September 12 2016

My name is Juan Carlos. I am a 20-year-old sociology student at California State University, Sacramento, and this year I decided, for the first time in my life, to vote. Like many young Latinos in California, I was unaware of the value of my vote and had no interest in going to the polls. This year was different, I voted in the 2016 primaries because I realized the privilege I have in being able to use my vote as a voice for my community. I don’t think I was the only one who felt this way, because the 2016 primaries saw a surge in Latino voter registrations.

This year has been marred by an atmosphere of fear mongering and hate. Like many Americans, I can’t go a week without feeling insulted by what politicians are saying. If Latinos aren’t being attacked, it’s undocumented, Muslims, African American, or another minority group. This discourse is dangerous because it can take our nation back to its not-too distant racist and anti-immigrant past. It is possible that this same discourse is also what motivated so many Latinos to register to vote. But after a low voter-turnout in June the question remains, what will motivate young Latinos to show up to the polls?

As a lifelong resident of South Central Los Ángeles, my family and I also belong to the undocumented and Latino communities. Residents in South Central are generally underrepresented and voiceless. Many in the community are not citizens and cannot vote, while others come from communities where, for generations, a culture of voting has not been present.

These facts make every vote that comes from these communities all the more critical to our future. I am well aware that when I vote, I am representing my community and fighting to keep the progress that has been made in California. For example, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, record numbers of minorities have gained access to health coverage, and for the first time in its history Medi-Cal expanded its services to include undocumented children. This may not mean much to many Californians but it means the world to my community, my family, and my younger cousin, who for the first time in his life will be able to get a full medical checkup.

I vote on behalf of people like my parents, who day in and day out, for the past 20 years, have contributed to the economy by working in Los Angeles’ factories for little pay and are forced to put off health care because of their immigration status – like my father did when he had a work accident that left him paralyzed for several days. We often avoided care out of fear due to the implications related to immigration status. Thankfully, his illness passed however, he may not been so lucky next time.

I am not undocumented, I have the privilege of voting, and I represented and speak for those in my community who cannot. This year I registered to vote, I turned in my first ballot, and I will not stop being civically engaged until everyone, regardless of immigration status, is able to have access to affordable health care. Even then, I will continue to participate and vote to ensure that progress is protected.

I am thankful to live in a state where the contributions of undocumented Californians are being recognized, but I fear the day the ground that has been gained, is taken back from us. This is why it is important for people to not just register, but to also make it to the polls in November. Someone, somewhere, needs you to speak up and protect his or her rights with your vote. It’s not just the presidential election that is at stake, the future health of our residents, undocumented or otherwise, also hangs in the balance. Is that not motivation enough?

This op-ed was originally published in Vida en el Valle. Click here to read it there.