I didn’t grow up in a political household; politics were not the priority for my mother who was poor, immigrant, and a single mother of four. For years, as a green card holder I continued on the path of political apathy led by the inability to vote due to my status. When I finally became a US citizen I naively believed that I would get literature in the mail showing me each candidate’s record of what they had voted or fought for, a sort of report card if you will, and that I would base my decision on this information. When I learned how things really functioned, I was completely confused as to why would people make such an important decision based on media exposure.
Over the years I’ve begun a sort of political awakening. As a social worker I’ve worked at home and abroad advocating for rights and informing communities about policies. I’ve seen first hand the power of information and mobilization therefore, when my best friend who now lives in Brazil, saw a Facebook posting about spots being left on the bus heading to Ohio and suggested I get involved, I was on board. I’ve never been active in a political campaign and had no idea what to expect. Navigating the Sandy-affected NYC public transportation system to arrive at our meeting location was just the beginning of many nerve-racking activities that proceeded.
My only link to this two-to-three-hundred person group was the guy who posted on Facebook, whom I had never met. He had gotten in touch with the campaign desiring to get out the vote in the Latino community; our shared background sealed our newfound friendship and made us comrades in the race for votes. The nearly eleven-hour bus ride to Ohio provided plenty of opportunity for me to obtain information about what laid ahead and to clear up any myths. My biggest fear went something like this:
I knock on a door and say with my perfectly noticeable Colombian accent “hello, my name is Yaneth Lombana and I’m here with Obama for America….at which point I realize that the person greeting me is a gun holding republican and I start running for my life.
I was greatly relieved to find out that we would be working in areas that are known to be democratic and that we would mainly be providing information on early voting, voting locations, etc.
At every rest stop, the bond with others on my bus began to grow as we shared thoughts and experiences. Around midnight during our last rest stop we discovered that right next to us, heading to the same state, with identical intentions, was our opponent’s bus. If there was any need for more cohesion, this enemy sighting did the trick.
We arrived in Cleveland around three in the morning. The fifty members of our bus then moved to a scavenger hunt-like pursuit of a confortable location on a church’s carpeted floor to spend what was left of the night. Once settled into our spots, a mad rush towards the two bathrooms ensued. Oh yeah, this get out the vote thing would be an exercise in endurance.
Early in the morning, my comrade rented a car and we parted from the group to head to Lorain County where there is a high concentration of Latinos. As soon as we found the right staging location and met the local team, we got right to it. I took the even numbered houses while he took the odd ones and we went block by block in our designated areas. At the end of a block we would meet up and talk about anything interesting that we had encountered.
As I began to knock on doors and meet friendly families that wanted to invite me in, people that yearned to share their stories, and individuals that appreciated information, I began to feel happier and happier to have made the decision to come there. I had agreed to go to Lorain because I knew that in looking like the people there and speaking the same language I had a better opportunity at connecting with them and every time I was able to provide information it felt like a little victory.
We were among our own. My comrade felt teased by the smell of sofrito emanating from people’s homes and was completely at ease requesting tips for places to go dancing later that night. Following their suggestions we headed for “Copa” and were surprised by the fact that there was a private party going on. I sheepishly say, “we can’t go in, it’s someone’s party” to which the comrade says “Si, vamos”. We approach the bar to inquire if the party will soon be over and if we could order some snacks. The bartender soon tells us that the owner wants us to eat and points at the buffet-style set up right behind us. We knew we had scored as soon as we approach the pernil and are stuffed with cake. We buy drinks and to my surprise the total for two is only $3.50 we have to drink three drinks each to reach the $10 tab limit. I think to myself, you know, this might be incentive enough for me to move here. Ever since I read the article on ratio of single men to women in NY I’ve had a hunch I need to skip town.
We communicate our location and situation to others from the staging crew. They join us and even though they are Ohioans they follow our lead. Salsa, merengue, and bachata has been playing all night and we begin to dance and end up teaching them. Copa’s owner joins our dancing team, the comrade gets mistaken for the birthday girl’s husband, and I am left wondering how on earth did I become a party crasher?
The next day, we continue to go door to door and I am convinced that what Ohio needs are doorbells. No one seems to have them! My poor knuckles, and what is the deal with all the notes on doors requesting to go knock on the back door? It all feels like a booby trap, especially when I reach the back and am faced with a sign that says, “beware of dog”. What is this contradiction?
Each house begins to feel like an obstacle course. You need to get inside the enclosed porch to reach the front door that is behind another door that doesn’t have a doorbell. This entails dealing with broken latches, screens that are on the brink of falling, and dogs. I was doing pretty well until my last day when my list of homes included a little old Puerto Rican lady that owns two small dogs. She comes out to greet me but first yells, “mijita close the door cause this one escapes!” Si senora, I obediently reply knowing not to mess with my elders. She chains one of these little noisy dogs and the escapee, equally small and loud, is left to run around within the enclosed porch. As I’m explaining the reason for my visit and she stands right in from of me, I get bit in the knee by the chained dog and the loose dog begins to circle me. I yell out, AAAUU it bit me! To which the old lady calmly replies, yes, it bites and gives me a look as to say, ”so you were saying?”. I get all the information out at the speed of light, redo the obstacle course in reverse order and I’m out of there. I tell ya, you won’t be catching me applying for a job with the postal service any time soon.
During my stay in Ohio I encountered all sorts of amazing and interesting people. There was a pilot from Texas, the family from NY that came with their kids, a group that came from California, the college student that took a semester off to campaign, and many more that came from all over the United States to get out the vote. To my surprise, this phenomenon takes place every four years. People have been going to swing states to knock on doors. These activists that care deeply about politics and feel they need to do something about it, what a peculiar group. I was equally in awe of them as I was of people whose door I knocked on, one day before Election Day that still had not decided whom they were going to vote for.
So there I was, a Latina in Ohio, getting out the vote within one of the groups that was influential in electing our next president, identifying with those whose lives resembled mine, and realizing how powerful my presence there actually was, because sadly few faces among those fabulous volunteers looked like mine and my comrade’s. I rushed back to NY in time to vote with my mother whom just a month ago had become a US citizen and was voting for the very first time in her life. I stayed up until two in the morning to hear the victory speech that involved my president thanking all those who went door to door. I cried with joy, and knew that now, I am, fully politically awake.