It’s been two years since I was on a private ferry heading to Ellis Island at sunset to celebrate the debut screening of Habla y Vota. It is part of the HBO Latino documentary series, Habla, that I have been producing for over a decade. This installment was geared towards getting out the Latinx vote. Habla captures the U.S. Latinx experience of biculturalism, bilingualism, immigration and more, through funny, poignant and honest stories told straight to camera.
The excitement was palpable among my fortunate group of colleagues and friends: we would have that symbolic island all to ourselves to dance salsa (a first we were told) and to celebrate how far we’d come. My eyes welled up when I saw the towering portraits of our protagonists crowning the grand hall. This was the same sacred place where so many immigrants had stood, praying for a shot at the American Dream.
Eighteen stories of celebrities ranging from George Lopez to Jorge Ramos, Prince Royce and Adrienne Bailon, and real people like an ex-convict and young student, echoed from a giant screen. They spoke to the 58 million+ Latinx in the U.S. about their backgrounds and their own takes on voting, culture, and the need to raise our collective voice. At the time, we could have changed the political future of this country. We had it in our hands. But, we didn’t show up.
The story from Habla y Vota that has haunted me as of late is from Cristela---a comedian and the only Latina to have had her own sitcom on network TV. Her mother came from El Zancarrón, an extremely poor part of Mexico, squatting in an abandoned, Texas diner with Cristela and her other children in order to survive. Little by little, Cristela’s single mother forged ahead. And, like many immigrants, worked herself to death by not seeking medical attention “because she didn’t have enough money and didn’t want to take advantage of the system.”
Cristela goes on to talk about how much it pains her that during these Trumpian times, Latinx are accused of leeching our resources. I would argue that Latinx ARE our resources. That in all their complexities, Latinx are contributing in ways that are key to our infrastructure, economy, and well being. They hold down the fort, and as immigrants, with a nod to Lin Manuel, they get the job done.
But now the hard truth: by being in that tragically humble state, in that subservient “mande” mode that keeps Latinx heads down, we are taking…we’re taking a lot. By taking up space while evading our civic responsibility, we are not living in our truth—the reality is we are here to stay and need to speak up.
Plenty has been written about why Latinx don’t vote: most commonly that Latinx are too young or too jaded . They are often quoted as saying, “Politicians never do anything for us, so why should we care?” I daydream of asking each and every one of them—Why would you leave everything behind to come to a functional democracy if you refuse to participate? Why do you think you were miserable back home if it wasn’t for corruption and authoritarian governments? Why should they care about you if you don’t vote?
And yet, I know there are deeper issues at play from listening to hundreds of testimonials while producing Habla. Lack of self esteem is definitely at the top of the list, which can come from not knowing English, or having experienced racism. Endemic fatalism is also a big culprit from what’s happened all over South America with the oppression of natives and the disarray of modern governments. There is also a pandemic listlessness that comes from being overworked in this country. Though a broad culture, Latinx share many of these underlying truths…like it or not.
Keeping to ourselves means standing in the same place, and we didn’t come here for that. We came to move forward, to expand and connect to our innate potential. So why are we able to cross rivers and deserts, both physically and metaphorically, and get up everyday at the crack of dawn, embracing our lucha as a way of life, but we can’t get our act together and go vote?
Picture yourself on Ellis Island with your future in your hands--would you let it wash to sea, or would you hold tight until you reached safety?
Con el corazón en la mano,
Thank you for reading! HBO Latino posted Habla y Vota for free and it’s still relevant heading into the midterm elections. Please share with those who need a push! Just hearing this inspiring group hablar is well worth it.