I voted for the first time in my life when I was 30.
It’s not that I didn’t want to before. It’s that I could not. I left my country when I was 16, and I did not become a US citizen until I was 29. The Obama-McCain race was the first presidential race in which I could legally participate.
I come from a country with a completely different electoral system. We have compulsory voting, multiple parties contending, and we follow the popular vote. Understanding the US two-party system with the electoral college and the low participation rates took some time.
So, when Barak Obama ran, I was still very new to the difference between Democrats and Republicans and did not belong to a party. I still don’t.
But I was aware that his election would represent a historical moment for this country, and I could not imagine a better person to fulfill the role of “America’s First Black President.”
As the mother of a Black son, I was thrilled to participate in an election that would give me the opportunity to tell my son that in this country, his country, he could be anything he wanted to be.
When I started sharing my excitement, however, I was challenged often and harshly by my White friends.
I was living in a Republican state so I was told again and again that my vote would not matter and that if I was going to vote for Obama, I should not even bother to show up to the polls, because the state was certainly going the way it had been going for years.
But that was by far the “nicest” thing people would say. While I could not vote in previous elections, I watched the news and heard the conversations. Candidates were always maligned by the opposing party, naturally.
But this felt different.
The level of hate and bitterness with which people spoke of Obama felt deeply personal.
I was told as a Christian I could not vote Democrat. I was told that Obama was not someone to be trusted (always without a valid explanation). I was told that he was not a “real” American, that he was a Muslim, a communist, and several other adjectives meant to scare me into not voting or, at the very least, not voting for him.
But I am a researcher; I read; I know how to find credible sources and I knew all I was hearing were lies. And I knew my God was not telling me that to be a Christian is to vote Republican, so I would not back down.
I lost friends over my choice of candidate. People stopped speaking to me.
It was baffling.
At the time, I did not understand, and I did not care. I was not going to be deterred from casting my vote. I have a strong sense of civic duty, perhaps because of coming from a place where voting is mandatory.
And while I expected disappointment from my Republican friends if their candidate lost, I did not foresee the intensity of the outraged I saw after Obama won.
Hindsight is 20/20 and I would come to understand this outrage over the next few years, as I delved into Black history while homeschooling my children.
Anti-Blackness has permeated this country since before it became a nation. It is baked into our DNA.
So, when I read that in 2009 the Pew Research labeled the 2008 election “the most racially and ethnically diverse in US history” as 25% of the voters were non-white, the pushback I received personally, the enmity and disdain for my voting choice made sense. Exit polls showed that 95% of the Black voters voted for Obama, as did 67% of the Latinos, and 62% of Asian voters.
It was “us” who helped elect Barak Obama, a Black man, to the highest position of the land.
Echoes of poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, “grandfather clauses,” the Washington March and Dr. King, the fight for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its language amendment in 1975, Fannie Lou Hamer, Hector Garcia, and others who fought for equality in voting rushed to my mind.
Fittingly, even today the push to keep people of color from the polls continues. Strategies to make voting more difficult by redrawing lines, creating more requirements, and limiting access to voting precincts abound.
Because voting matters.
Because “we” elected the first Black president. And later “we” elected the first Black Vice-President.
And we won’t be stopped because we believe what Fanny Lou Hammer said: “You can pray until you faint, but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”
To us, voting is praying: Hear us, Lord, as we fight for change.
By Gabriela Buitrón