GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Fifteen years ago, Brunella Gualerzi of Italy opened one of Grand Junction's finest restaurants, il Bistro Italiano. The recipes are from northern Italy, a region known for its cuisine, and after all these years owner Gualerzi can still be found in the kitchen cooking alongside employees, making sure the food is perfect.
As a business owner, Gualerzi has employed dozens of people; she volunteers in the community; and for 22 years has paid taxes.
And now, she can also vote.
Gualerzi, 49, was one of 18 people from 13 different countries who became U.S. citizens after taking the oath at a naturalization ceremony Wednesday at the Wayne Aspinall federal courthouse one block away from Gualerzi's restaurant.
"I've always wanted to do it," Gualerzi said. "I've been here almost half of my life. My family (in Italy) says I speak Italian with an American accent."
Gualerzi had previously worked as a travel agent both in Italy and in the United States. She came to Grand Junction nearly 23 years ago to visit a friend, and with a study visa she enrolled in Mesa State College's travel management program. After graduation, she obtained other visas that allowed her to work in the U.S. And then, in 1999, she married an American, Ron Hall.
After the travel company where Gualerzi worked sold, she decided to open an Italian restaurant with money she inherited from her father.
"I wanted a real Italian restaurant with real Italian cuisine," Gualerzi said.
"I come from an area of Italy famous for its food. It's where balsamic vinegar comes from; where parmesan cheese comes from. Lasagna was invented there. I grew up making pasta, everything from scratch."
Gualerzi searched for more than a year for the perfect location for her restaurant.
"During that time I had a visa to stay while I explored business opportunities without being (allowed) to work," Gualerzi said. "And, I had to renew my visa every three months."
Finally, in November 1997, three weeks before her final visa was set to expire, Gualerzi bought the building at 400 Main St. in downtown Grand Junction. With a solid business plan and a place to open her restaurant, Gualerzi was then able to get an entrepreneur visa; she opened il Bistro in 1998.
Gualerzi obtained a green card and became a permanent resident - the first step toward citizenship - and it was a long and arduous process, she said.
"It has to be more reasonable," the path to citizenship, Gualerzi said. "We need workers. People pay taxes, they want to be part of this society. This country was started with immigrants."
Gualerzi started the process when she became eligible in 2006, but then stopped after learning her nephew needed a kidney transplant. Gualerzi donated one of her kidneys to him, and she needed to be able to travel freely to and from Italy.
She postponed the process again in 2009 when that same nephew gave Gualerzi and her husband a trip to anywhere in the world. She chose Maldives, an archipelago south of India.
Finally, with her green card set to expire this year, Gualerzi once again set out on the path to citizenship.
There are several requirements applicants must meet, including being able to read, write and speak English, being a person of good moral character, and possessing a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government.
"My working life has been in this country. If I travel outside of it, I want to be able to come back," Gualerzi said.
"Plus, I want to vote - that's a big thing."
Gualerzi stood with the 17 other immigrants - from Australia, Cambodia, Romania, China, El Salvador, New Zealand, Philippines, Czech Republic, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine and Vietnam - and repeated the oath read to them by U.S. Magistrate Judge Gordon Gallagher. They came from around Colorado's Western Slope.
Judge Gallagher told the new citizens, "first and foremost become an informed citizen, and vote in every election."
Know what's going on in government, volunteer your time ("we're all busy, that's how life is"), he added.
Ah, yes, the rumors are true. Il Bistro is for sale, including those delicious recipes from Italy.
Gualerzi and her husband - the restaurant's affable maitre d' - are ready for a vacation.
"Ron hasn't seen a lot of the U.S.," Gualerzi said. "We plan to buy a trailer and tour the U.S. and see this country with our two dogs.
"After the tour, we may spend a little time in Italy."