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Having a voice and a vote

Sunday, March 2, 2008 | 9:04 p.m. CST; updated 10:47 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Guadalupe Martínez and her daughter, Lupita, pose for a portrait in their home in Marshall.

MARSHALL — Guadalupe Martinez, 53, doesn’t know all the words to a song her co-workers played for her at the party they threw to celebrate her receiving her citizenship. But there’s one line she can sing, so she does, from time to time: “American woman, listen what I say…”

Her daughter, Guadalupe “Lupita” Martinez, 22, can’t help but giggle when her mom bursts out in song.

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The elder Guadalupe still can’t get the tune out of her head, though she received her U.S. citizenship in January. The gift she received from her co-workers — a cowboy hat with an American flag band and strung with four red, white, and blue balloons — has a place of honor next to the family’s altar of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

After 17 years as legal residents, Guadalupe and Lupita decided last year that it was time to go through the citizenship process. The mother, an educator for parents in the Marshall School District, and her daughter, a journalism student at MU, became U.S. citizens on Jan. 17, Guadalupe’s birthday. Partly, they were motivated by wanting to vote in the next election.

“(I) wanted to become a citizen when all the problems about immigration began,” Lupita said. “So I thought if I voted, even though it would just be one vote and not make that much of a difference, but one by one ... Like they say, a small grain makes up the shore of the beach.”

Almost nine million legal permanent residents like the Martinezes are eligible to become U.S. citizens; 55 percent have Latin American origins, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

One nationwide campaign has aimed at mobilizing them as a political force: Ya Es Hora: ¡Ciudadania! A collaboration of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the National Council of La Raza, the Service Employees International Union, and publicized by media companies such as Univision, its goals are to inform, educate, and help permanent residents apply for U.S. citizenship.

The next phase of the campaign is called Ve Y Vota to encourage Latinos to register to vote and go to the polls.

Another campaign underway is the “Our Time to Vote” in which the cable industry — teamed up with Latino organizations — is using public service announcements to increase voting in Hispanic communities.

For Javier Angulo, director of Civic Education for the NALEO Educational Fund, who works with the citizenship project, the road to the White House is through the Latino community.

“One of the reasons for an increase in the registration of Latino voters is because it is a defense mechanism for all the anti-immigration discussions or anti-immigration scape-goating that has been going on for the last couple of years,” Angulo said.

Immigration services received more than a million citizenship applications in 2007. That’s double the amount of applications received in 2006. The increase — partly due to applicants anticipating a rise in processing fees — has created a backlog, which means some would-be citizens won’t get through the process in time to vote in the election.

But there’s no question that the Latino vote has already had an impact, as Democratic presidential candidates fight from state to state to demonstrate their loyalty to Hispanic voters.

Both Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have received endorsements from key Latino leaders and have been talking about comprehensive immigration reform in their campaigns. According to Univision officials, Clinton and Obama each have spent close to $300,000 in advertising with Univision, the Spanish language media company.

A December 2007 study by the Pew Hispanic Center described this election as “A Swing Vote” opportunity for Hispanics. The study found that 57 percent of Hispanic registered voters said they lean toward the Democratic Party while 23 percent align themselves with the Republican Party.

During the citizenship ceremony on Jan. 17, Guadalupe and Lupita also registered to vote. They wouldn’t say whether they chose a particular party or were leaning toward a particular candidate. They did say they were likely to vote for the person who shares their view of family values.

“One issue for me is to see if the person truly has family values because if that person wins and becomes president maybe they will think twice before making a law that would separate families with immigration laws,” Lupita said.

The path to citizenship

Guadalupe’s parents were both born in the United States, although both are of Mexican origin. Guadalupe describes her father as being “white, with green eyes” and her mother as “brown with darker skin, and dark hair.”

That difference in how they looked brought them an extra share of discrimination, Guadalupe said. So they moved back to Mexico where Guadalupe was born. After she had her own family, she and her husband decided that the economic situation was too unstable in Mexicali, Mexico, a border city with California on the Baja peninsula.

