I was sitting at a lunch counter on Monday, less than 24 hours before the polls opened, thinking about the one thing that was keeping me up most nights: on Election Day, would Latinos show up and translate our potential to political power?
Just then, I heard two voices—loud, vibrant, New Yorker accents belonging to a pair of strong women. One said:
“You voting?” And then the other, “Why? It’s the same old shit.”
I turned to see the voices and their speakers. Two 20-something Latinas, working behind the counter and playing out my worst nightmares. Didn’t they see how personal this election was going to be? All the issues—health care, education, choice—that were up for grabs? Didn’t they understand what was at stake for women just like them? And as voters of color, didn’t they know that so many efforts had been made to block their vote?
Overhearing this conversation made me start to really wonder what kind of message Latino voters might send on November 6.
In my work with Voto Latino, we’ve set out to empower as many young people as possible in our communities. To get there, we went everywhere and did everything: knocked on doors, toured colleges, and stayed busy on social media and Twitter to get out the vote. We asked people to register to vote, and we urged them—in whatever way they could—to make their voices heard in our politics.
Now, I can look back on the events those days around the election and two big ideas take over. First, I’m unspeakably proud that Latinos made history this year. We turned out and voted in record numbers, making up at least 10 percent of the American electorate and deciding races in Colorado, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Texas—a new and expanding map for Latino voters.
Second, I know that we can’t rest now. The Sleeping Giant, the long-promised future of Latino voters, has woken up. The political power we’ve been building up has been let loose. Our numbers have been counted and our voices have been heard. We’re here, and now’s the time to flex our muscle and leave our mark.
But those are the voters who are engaged, the people who are already tuned in. These women at the store where I was eating lunch—what would it take to get them involved? How do we connect the dots between the present these women live in, and the policies that could shape their future?
The gains made in this election were a win for every American. Boundaries on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation were shoved aside on Election Night, and in no small part due to Latinos showing up to vote.
But will our participation lead to progress? In bettering the political environment and expanding rights, are we also extending the impact of these systems evenly throughout our communities? Are we reaching everyone?
The women behind the counter: It didn’t seem to me that they had any faith in these systems—and I don’t know if I can explain why they should. These systems don’t work for them and for others in their situations. By and large, public institutions have failed to offer them great classrooms or access to adequate health care or maybe even simply a safe and vibrant community to live in.
On November 6, a record was set for the most Latino representatives sent to Congress at one time. But the girl at the register, and millions like her, are still standing on the sidelines. And we have an obligation to ask ourselves, “Why?”
While all of these are clear signs that Latino participation is moving in the right direction, we must remember that 2012 is a performance nowhere near the limits of our potential. Is it really because nothing we say can change their minds? I don’t think it’s that simple, but I do think there’s a solution.
Research shows that Latinos don’t vote for two main reasons: They are not asked by their communities to register to vote, and they do not feel informed on the issues. It’s up to Latino voters, and the people in our community who are part of this awakening. It’s up to us to wake up others.
But first we have to wake up our elected officials. I promise you, we have their attention. They are listening. Now it’s up to us to hold them accountable, and engage in meaningful dialogues for change. I know we’re tenacious. Those Latinas at the restaurant had spirit. If we can channel it, we’ll get change.
And when we do, we’ll show that by supporting robust institutions and creating an even playing field with access to opportunity, our elected leaders can gain our continued and long-lasting support. We’ll be there for them—if they prove, through their actions, that they’re willing to work with us to think differently about serving this emerging American majority.
Then, we have to wake up our brothers and sisters, our families and friends, who don’t yet see the promise and value of participating. It has to be real for them—and that goal is on all of us to work toward.
We cannot allow these communities to fend for themselves on an uneven playing field. It takes organization and leadership to educate our young and first-time voters on the issues that impact them directly. And it takes dedicated resources to put in their hands the power to shape their own futures.
We’re awake, and the momentum is ours. We have more work to do to reach our full potential. Given Election Day’s results, our full potential is massive and unimaginably transformative. When Latinos vote, all Americans win, even the people who think voting could never play a role in their lives.
So let’s not wait four years to get to work again. We’re awake. Let's keep going now.