Voices From Here: Community Organizer Motivates Latino Community To Vote | KNKX

Voices From Here: Community Organizer Motivates Latino Community To Vote

Oct 28, 2016

Record numbers of Latinos are eligible to vote in this election. But low voter turnout has plagued this community across the U.S. And Washington state is no exception. 

Oskar Zambrano Méndez came to the U.S. with his parents when he was two years old.  He grew up in Fontana in the 1990s. At the time, it was a small, predominately white town in Southern California. And he says it was a town where people constantly reminded you of your place as a Mexican immigrant.

"People would, you know, in their trucks, would drive by as I was walking home and they would say, 'Hey,' you know 'wetback, go back to Mexico' or like, you know, 'You’re only good to pick up my fruit."

Zambrano had low self-esteem and didn’t realize until later that what he experienced was racism. When he was in sixth grade, his teacher told the class that if their parents didn’t vote down an initiative on the California ballot, students who were undocumented wouldn’t be able to come back after winter break.

Zambrano told his teacher, Ms. McKinney, he had a dilemma – his parents weren’t U.S. citizens, and because of that, they couldn’t vote.  But she had an idea, one that would begin to carve a path to his future role here in Washington.

"And she said, 'Well, you Latinos have magical power — that you guys are good for like, spreading news,' and we call it 'chisme.' And she’s like, 'It’s chisme power; if you can talk to one voter and change their minds, you voted once. If you can talk to 10 voters and they change their minds, you can vote ten times to them.'"

Ms. McKinney got Zambrano connected with a local campaign and he went door to door, sharing his story. In this middle-school boy’s mind, it was a numbers game and he kept count of the votes he influenced.

The law would have cut off public services for undocumented immigrants. It did pass, but was overturned.

Then, a few years later he ran into another obstacle with his education when he applied for college in California – Zambrano didn’t have a social security number. And going back to Mexico wasn’t an option either because he was educated in America.

"And I was like, 'Wait a minute, but America doesn’t want me here, they’re putting me as an international student, and Mexico is asking the same thing so there was a big chance that I was not going to go to school."

Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

In 2008, Zambrano became an American citizen. He did go to college, and began advocacy work with the labor movement. That brought him to Washington state three years ago.

He lives in Burien and works for the Latino Community Fund, a non-partisan group that helps galvanize the Hispanic and Latino community.

Working the phone bank, as November eighth nears, Zambrano says there are a number of hurdles. First is getting eligible Latinos registered. Second is actually getting them to vote.

“Even if you’ve been here for years — let’s say for example my parents, that’s 18 years of no one reaching out to you to vote. That’s 18 years of people not taking into account your opinion; you don’t matter, you know, you have this mindset of like, why even bother.”

The language barrier holds people back – only four counties in Washington offer voting materials in Spanish: Franklin, Adams, Yakima and King. And the culture around elections in the countries they left behind can also come into play.

“And some of them are just afraid because they come from countries where politics is not seen in a positive light, or they were persecuted in their countries, you know. And they think that voting, or promoting the vote might upset the U.S. government.”

Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

Usually there is a spike in voting during presidential elections. Zambrano, for one, is voting for his ideal candidate.

"Yeah, I’m writing in Bernie Sanders," he said. "I feel like, you know, ethically, that I need to vote my conscience. I don’t want to vote for somebody that I can say, 'I can live with them.'"

Hillary Clinton won’t get Zambrano’s vote. He’s says he’s critical of the U.S. government’s role in Honduras after a democratically elected president was ousted in a coup. At the time, Clinton was Secretary of State.

As for Donald Trump? There’s no getting over the name-calling.

"You have a candidate who has spewed hate and vile towards like, my community, especially the Latino community," he said.

It brings back the shame that Zambrano says he felt as a child, back in Southern California when people yelled racial slurs him from speeding trucks.

In the future, he’d like to see more emphasis on third parties.

“People of color want more options and they have different values that don’t necessarily fall within two parties. So I think I’m supporting a third-party movement to make sure that we have more voices in the political system.”

Zambrano says expanding the number of voices means using that magical “chisme” power — sharing your story, even if you aren’t yet eligible to cast your own ballot.