Why, As a Child of Immigrants, I Can't Ignore This Election
By Paula Mejia
One morning in the spring of 2015, I walked into my job at a news magazine to a curious proposition: Did I want to interview Donald Trump? It was about his new golf course in New York, and I initially hesitated. It was not just because I was an arts writer or because the one thing I knew about golf was that I would definitely switch the channel if it was on TV. At the time, Trump was known mostly (at least by my generation) for being a media gadfly, with his reality show and ability to occasionally push his way into political discussions. There was already speculation that he would run for president, but at that point I didn't care for politics at all.
How much that has changed over the past year.
I’m a first-generation Colombian-American. My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980s during Pablo Escobar's Colombia — a particularly fraught time in which the violent drug trafficker helped make their country the murder capital of the world. Colombia is a beautiful nation, but its economic and social growth has been, sadly, hampered by widespread corruption. I’d heard stories from my parents about law bribes, friends-of-friends who’d been held for ransom, and a slew of atrocities that happened without accountability, but the politics behind those issues were rarely discussed, and I grew up believing they were best avoided altogether.
But that day at work, I felt up to the challenge. I accepted the assignment and began researching Trump and his new golf club. Fifteen minutes later, I was on the phone with him. He was cordial and glib, and thought I worked for Newsday the entire time (I worked for Newsweek, a decidedly different publication). A month later, he announced he was running for president. There'd been no indication in our interview that he intended to jump from the boardroom to the Oval Office. It wasn’t until his infamous campaign announcement speech — in which he accused Mexicans of being "rapists" and bringing "drugs" and "crime" into the United States — that I started to rethink my stance on avoiding politics. I felt physically ill after hearing his announcement. To demonize an entire culture isn't just despicable — it’s hate speech.
Trump’s violent rhetoric has brought how the country deals with racism into frightening focus, though it's hardly a new phenomenon for many people who call America home. One of my earliest memories is being put in time-out with my cousin Eugenia at an after-school program because we were speaking in Spanish to each other. The non-Spanish-speaking kids assumed that we had to be bad-mouthing them and snitched. The truth was, she didn't speak English and no one else would talk to us.
It's not just my personal experience — xenophobia often feels stitched into the fabric of the country. Immigration policies are written with the intent to keep people out, just ask literally anyone who's attempted to immigrate to this country legally.
This exclusion is something I'd always derided about with politics. It seemed impossible to break into, even as an interest, because it felt like the process was built intentionally to keep people in the dark (the legislators in New York, where I live, have been called out for making it unreasonably difficult to vote — there was a state primary election in September, and many of my friends and I heard about it the day-of).
Recently, I asked my parents if they'd consciously made the choice not to discuss politics with me and my brother while we were growing up. "In our house, politics weren’t really touched," my mom told me. "None of us were interested. That wasn’t a topic of discussion at the table." Then, she said something that surprised me. "Now that I think about it, I became a lot more interested in politics when I could vote." (My parents became U.S. citizens in the early 2000s.)
It took me a bit longer to get there. The first presidential election I was eligible to vote in was in 2012. I was going to college in Washington D.C., and four years of living there had hardened my cynicism even further. I wanted even less to do with politics because it seemed like biggest jerks I met were also the ones grooming themselves for careers on the Hill. What was my vote to them? I couldn’t change anything.
The day of the election, I ran into my friend and former housemate, Youssef, who is Egyptian. He asked whether I would be going to the polls, and I shrugged. "I wish I had the right to vote," he responded.
His words set a bell off. To even have the choice to show up to the polls on Election Day is an enormous privilege. Many people don’t have the opportunity to vote, and not exercising that right is doing everyone a disservice. Even if I didn’t care much for voting, I had to do it for people who weren’t able to themselves.
In 2013, a senator from my home state, Wendy Davis, put on her pink shoes in a heroic filibuster to block Senate Bill 5, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks and put in place measures that would make it essentially impossible for women to have abortions in Texas. I was glued to my computer into the wee hours of the morning, seeing updates from friends camped out at the Texas State Capitol in Austin to cheer her on. I remember wishing that I could teleport there and be screaming along with them. Davis was fighting for reproductive rights — my rights — but she couldn’t do it alone. I had to meet her halfway and show up to the polls to vote in my — and millions of other women's — best interest.
When I interviewed Donald Trump, I didn’t know that he would be the catalyst for the most divisive election this country has ever witnessed. I’m Latin-American, someone for whom English is a second language, and now words are how I make a living. I’m someone who used to think politics could be separated from life, but now I realize it’s ingrained into every choice we make. I’m someone who can help speak out on issues where people don’t have a voice. I’m someone who is going to show up on November 8 and cast my vote because I won’t let someone I disagree with make decisions for people I care about. I'm someone and I can help people who don’t have a voice, or who have had theirs silenced, speak out in favor of policies that will make America — a nation built by immigrants — a place where the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses can actually breathe free.
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