ome kids I knew watched sitcoms or MTV after dinner.
My brother and I knew that once 6pm hit, no matter what we would be watching, we’d have to tune into the news. I could not quite understand why my father would make us watch or read about politics, especially before I reached my teenage years. If it was up to me, I would have been watching The Wayans Bros.
Part of the reason my parents put on the news had to do with their educational experience back in Ecuador. Like primary and secondary school students in many other Latin-American countries, they were required to take a civics class, meant to teach them about the workings of government and the role they could play toward progress and social betterment.
The message of those classes stuck with my parents, even if the Ecuadorian government didn’t always live up to classroom standards. My father felt that if we understood the political landscape, we would feel a sense of responsibility to do our part in making sure our country moves forward in a socially responsible manner.
However, current events aren’t the only things that shape my opinions and concerns. I also cared deeply about family and community. With politicians promoting anti-immigrant policies and xenophobia – opposed to actual reform – I feel an obligation to consider the greater Latino community, not just my own interests.
Like many children of Latino immigrants born in this country, I witnessed the social and economic struggles my parents went through on a daily basis. I was exposed to this reality at a young age, giving me a sense of familial responsibility, a cultural trait that I’ve seen many times over in other Latino and immigrant families, regardless of country of origin or economic status. Whether I was interpreting, filling out forms, or attending doctor’s appointments, I became aware of how government and its institutions work – or don’t work – to serve immigrant communities.
In this respect, our sense of advocacy transcends politics. To borrow a phrase from gender activists, I would say that within our Latino culture, the personal is political. Issues of immigration, healthcare, labor, and education aren’t just up for debate – they’re issues that affect our families directly.
We cannot solely blame government for ignoring Latinos. We should also hold ourselves accountable. While we are the largest ethnic minority in the United States and our voting population is 9.7 million, only 50 percent of eligible Latino voters actually vote! We live in a democratic country where we have a chance to make our voice heard at the polls, but the Latino voting population has not done its part. So how can we expect government to address our concerns when we don’t turn out for elections?
Once I turned 18, instead of voting before work, my father would wait for me in the evening and we would take a trip to the election polls as a family. Even now that I am married and living on Long Island, when election time comes around he will not forget to ask, “Ya votastes mija?” or “You already voted?”
I realize that it’s easier for me to remember to vote because I grew up with a civic-minded father. But as I think about the Latino voting population in the US, which continues to increase by about 500,000 every year, I hope that parents across the country are nagging their kids on election day, changing the channel to the news at 6pm, and teaching our next generation about the power of their vote.
Sarbelia Benedict has worked as an adjunct instructor at Suffolk Community College and lives in Babylon. She attained her master’s degree in Urban Policy & Administration from Brooklyn College while interning at Domestic Workers United. She blogs at Latina in Suburbia.