I was born in the United States, in Brownsville, Texas, on the border with Matamoros, Mexico. But I grew up in Matamoros, where my father had his job, and my mom her family.
In our Mexican community, going to vote was a lot like going to Mass—you didn’t always understand everything, but you faithfully took part in it. Like going to church, it was something the family did together.
As a little girl, I became used to going with my dad and the rest of the family when he went to vote. Over there, in those days, when you voted, your thumb was marked with ink. It was like getting ashes on Ash Wednesday—it marked you as somehow special.
I have been living in Brownsville, now, since I was a teenager. I remember when I turned 18—and one of the first things I did was register to vote. It was what my family did when one of us became considered a responsible adult. I have passed this tradition—this culture of voting—along to my two daughters. Silvia, now 25, and Sandra, now 22, are perfect voters.
In my neighborhood, after 20 years of hard work, we have managed to recreate that same culture of civic engagement that my family lives out. Although we live in the poorest community in America [we have a per capita income of only $4,500—less than Mexico], we have one of the highest turnout rates in our specific area.
Because of that record, we have brought a lot of improvement into our neighborhood—parks, paved roads, sidewalks, streetlights.
These are things that most people in the United States take for granted, but in communities like ours, on the U.S.-Mexico border, we don’t all enjoy or even expect these benefits of good government.
I know that my family and my neighborhood might be considered exceptions. After all, Hispanic voters in Texas—Hispanic voters in the Rio Grande Valley, for that matter—have a very poor participation rate.
As someone who has “walked the vote” so many times, I have heard every excuse and every reason for people not to vote.
People say for instance, that their vote doesn’t matter. I point out to them how many of our local elections have been decided by ten or fewer votes. When they say, “What does one vote matter?,” I tell them, “But you are more than one vote! You bring your wife and your kids and your grandkids and your friends—you are todo un tribu [a whole tribe of people!]. “
People talk about how much corruption we have in our state. That is true, but I argue that not voting is like giving them permission to keep up their evil deeds.
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I really do believe that the way to beat back corruption is to get involved. The first step to getting involved is stepping into a voting booth. Just the first step, because, after you vote, you start to really care about the candidates.
And then you go to public meetings, you learn about the issues. Maybe you run for office. It is a process—but it is our process, the American process.
But mostly I think people feel overwhelmed by all of the issues and have sort of given up.
This year, though, I have seen a change. The language of the campaigns, and the fact that we are immigrants on the border means that we are the ones being blamed for all sorts of things. It is so unfair and so wrong that I think that it has woken people up.
It is about time. If only my community had awoken a few years ago, maybe Texas would have Medicaid expansion—and the thousands of people who have died because they had no medical care would be still with us.
If my community had been a little more involved politically, maybe Texas would have some of the best-funded schools in the nation, instead of some of the worst.
When I bother to be an educated voter, I am showing love for my family, my community and my country.”
— Lupita Sanchez Martinez of Proyecto Juan Diego
And finally, the attempts to stop DAPA and DACA (the executive action that President Barack Obama took on behalf of immigrant families and that was challenged by several states) would never have existed.
Millions of people would be at peace with their families—maybe that would never have been an issue, because we Hispanics are many in this country. And we would choose to speak, it will be with a loud voice.
Willie Velasquez, the Hispanic champion of the vote, had that marvelous phrase: “Tu voto es tu voz [your vote is your voice].” That is true. To vote is to speak up.
But I would like to add to that my phrase: “Votar es amar [to vote is to love].” When I bother to be an educated voter, I am showing love for my family, my community and my country. When I vote, it shows that I take myself and our future seriously in the way I take seriously those I love.
And so I vote. And I go with my children and my neighbors and the people at my church. And pick up my ballot, and I take it to the voting booth. And my heart swells because I love my country.
Lupita Sanchez Martinez is a grassroots advocate with Proyecto Juan Diego, a Brownsville, Texas community organization that focuses on empowerment so low-income families can be healthy and self sufficient. In the top photograph, she is seen (on the left) in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Photo courtesy of Proyecto Juan Diego.