Wednesday, October 31, 2012

We Weren't Supposed To Be There... Or, Thoughts On My Vote

Author's note: This week's regular program, Goodbye, Peter Baca, is interrupted to bring you this message about voting (which started out as a Facebook status update and morphed into this week's blog). We will resume regular programming next week.  

On a cold winter morning in January, 2009, a Black man was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States.

I was there when he was sworn in.

It was a rash decision and a stroke of luck that landed me at the Inauguration.  A few days after Barack Obama was elected, I was still riding the high of his victory.  My friend from California and I were on the phone and he suggested we meet up for the Inauguration.  Without thinking, researching or knowing whether or not I would even have a place to stay, I booked a flight to DC.  As weeks passed by, I did some more research and found that:
a. I needed to write to my congressman to get tickets to the event and
b. there were no hotel rooms.  Anywhere.
Had I given myself more time to think about it, I wouldn't have bought a plane ticket.  I would have convinced myself that it was an exercise in futility to even try to go and I would have stayed in Albuquerque where it was warmer and watched the Inauguration on TV, where I could see everything and hear the President's speech.

I am forever grateful for my brief moment of impulsiveness because not only did I get a ticket to the Inauguration, but I found a place to stay (my friend A. was there for a conference and I spent a few nights in her hotel room in Baltimore.  My friend from California wasn't able to go).  I spent time with her and her son and we planned on going to the Inauguration together but that morning, as soon as we got onto the grounds we got separated and I never found her.  I was alone among 1.8 million people.

I faced a kind of cold I had never experienced.  The weather turns cold in New Mexico, but it's a dry cold.  The damp cold in DC encased me and then dug itself right into my bones.  I didn't have anything to eat or drink because bathrooms weren't exactly accessible and I didn't want to risk needing to go.  I was packed in tightly with other people and I could barely see the top of the Capitol building.  My cell phone didn't work because there were scramblers that intercepted signals.  I had a huge moment of doubt.  I couldn't see, I couldn't hear, I was freezing and I was alone.  I looked around and saw nothing but strangers.  No one was familiar.  There were cheers at various times, and even some boos when George H.W. Bush was announced (the booers were scolded by some elder Black women, who said that wasn't what we were there for.  I was glad I didn't boo).  As time passed, I began to chat with the people around me.  We were excited, asking where each other came from and people were surprised I had traveled all the way from New Mexico.

Suddenly, in a collective breath, a hush fell over the crowd and Barack Obama was sworn in.  I couldn't hear every word, but I was able to make out "so help me God" and a cheer erupted throughout the massive crowd.  People were hugging and a woman turned to me and said "congratulations" and I said it back to her as we hugged.  She had tears in her eyes and I suddenly understood the magnitude of being there for that moment.

Barack Obama wasn't supposed to be there.  We live in a country that never intended for Black people to be free, much less know how to read, much less be formally educated, much less Senator, much less President.  Slavery wasn't an experiment that didn't work and slaves simply freed, no harm, no foul.  We live in a country rooted in a belief that land, people and resources were - and are - simply objects to be conquered, colonized and owned.  Years after the Civil Rights Act was signed and Jim Crow laws were eradicated, an overwhelming majority of people elected a Black president and the racism that certain people held just under their breath became shouts and screams and they wanted their country back.

Note the capitol behind me.  I was really there! 

As a Chicana, I wasn't supposed to be at the Inauguration either.  Women weren't given the vote because Congress felt like it was the right thing to do - if that was the case, we would have had the vote from day one.  Women had to fight for the right to vote and women of color face even more barriers when it comes to having a voice in this country.  If this country was founded on "doing the right thing," then this country would not have been founded - not the way it was.  Land stolen from Indigenous people, slavery, violence, disease, oppression - any gains toward civil rights that have been made have been hard fought for and won by those willing to fight and risk their safety and even lives.  I don't put faith in politicians to create change; my hope is in the people.

Why vote, then?  I have been called a mindless sheep, I've been told I'm stupid for voting and that my voice doesn't count.  I have had so many disappointments from elected officials (including President Obama) that it often feels that my vote is useless.  After the Bush debacle of the 2000's, how could I not feel that way?  When it feels like I don't matter, why would I continue on?

I vote because I can.  I vote because so many people in power would rather I not vote.  I vote because I have very little in common with my dad, and there is very little we talk about, but when it comes to politics, I feel like we have an unspoken bond.  My dad made sure I registered to vote when I turned 18 and took me to vote for the very first time (I voted for Clinton in '96).

I vote because there are people who aren't allowed to vote and  my voice is an extension of their voice.  Because my grandmothers were both born years before women won the right to vote.  Because my mother walked a picket line when she was pregnant with me and because my dad held public office.   Because Chicanos/Latinos are the fastest growing group and there is power in our vote.  I am highly critical of this country, the policies and politicians who are in office, and I vote because I'll be damned if someone tells me not to.

I am voting for President Obama again.  I do not agree with everything he has done, but a Romney presidency will surely cause damage to an already fragile country.  My faith is in the people who fight for freedom in this country - community organizers, activists, poets, artists, grandmas, parents, children, musicians and yes, soldiers.  I am voting for Barack Obama because when Democrats are in office, our jobs are just a little bit easier (Mitt Romney has already vowed to slash Planned Parenthood, eliminate Obamacare and PBS, among many other social programs).

When the Inauguration ceremony ended, I began the trek with thousands of other people out of the National Mall.  I walked about four miles back to a friend's house.  When I was finally away from the scramblers, I received a message on my cell phone.  It was one of my older sisters.

"I am so proud that you are there," she said, "you're carrying all of us with you."

I was there, just as I was supposed to be.

Next week: Goodbye, Peter Baca 

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