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“After fleeing my home country a decade ago, I know that no American should take voting for granted.”

mariana atencio registering to vote

Back then, I was a college student fighting for our freedoms by participating in street protests. But authoritarianism was growing by the day as politicians like Hugo Chavez and then Nicolas Maduro began taking over private properties, closing independent media, mismanaging revenue from the oil industry, and changing the Constitution. I quickly realized there was little I or any other activists could achieve with protests if our votes didn’t count for anything. I was lucky to be able to leave in 2008, but fast forward to 2020, and many Venezuelans are now starving and don’t have adequate medical care—in an oil rich nation.

Now, as a Latina journalist in the U.S. who witnessed the dissolution of her native country, I feel obligated to do whatever I can to help lead Americans through representation in the media. In the wake of Covid-19, there is a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive systems that could reshape our lives for decades to come, much like they did in Venezuela. So I want to sound the alarm—before it’s too late.

For me, the best way to do that is through honest, credible storytelling, and visibility at the ballot box. I saw very soon after moving here that the Latinx community in the U.S. needs leadership and warriors in both. So this year, after officially becoming an American citizen—amidst a pandemic and the social upheaval that has marked 2020—I feel a moral duty to use whatever power I have to stand for our civil rights, especially for the Latinx community, which welcomed me when I arrived to this country completely alone.

But in my journey to get more people like me to use their right to be civically engaged—or, at least, vote—perhaps my biggest obstacle is getting them to see that the future of this country is not about red or blue. In fact, it’s more like a chess game, where the white pieces still have an inherent advantage, and the black ones have to wait to make their move. My biggest goal is to inspire people of color to be more active in thinking about what’s best for their communities, instead of hanging on to the same views, labels or policies that previous generations did.

For example, when a politician in Florida uses the words “communism” or “socialism” to instill fear in immigrants and their families who suffered through left-wing dictatorships in Latin America like I did, it’s purely strategy. Because those same politicians will then refuse to vote for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for the refugees of those same communities. It’s the most damaging form of hypocrisy. So instead of simply trusting politicians who use the right buzzwords because they need our votes, we need to educate ourselves and pay attention—and make these officials work for our votes, instead of just giving it to them.

I know, I know. It sounds overwhelming. But the easiest place to begin is simply by voting, because that’s where we have the most power. The Latino community surpassed 60 million people in 2020; that’s more than 18% of the U.S. population. Every 30 seconds, a Latino turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote, which means there’s the potential for at least 800,000 new Hispanic voters every year, according to the Pew Research Center.

Every 30 seconds, a Latino turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote, which means there’s the potential for at least 800,000 new Hispanic voters every year.

The Latino vote block has been referred to as “The Sleeping Giant.” But in my opinion, mainstream media keeps missing the mark: We’re not all “sleeping.” Many Latinos are already “woke.” One of the most remarkable shake ups that came out of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer was a sharp increase in Latinx voter registration; the organization Voto Latino, where I serve on the Leadership Council, has seen a 2,750% jump in Latinx voter registration since the killing of George Floyd. This goes to show that many Latinx and African American communities bonded over the mutual suffering of being disproportionately affected by police brutality, and felt compelled to take action.

Still, politicians are still trying to reach “The Sleeping Giant,” but it seems they have a hard time understanding how many layers there are in Latino communities. We are extremely diverse in countries of origin, multicultural upbringings, and political beliefs. Politicians have a hard time understanding these nuances and try to reach us as a monolith—but end in a lose-lose scenario in every election.

Frankly, I’m fed up with waiting on them to understand our diversity, contributions and impact. It is up to us to represent and lead our own people.

I became a U.S. citizen this past Valentine’s Day, on one of the last in-person naturalization ceremonies before the pandemic. And on September 3rd, before I headed to the Miami Dade County Elections Office to register to vote for the first time, I thought about what my Latinidad would mean in that moment—and that’s why I decided not to do it alone. I met up with three passionate Gen Z’ers, 18-year old twins Sophie and Olivia Kish and Sophia Barreto, all Latinas that I met through mutual friends. We went to register together—face masks and all. It was incredible to see the next generation so engaged. Could we have done it online? Sure. But we wanted to feel the weight of the moment in person.

mariana atencio, sophia barreto, sophie kish and olivia kish registering to vote in miami, florida
Mariana Atencio and friends register to vote in Miami, Florida.

Filling out the voter registration form by hand felt exciting—I’m such a nerd! But I can’t begin to describe the feeling of accomplishment I felt when checking the first box: “Are you a citizen of the United States of America?” I only wished my parents had been there to see me, because they sacrificed so much for me to get through those doors, and I know they would have been proud. After I left, I felt very much American. Being able to choose my elected officials, it felt like I belonged. Like I had completed this long journey, and I was finally home.

It will all come full circle when I vote in person in Miami on November 3rd.

As a storyteller, I’ve set out to proudly celebrate our roots and reimagine the future for people of color beyond the television screen. I left a role as a national correspondent at NBC News at the beginning of the year to work on my own to amplify our voices and redefine traditional formats. I had been on that quest for a while. I launched a career as a motivational speaker after my first Tedx talk went viral with over 13 million views in 2017; co-founded ‘GoLike’, a production company dedicated to telling our stories in 2018; and wrote a book in both Spanish and English titled “Perfectly You” in 2019 to promote authenticity and Latinx pride.

Over a decade ago, I had no idea that my path would be filled with opportunities like these, but I knew this country was the one place in the world where my dreams could come true if I worked hard enough. That’s the promise of America that I want to keep alive.

So this year, I’m building community and claiming my power by voting for the first time and reminding all of you that regardless of your political views, you can not sit this one out. I want to do everything I personally can to stop what happened in my home country from happening in my adopted country. Democracy needs champions—people who are ready to make the winning move, not for a specific candidate or political party, but for the America we deserve. And I’m ready for the fight.

Are you?

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