By Janet Hernandez, Senior Civic Engagement Project Manager, NCLR
November 2012 was the first presidential election in which Elsa Gonzalez voted. After 39 years as a U.S. resident, Elsa, who lives in a South Texas colonia, became a U.S. citizen in March of that year. That same month, Elsa registered to vote.
“I thought that maybe with one vote I could make a difference in the everyday life of colonia residents,” she said when asked why she had registered to vote, “I decided to register to vote because my vote counts.”
When she came to the United States as a little girl, she saw how her family suffered. In her colonia, residents faced issues with drainage, electricity, and lack of public lighting. “I want to see these services available in the colonias where we live. Additionally, the lack of immigration reform keeps many people in poverty,” she says.
Today, Elsa is the Executive Director of Proyecto Vida Digna (PVD), a nonprofit organization started by colonia residents. With guidance from NCLR’s Mobilize to Vote: Planting the Seed program, PVD works to empower the community to vote in the next election. In August of this year, three members of PVD registered with the Texas Secretary of State to become deputy registrars, so they could register new voters who can bring about change to their situation.
This month, PVD carried out its first voter registration drive in partnership with NCLR at a community health fair in San Benito, Texas, in which several of the newly registered voters included youth. Young people will play a pivotal role in the next election. Approximately 878,000 Latino citizen youth turn 18 every year, and many of them live in Texas, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley. According to a report by Latino Decisions, half of all Texans under the age of 18 are Hispanic. This creates an incredible opportunity for engagement in a state in which nearly 20 percent of all Latinos who live in the United States reside.
PVD decided to register people to vote because the community wants to see concrete changes. “We need to empower the community to vote. Many people say, ‘¿Para que? Why should I stand in line to vote if I never see changes in my community?’ We want people to regain faith in our democracy,” said Elsa.
The participation gap in Texas is especially large and persistent; Latino Decisions estimates that 61 percent of Hispanic Texans who are eligible to vote did not participate in the 2012 presidential election.
“Our goal is to empower the community through the vote,” said Elsa. The organization plans to carry out voter registration drives in South Texas and mobilize the community to vote in the 2016 presidential election.
“I would like to see a community in which all children’s education becomes a priority. In the colonias, school buses don’t pick up the kids at their homes, only at the entrance of the neighborhood, so when we have bad weather; it becomes a problem getting to school,” said Elsa. “I have lived in my colonia for 29 years and my street is still not paved.”
By registering hundreds to vote, PVD is hoping to transform the colonias and its south Texas community.
PVD will carry out voter registration drives ahead of the 2016 election. You can follow them on Twitter @digna_vida to learn more about their voter empowerment efforts through the NCLR Mobilize to Vote: Planting the Seed program.
To learn more about NCLR’s work to increase the Latino electorate, follow us on Twitter @NCLREmpowers.