Profiles in Enfranchisement

Meet three Latinos who just cast the first U.S. votes of their lives

Elva Avila
She came to this country for her children, before they were even born.
Now she channels all of her dreams and aspirations through them. They are the focus of a life stunted by circumstance, their lives the outcome of her own. She clings to that outcome, not so much for herself, but because they seem to her all that has ever mattered.

Elva Avila sits perfectly straight on the edge of her living room sofa in the Excelsior District, a small woman with chin-length, wavy, black hair. Her soft, small hands rest primly in her lap.

"See, I clean toilets," she says. "But I get my money honestly, so I can send my kids to the school, so they don't have to do what I do."

Like many Latina mothers, Avila would use her delicate hands to wring the neck of anyone who jeopardized her children's future.

She came here from Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1973 when she was 22. She was a teacher, and a new bride with a husband from Tijuana who had already lived and worked in the United States. In 1974, she had her first child, a son. Three years later, she had another son and a year after that, a daughter.

She stayed home with her children, learning English from the cartoons they watched. Neither money nor time was available for her to take English classes. As it was, her husband worked two jobs so the family wouldn't need Medi-Cal or food stamps. To help her kids with schoolwork, she studied the pictures and the reading exercises and learned as they did.

When her daughter reached 7 years of age, Avila went to work as a janitor. Her husband came back from work in the afternoons to stay with the children when they got home from school. "So the kids would never be left alone," she says, "so they're not in the street."

Two years ago Avila heard about Proposition 187, and it infuriated her that she and her fellow Latinos were characterized as sucking off the system. "I'm feel so bad, because it's not true, it's not true," she says. "Never in my life I live from welfare. We come and do the jobs you don't want to do. White people don't want to do those jobs because it's embarrassing for them."

This year, Avila's children told her about Proposition 209, saying that if it passed, they would have a harder time going to the universities they want to attend and qualifying for financial aid. Her children begged her to vote, so she became a citizen in July, registering as a Democrat immediately after the naturalization ceremony and voting for the first time in this country in November.

"I think I have the right to vote and decide who should be the government. Unless we won a nice president, a Democrat, we were going to be discriminated against," she says.

"The government wants to make more jails, rather than give financial aid to parents to educate their children. My children are going to be somebody. They're going to say that they should have an opportunity because they went to school and are good people."

Salomon Rivas
He sits hunched over a thick book in a McDonald's in the Mission, a man with short, dark hair and round, wire-frame glasses.

Ask him what he thinks of the U.S. system of government, and he'll tick off his favorite things. He believes in a federal system of government. He thinks checks and balances are excellent. He's passionate about having open debate between political candidates. The Bill of Rights, he says, is better than almost anything else he can bring to mind. Most of all, Salomon Rivas thinks voting, and the representative democracy it brings, is a very beautiful thing.

The 46-year-old former librarian came here from El Salvador with his wife 14 years ago, at a time when the political situation in his country had "become very ugly" and he feared the government.

"I didn't bring anything political from my country -- except maybe distrust," Rivas says. "I think there has to be dialogue between groups. Things can't be so rigid that there's no communication. I have this fear that things will get bad if there's no dialogue."

As admiring as he is of the U.S. government, Rivas made his decision to become a citizen and to vote because of two concerns he has about his own community.

One is that his fellow Latinos, especially those who don't speak English, don't have access to the information they need to vote. He says Latino radio stations don't have much programming about political issues or candidates. Spanish-language newspapers, he says, are too boosterish, ignoring many problems in the community and championing one national origin over another depending on who the publisher is.

But what really frustrates Rivas is Spanish-language television. He says the two channels that are accessible in his home in the Mission are "the worst."

"They don't inform anyone politically or culturally," he says. "Instead of educating people, they're lowering them. Really, they're terrible; they give me a headache."

Rivas thinks increasing the size of the informed electorate around the Mission District will help remedy what he sees as the second major problem in his community. He believes the Mission lacks representation in City Hall and tends to be way down on the list when public services are distributed.

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