The Privilege of the American Citizen
When I was fifteen years old, and then again when I was sixteen, a large part of the Venezuelan community living in South Florida took a trip up to New Orleans to vote for the country’s next president. The first time, we were voting against Hugo Chavez, and the second time, we were voting against his successor. Both times, we lost.
These losses had been carefully matriculated by the government, of course. The reason we’d needed to go up to New Orleans in the first place is because they’d shut down our Venezuelan consulate in Miami, knowing that there were about 20,000 registered voters in the area who were a part of the opposition.
Clearly, however, closing our consulate wasn’t enough to discourage us from exercising our right to vote. My mother alongside several other honorable community members came together to find ways for people to mobilize up to New Orleans: they chartered buses and planes, found donors, raised money, and made it all possible for thousands of people to go up and vote.
I remember in the midst of all the madness, my mother’s phone number got leaked, and people began calling her to find out all sorts of information about the elections: where they could register, how they could get to New Orleans, what she thought was going to happen, everything. She was receiving upwards of a hundred phone calls a day, and had to get a new number to be able to communicate with her family and the others she actually needed to speak to.
She kept the old number, though, and throughout those days she was never off the phone.
“Mom, why are you picking up? You can’t answer them all.”
“I know, I know. Last one.” It never was. She was going crazy, but her desperation for people to be informed, active and mobilized beat out all rationality. For a week, the phone was glued to her ear.
Of those months, I will never forget the day we stayed up around thirty hours straight, organizing the election center, helping direct crowds of people, bringing in handicapped folks down from the buses, passing out food and water to those in line, making sure everyone had their information, and then, finally, sitting around in crowded hotel lobbies and re-charging our phones as we waited for the results. The first time we lost, I wasn’t sure if I was crying because of the loss or exhaustion.
“Don’t cry, girl. We have to keep fighting,” someone told me as I made my way onto the bus that would return us to our hotel. My mother was lost somewhere in a crowd of interviewers, photographers, workers from the election center and friends.
The second time we went up to vote, it began raining at about four in the morning and didn’t stop until a few hours after the sun came out. At some point while I was running back and forth between the election center and the buses full of handicapped and elderly voters, I remember feeling myself completely surrender myself to the storm -- if it wouldn’t stop raining, then I’d get wet. Entirely, absolutely, and unforgivably wet.
What I wouldn’t do was give up -- there were still several people who needed to be escorted in line, and several umbrellas to be held over shivering crowds of voters. By midday, when the masses of people had slowed a bit, the other volunteers and I found different surfaces on which to nap, as our pruned skin softened up and our drenched hair curled up dry the way it does after a long day at the beach.
I can’t remember what I ate on those days, and I can’t remember the plane rides from Miami to New Orleans and back. The only thing I really remember is the energy of the crowd of voters, the fervor for getting into the center and dipping a finger in purple ink and voting.
I honestly did not believe that I’d ever witness that same fervor about voting in American politics, but in the last few weeks on Duke’s campus, I’ve been pleasantly proven wrong. Every time I walked to class or to get food, there was someone ready with a clipboard to register me to vote. Several different organizations had people out on the streets asking around, making sure that students were properly registered and knew where to go on voting day.
As an immigrant who is still citizenship-less, it’s reassuring to see that voting is kind of a trendy thing to do amongst my peers. I know that they don’t really realize what a privilege it is to not only be able to easily vote, but to know that a vote will actually make a difference, as it should in a democratic government. Twice, I’ve cried about the results of a rigged Venezuelan election. But to see that they are definitely enjoying that privilege, that they’re proudly wearing the “I voted” stickers after coming out of early voting, and that they’re encouraging others to do the same, makes me feel proud of be a part of this American generation.
Today in Venezuela, people’s daily concerns include being able to find food, medicine and sustenance. Being politically active doesn’t mean registering to vote, it means risking your life in a protest on the highway. Speaking out against the government and voicing political beliefs isn’t something that’s taken for granted, it’s something that one could get jailed and tortured for.
I know that this is a dramatic situation to compare the United States to, but I implore you to take at least one lesson from it: American citizens can vote. Venezuelan citizens tried that, twice before my eyes, and they were still left with a government that has now left them starving and dying.
You are lucky to be from where you’re from. Go vote.