Javier Ramirez left the explosive oppression and devastation of his war-torn native Nicaragua 14 years ago in search of a better life in the United States.
"It was the kind of place where you're living one day but really didn't know if you were going to be alive tomorrow," says the 35-year-old.
When he arrived in Miami, Fla., he worked two full-time jobs and went to school at night.
"The teacher used to give me a hard time because I was yawning in class," he remembers with a laugh. "He told me to go home if I was too tired."
But giving up and going home was never part of his dream.
It's a dream he recognizes on the faces of his 32 citizenship class students at the Carson City library every Saturday morning. His students come from Mexico, Columbia, Iran, Bulgaria and even Canada.
They meet to practice for the U.S. citizenship test, an exam that Ramirez says can be quite intimidating.
The group settles in to watch a re-enactment of an INS exam on videotape. The group sits stone-faced as the man is given civics questions from a list of about 100 possible.
"How many representatives are there in Congress?"
"What year was the Constitution written?"
He is also lightly interrogated.
"Have you ever been affiliated with the Communist party?"
Ramirez smiles. "The list goes on," he says. "They ask if you have any parking tickets. They ask if you've ever done drugs or been with a prostitute. They fingerprint you about 50 times. Then they ask you all the different places you've traveled in your life."
The naturalization process can be frustrating and painfully slow. Ramirez shows off his naturalization certificate which he finally got in March of 2004, after 13 years. It's a crisp document folded perfectly in thirds that he's obviously taken special care to keep in mint condition.
But Ramirez's message isn't just about naturalization - it's about motivation.
"If you want to make a difference you've got to get out of your comfort zone," he tells his class. "You've got to have drive. And if you do, you really can become anything you want in America."
Ramirez asks his students for a $20 donation - an "investment in human capital" that goes to help purchase ESL books and library materials.
"I teach them that this library belongs to them in the way it belongs to all of us. I try to plant in their consciousness a sense of ownership. They don't have public libraries where you can go educate yourself for free in a lot of other countries. I want them to invest in their community and know that their community will invest in them."
n Contact reporter Peter Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1215.