/06/2014 05:19 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

My Wife, the Model American Citizen

On Tuesday, my wife Cecilia cast her first vote as a newly minted American citizen. Afterward, she proudly sported for the rest of the day a red, white and blue sticker, "I voted today."

For Cecilia, voting was not just a newly gained right to cherish, but a duty. It never ceases to amaze and disappoint her that so many of her fellow U.S. citizens born and raised on U.S. soil, including some she knows who complain loudest and longest about the state of our nation, take this right so much for granted that they rarely if ever exercise it.

Cecilia is the epitome of an engaged citizen. Even though we live in Philadelphia, where she is active in an array of social and civic entrepreneurial endeavors, including the nonprofit Democracy Cafe that we co-founded, she also devoted herself over the last weeks to phoning registered voters in Oregon, urging them to vote for Measure 92, which would require labeling on food items sold in grocery stores that use GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. While she was dejected that the measure narrowly lost, it has most of all served to redouble her commitment to try, try again. To Cecilia, no matter which side of this or any other issue you fall on, what matters is to be engaged and active - because in doing so, it shows that you care about your country, and striving for the common good.

I met Cecilia in 1996 just after she arrived in the United States from Mexico, where in her view the political process is so corrupted that one's vote doesn't matter and count nearly as it much as it does in her adopted country.

Though born and raised in teeming Mexico City, after graduating from college with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, she took a position as a teacher in an indigenous community in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. After a year there, she was able to speak the Mayan tongue, Tzeltal, spoken by community denizens, who had 'adopted' her as one of their own. Cecilia's plan was to return to Chiapas and build on her projects there as soon as she earned her graduate degree.

Cecilia ventured to the U.S. in 1996 to study for her masters degree in education. After that, her intention was to return to Mexico and continue fighting the good fight to make hers a more inclusive and vibrant open society. When love intervened, her plan was delayed. Less than two years after she arrived here, we married. In the years to come, as often as possible, we would journey to Chiapas, Mexico, where she initiated a 'classroom without walls' project in San Cristobal de las Casas, the capital city of Chiapas. Cecilia paid their parents out of her own pocket so they would allow her to take time away from their children's 7-day-a-way, 10-hours-a-day (if not more) workday selling their parents' beautiful handmade wares on the street, giving them the gift of literacy.

Literacy is dear to Cecilia's heart. She became a English-Spanish literacy instructor here in the U.S. after earning her bilingual teaching credential. Most of her elementary age students had immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America, and like her, they reveled in the freedoms and opportunities here.

To Cecilia, one of the most important types of literacy is what she'd call 'civic literacy' - knowing your rights and responsibilities as a citizen, and putting them into practice early and often. Last May, as I watched Cecilia give her oath of citizenship to the U.S., I thought of my grandparents on my father's side. They entered the U.S. through Ellis Island on March 29, 1910, arriving on the S.S. Chicago. They were among the first large wave of immigrants from the Dodecanese ("Twelve") Islands region of Greece, and hailed from the tiny volcanic island of Nisyros. Though ethnic Greeks, they were officially Italian citizens at the time they immigrated: the Dodecanese' denizens recently had come together and declared independence from the Ottoman Empire, only to be promptly invaded and occupied by Italy. The bureaucrat who processed them in Ellis Island summarily changed their last name from Philipou to Phillips.

My grandparents got here in the nick of time. As I note in my book Constitution Café, a majority in Congress - which is charged by Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4 of our Constitution "(t)o establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization" -- concerned by the flood of immigrants from southern Italy and Greece, passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which placed severe restrictions on the number of Southern Europeans that could enter the U.S. in order to stanch the flow.

My Yaya didn't much cotton to the U.S. at first. Slowly but surely, though, she immersed herself in life here. Even as she continued to celebrate Greek culture and heritage -- she became the first Greek teacher in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, and was so much in demand that she had a waiting list of students - she also became more and more enamored with our constitutional republic. Like my wife, she believed that civic literacy was a must, and that it was a travesty not to exercise fully the fruits of citizenship.

In studying for her U.S. citizenship exam earlier this year, Cecilia had to become steeped in key areas of American history and government, and had to be well-versed about our Constitution. Those applying for U.S. citizenship have to answer correctly at least six of the ten questions posed to them. An impressive 93 percent of them pass the test. Yet a comprehensive telephone poll, conducted by the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University, shows that only 65 percent of native-born Americans could answer correctly six of the 10 questions that aspiring naturalized Americans have to answer if they're to become citizens.

To my wife, and surely to most if not all of those giving their oath of citizenship, 'civic literacy' of the sort she and all naturalized U.S. citizens have to demonstrate is at the core of setting an American free.

This was adapted and revised from an earlier post on the blog of the National Constitution Center.