The automatic doors whooshed open and a man entered the store. His eyes were aimed straight ahead and he did not glance my way. His skin was brown and he appeared to be of Latin American descent.
Trying to get his attention I asked, “Registrar para votar?” in my best (god awful) Spanish.
His eyes cut to me – a gringa holding a little sign that had written on it in English and Spanish what I’d attempted to say – Register to Vote. He quickly shook his head in the negative and moved on.
I had a folding table set up near the doors with voter registration forms neatly aligned and I’d brought my own lawn chair for when I got tired of standing. My instructions were to accost people entering and leaving the store, get their attention and elicit a response. “Don’t expect them to come up to you,” my adviser told me. “You have to go up to them and engage them, ask if they are registered and encourage them to do so.”
With very poor Spanish skills, I tried to make up for my deficiency with enthusiasm. Usually I was accompanied by a bi-lingual co-volunteer or two, but this day nobody could come, so I was on my own.
“Excuse me sir, are you registered to vote?” I asked another man who looked like he’d just left the jobsite, maybe landscaping or construction, though there’s precious little construction going on nowadays. He looked at me blankly. “Registrar para votar?” I tried again, this time with a big smile of encouragement and a special sign wag. Again I got the little shake of the head, almost as though he didn’t want me to bring attention to him.
Shoot, maybe I’m doing this wrong, I thought. I endeavored once again, this time with a man and his wife, both out for a shopping trip with their three small children. Registrar para votar?” I asked, again waving my sign and smiling until I felt like my face might crack. Their little boy, perhaps eight years old, gazed at me and then turned to his father and said something in a low voice I couldn’t hear. His father replied in Spanish. The little boy said to me with a shy smile, “No, we can’t vote.”
He was cute so I gave him a little button that said, “Got papers? Then vote!”
I’ve recently volunteered with a voter registration group to help get out the Latino vote in Arizona. The group is non-partisan, but I’m certainly not. We’ve obtained permission to set up our voter drive inside a large supermarket that largely caters to Hispanics, complete with non-stop ranchero music, mounds of chilies and prickly pear paddles in the produce section and many mystifying cheeses. I arrived early to set up, so I took a tour of the store. I immediately felt myself transported back to Mexico, where I had spent a winter over ten years ago. The meats section was huge and there was even an entire cow’s head, or cabeza, minus the skin, on display in the case. I took its picture with my cell phone.
My voter group has tried to get permission to set up at all the large Hispanic supermarkets, but this store is the only one that allowed us in. A competing chain refused, and we later found out that its parent company donates heavily to Republican candidates. Another large market never returned our calls. We speculated that they may have been apprehensive about drawing attention to themselves or their customers. There is an underlying atmosphere of fear that has pervaded these minority communities due to the frequent immigration raids of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the threat of SB 1070.
As I looked around the bustling store – people coming and going, checkout counters all open and busy – I wondered what would happen if the estimated 500,000 undocumented people suddenly left the state … and if their families left, too. And what if all the people who ran the businesses that catered to them, like the many employees at this store, suddenly found themselves out of work and they had to go elsewhere to find jobs? Gone would be the supermarkets with their ethnic meat departments and piñatas hanging from the ceilings. Gone: the little hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving tamales, menudo and lingua tacos. Also the beauty shops, shoe stores, tire repair shops, and all the other entrepreneurial small businesses that crop up when there is a vital immigrant population. All gone.
I had picked this one store in this one area in the city of Mesa to volunteer because it’s in LD 18, which is the legislative district of Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce. I think of Pearce as my personal nemesis, even though I’ve never met the man and have only laid eyes on him personally once (I was protesting at a Tea Party rally at the state capitol where he was speaking – our small group was standing across the street waving signs and yelling into bullhorns at the all-white crowd. It was very cathartic).
Pearce is the sponsor and champion of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigration law, SB 1070; a law that boasts a policy of “enforcement through attrition” as a way to rid the state of what he must see as an excess of brown people. He’s an active hater of undocumented Latinos and once even introduced a bill requiring that a prospective bride and groom each provide proof of citizenship before marriage licenses could be issued. His next push will be to pass his distasteful and blatantly unconstitutional “Anchor Baby” legislation barring citizenship to children of illegal immigrants. Whenever I see him speak on TV, my blood boils, so I finally decided to stop getting angry and do something about it.
Mesa is heavily white and Mormon, but it boasts a large and vibrant Latino population as well. There are an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 unregistered eligible voters in this city and most are thought to be Hispanic. This boggles my mind.
Historically, Latinos are not very active voters in Arizona. In fact they vote at 10 to 15 percent below the general population and, as a result, are underrepresented in local government. This is an odd disconnect in a state that is steeped with Hispanic culture. The passage of SB 1070 has been changing attitudes, though, and the efforts to get out the vote have been encouraging. This minority is growing both in population and political clout, and this seems to frighten some of the leaders. I’m hoping it frightens Pearce a whole lot.
An African-American woman walked by. “Register to vote ma’am?”
She grinned at me, “I’m already registered, honey.”
Yes, of course. People who had to fight for the right to vote tend to take it very seriously.
A young, white man strolled in. “Sir, would you like to register to vote?”
“I can’t, I’m a convicted felon.” The honesty of this statement took me aback, but I smiled at him, too, and said, “O.K., that’s cool. Sorry about that.”
The day dragged on. I asked many people of many different colors the same question and got the same answers – they’re already registered, they couldn’t vote for whatever reasons or they simply shook their heads or ignored me all together. My legs got tired, so I sat for a while and lured little kids over with my buttons in the hope their parents would follow. Sometimes they did, but only to smile, offer me thanks and shake their heads when I asked my same old question, “Are you registered to vote? Registrar para votar?”
This time, it was a young Latino couple and they actually stopped and walked over to my table. The man turned to his wife and spoke rapid Spanish to her. She nodded and looked at me. “I’ve just become a citizen and I want to vote,” she said. My heart swelled and I nodded rapidly, scrambling to find pen and forms that were right in front of me. I took her driver’s license and helped her fill out the form. I got to the part requiring party affiliation. “What party do you want to choose?”
She looked unsure. “Which should I choose?” she asked me.
Ah, the power! But my pesky sense of fairness won out.
“Um, let me put it this way, our Governor Brewer is a Republican. Her opponent, Terry Goddard, is a Democrat. State Senator Russell Pearce is a Republican. Congressman Raul Grijalva is a Democrat.”
She thought for a moment, “Democrat.”
It had been a long day. I packed up the table, signs and voter forms, thanked the store manager and headed out to the roasting hot parking lot. Later, I called my friend at the voter group.
“How many did you get?” she asked.
“One,” I said
“Great! That’s one more than we had yesterday!” she enthused.
Yes … uno mas, one more. Strangely enough, that made it a good day.