So they moved to the adjacent border city of Calexico, Calif., in 1990.

Calexico was hardly the answer. The house was burglarized three times, there were too few jobs and too many people. They moved to Marshall in 1999 after her husband found a job in Marshall through the employment office in Calexico. He came to Marshall to see what the city was like, liked its tranquility and told his family to follow him.

It was a difficult transition.

“I tell a lot of people that when we came here, I felt like when you take a plant out to transplant it,” Guadalupe said. “I felt like they took me out as if I was a little plant, shook my roots and then transplanted me in another place. I felt all scattered because I went through a lot of problems in adapting with the weather, the language, plus leaving all my family, my friends.”

The family began attending Spanish language Catholic Masses and met the other Hispanics in the community. Guadalupe and her daughter became involved in the Latina Girls Scouts in mid-Missouri. Guadalupe even took a leadership role with its foundation.

Guadalupe is now seen as an important figure in the Latino community, judging by the number of phone calls she gets from other Hispanics needing help or advice. She’s bilingual, so she helps people fill out paperwork, translates at the community hospital, and works with parents for the school district.

Realizing that they could have more benefits as citizens, Lupita and her mother made the decision together in 2007. They went to the immigration office and asked for all the information and booklets they needed. They studied together, and “motivated each other,” Guadalupe said.

On Nov. 1, 2007, they took the test. Having each other’s support, they felt proud that they had gone that far.

“When we went to take the test, I felt a relief because I was a step closer to my citizenship,” Lupita said. “We were proud of each other because we studied together. It was like having your best friend go with you to a very special occasion.”

And now, with U.S. citizenship, Guadalupe said she can do more than ever.

“I can find a job where I would like, when before I had more limits,” she said. “If I want to work in an office for the federal government, before I couldn’t because I wasn’t a citizen. Now, in turn, I can aspire to that field of work.”

Lupita’s brother, 16, was born in the U.S. and their father had received citizenship as a legal resident before them. It wasn’t until high school that Lupita began seriously considering the possibility of applying for citizenship.

“When I was in my junior year, there were a lot of scholarships that were only for citizens, and the amount was higher and they had more privileges. So then it started to interest me more,” Lupita said.

Guadalupe takes it one step further these days. She said that she wants to be a voice for the Hispanic community.

“I, who had papers, wouldn’t have wanted to come here if I would have had the opportunity to stay there and have a better economic situation,” Guadalupe said. “These people don’t come here to harm anyone; they come to work, to make their lives and their families better. Our vote could be an important factor in supporting these people.”

An undeniable force

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials projects that at least 11.3 million Latinos will be registered to vote by November and that at least 9.2 million will cast ballots in the general election. That’s roughly 20 percent more than in the last presidential election in 2004.

Susan Gonzales, vice president of the Comcast Foundation, which is part of the campaign “Our Time to Vote,” said that it is important for the Latino community to be involved in the upcoming elections.

“This year in particular because of the growth there are more members of the community that have a voice,” Gonzales said. “This campaign will be able to tell Latinos, ‘we have a voice, we have a vote.’”

Guadalupe agrees with that.

“When you’re a citizen, you have a right to go vote; that way, you can express your wishes for your well-being and that of your family and others, to make your vote effective,” Guadalupe said.

When Guadalupe talks about the immigration journey, she uses the analogy of migrating birds. When birds migrate, they make the shape of the V to open the air for better flight for those behind them, she said.

“The bird that goes at the tip of V opens the pathway for the others,” Guadalupe said. “They work as a team because if there are more birds on one side, they have to move around to make it even. They do this so they can open the pathway for better travel.”

The Latino population, Guadalupe said, should not stop flying and should work as a team. The ones who can be leaders, who can make a difference, are the ones at the top of the V, opening the pathways for others.

That is how Guadalupe and Lupita think of themselves in this election year — as opening the way for others on the same journey.

“We feel proud because we try to show with our accomplishments that we as Latino immigrants are positive,” Guadalupe said. “In this way, people start to get to know us, that the majority of immigrants are like us.”


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