There’s a piece of art hung in my house – it’s actually a sign someone made for the Families Belong Together March in San Diego this past summer – it says “Know our history, so we can fight for our future.”
Historically speaking, the United States is a nation comprised of indigenous people and immigrants. This country was built by generation after generation of people who came these shores, a majority of whom spoke very little or no English, and went on to raise all-American families. Immigration has formed the very fabric of our country. And yet, so many politicians and public figures today have painted immigration as some kind of modern existential threat, as if it hasn’t always been happening, and as if the welcoming of immigrants isn’t our greatest strength as a country.
The painful reality is that our immigration system has indeed been broken for quite some time; but it’s not broken in the ways today’s xenophobic politicians would have you think.
When I was 14 years old, my family was deported to Colombia, a country they had left many years before. Because I was born in New Jersey after they arrived, I stayed behind. Nothing prepares a child for family separation; the trauma is irreversible. Family separation is not temporary, because its impact is forever.
Thanks to the help of my community, I pulled through, sought help, and am now pursuing my passion for the arts while being an activist for social justice and immigration reform. Once I shared my truth about my family’s separation, I realized that my story is as American as apple pie. I realized I belong here, and I can be part of changing the system so other families don’t have to suffer the way mine did.
Family separation — whether that’s because of mass incarceration or heartless immigration policy — and unequal treatment under the law is affecting millions of Americans. These harmful policies not only make it harder to be successful in America, they make America weaker by placing some of its citizens, and would-be citizens at a disproportionate disadvantage.
In order to change this, we must vote in every election for representatives who understand our stories of sacrifice, discrimination, inequality, and family separation. We need people who are willing to work together to create a future where there is a path to citizenship for our invaluable immigrant community. This would not just help undocumented citizens. It would help all of us. As it has in the past, it will help our economy, our families, our communities, and our country.
The good news: We have tremendous opportunity before us to do just that. On Nov. 6, all 435 of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are up for grabs, as well as nearly one-third of the U.S. Senate seats, and literally hundreds of offices in state legislatures, governorships, district attorneys and more.
The stakes could not be higher. The issues that are important to all of us — health care, common sense immigration reform, education, fair wages, environmental projections and stopping political hate speech — are at the core of this year’s candidates’ platforms. In many places, Latinx people — women especially — are stepping up to lead and making history. Texas is a case in point, where Democratic Latinas, former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar and state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston are widely expected to win outright seats to the U.S. House, making them Texas’ first Latinas in Congress.
There are literally thousands of other people running for offices, big and small, and each of them could be consequential.
For too long, the Latinx community has been apathetic about politics. Don’t get me wrong, it makes perfect sense why that is: When none of the people running for office look like us, come from where we come from, or even dare to discuss the issues that affect us, it’s no wonder that we absorbed the message that the American political system is not for us. For example, mass incarceration continues to destroy Latinx communities, yet even many Latinx leaders still have to be convinced to take on this crucial issue. This perpetuates the view that mass incarceration is only an issue for African-Americans, and keeps us divided.
On top of that, many of us come from immigrant families, many of them mixed-status families, where the fear of a loved one’s deportation hangs over us daily, casting a shadow over us such that we think the best thing to do is keep our heads down and mind our own business.
But this year, we cannot stay home. The truth is that the Latinx community is powerful — or at least, we could be. In 2016, a record 27.3 million Latinx people were eligible to vote, and our numbers are only growing. More than 29 million Latinx voters will be eligible to vote in the 2018 midterms — 12.8% of eligible voters. But the great potential of our political power was weakened because of low voter turnout. We are workers, business owners, artists, and we are raising families and paying taxes. We contribute to this country just as much as anyone else, and we deserve government representation that reflects that. If what we want is a politics that represents us, then we have to participate in the process. And that means exercising our most sacred right as Americans: the vote.
In 30 years, the Latinx community is projected to be the largest minority community in the U.S. If we don’t elect representatives who understand the importance of undoing mass incarceration and dismantling the for-profit prison system, who want to wholly transform our immigration system and create a path to citizenship, who focus on equal access to healthcare and a great education – the effects of this will be disastrous. If we don’t focus on making these changes, there’s a chance we’ll also be the largest community in the U.S. prison system.
During a midterm election, when so many issues and so many people will be on the ballot, it can be overwhelming to figure out who is running in your state or district. Many people I’ve talked to, young people especially, often tell me they want to participate but the process is too confusing. Or worse, they say they feel like their vote doesn’t matter or that politics is too negative and divisive to be involved.
I can relate. Perhaps because I’m an actress and a Latina who speaks her mind, I get nasty comments all the time from people on social media who tell me to just shut up. They say that I’m dumb, that I should keep my mouth shut about politics because how could I know anything about it? But to me, that just proves my theory that my voice is powerful and that my vote really does matter. In fact, I know a lot about politics because I know, through my lived experience and spending time educating myself on the issues, what I want to change.
This November, I’ll be bringing that knowledge and my hope into the voting booth with me, and I hope you do, too. To find out who is running in your district, find your state’s voter information website here, and check out this voting FAQ. And finally, make your plan to get to the polls on November 6th now.
Diane Guerrero is an actress, author and activist.