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Holding U.S. flags and repeating the oath of citizenship in English, 75 Hispanic immigrants became naturalized Americans Friday during a ceremony criticized for being conducted mostly in Spanish.

English-only groups had attacked the ceremony as divisive and setting a bad precedent.U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez had a court clerk read the oath in English to the one Peruvian and 75 Mexican immigrants, who wore U.S. flag pins.

"We respect the ceremony," one of the new citizens, Ricardo Her-nandez of Nogales, Ariz., said in Spanish after the half-hour ceremony. "But it was important to make history as the first Mexicans to do it in Spanish."

After they took the oath, the new citizens were reminded by the judge that classes were available to learn the language of their new country.

That comment encouraged English-only groups who have spoken out against the ceremony, but it didn't soften their opposition.

"This should serve as a reminder for the American public of the factions out there who feel there are no limits," Christopher Doss, field director for U.S. English, said from the group's Washington headquarters. "Once we drop our common language, we open Pandora's box."

George Tryfiates, executive director of English First, contended that the ceremony was more divisive than unifying.

"It's still a negative message being sent by the INS," he said from the group's Springfield, Va., office.

The Spanish-language ceremony had been suggested by an INS employee who noted that many people scheduled to be sworn in qualified under requirements that allow them to take citizenship tests in their native language, said Bill Johnston, head of the local Immigration and Naturalization Service office.

By law, immigrants over the age of 50 with 20 years in the country, or over the age of 55 with 15 years in the country, may take citizenship tests in their native tongue.

During and after the ceremony, the new citizens expressed their gratitude at being able to use the Spanish language.

"I can understand more," Ramon Galavic, who came to Arizona from Guaymas, Mexico, said in Spanish. "I feel more emotion than in English."

Marquez, who is Hispanic and fluent in Spanish, told the new citizens they were not rejecting their cultures and customs.

"Go on eating tacos, enchiladas and tamales," he said, drawing laughter from the overflow crowd of about 200.