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Profiles in Enfranchisement 

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

Wednesday, Jan 1 1997
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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.

The father of two wants more social services for his neighborhood. "And fewer bars and billboard advertisements for cigarettes," he adds. "Here the schools are right up against the bars. I don't believe in that. The kids should be able to study and prepare themselves without the famous Joe Camel staring them in the face."

Rivas says his decision to become a citizen this year and to vote was a natural step in his process of assimilation. He had attended community and PTA meetings before becoming a citizen but felt he couldn't stand up and speak because he was a mere resident of this country.

"Becoming a citizen was a way to identify myself more with here, to belong," he says. "I just thought that for my cultural level and for how much I wanted to participate in political and social life, I should partake of more of the rights to participate."

From an educated Salvadoran family, Rivas worked in a public library in the capital city of San Salvador before coming here. Asked what he does for work now, Rivas sighs and throws his hands up. "I'm in cleaning," he says. "I'm a janitor."

But the student in him, the part that sits hunched over a book in a fast-food restaurant, believes in the dream of the American immigrant. And he believes that the way to put prosperity within his children's reach is not only to educate himself about the system, but to participate. Salomon Rivas believes in the power of his vote.

Mike Alonso
On a Saturday when he's supposed to be making some money, Mike Alonso is striding up and down a stretch of Shotwell Street in front of the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, a big, heavy-gaited 18-year-old with a wide grin in a white guayabera and a Santa Claus hat.

Latino children and their mothers wait in a long line to go into a Christmas show and toy giveaway being held for patients of the public clinic. Alongside Alonso are his fellow members of Hermanos Unidos, a San Francisco State Latino fraternity for which the words "college fraternity" seem a misnomer.

"We're very spiritual," Alonso says. "We choose to empower our communities, rather than party every weekend."

On this day off from studying drama and writing at San Francisco State, Alonso could be working a shift as holiday help at Mervyn's. He could be living out what is for a majority of residents of this country the American Way by using every spare minute "to make ends meet," as he says. On this sunny Saturday, he has chosen to identify with the Latino community instead.

A lot of his life is like that. Although he was born in this country and grew up in Daly City, he often feels he has a choice: be American, or be Chicano.

He doesn't think the two are mutually exclusive, but they've come to mean different things to him. Alonso's father, who is a Spaniard, says his son doesn't have to be politically active because he's American-born.

His Mexican-born mother, on the other hand, took her son to union meetings when he was little. "My mom is not the kind of woman you can push around. She seems small, Mexican, obedient, but if you push her, she'll come back at you three times as hard. My mom's attitude was 'you make change.' "

The college freshman says he has been known through the successive trends of ethnic politics as Mexican-Spanish-American, Hispanic, Mexican-American, and Chicano. Whatever the label, he knows what it means to be a "big, brown brother," as Alonso describes himself physically. He says he's been eyed warily by police, followed around in stores by security guards, and questioned by authorities because he was "acting suspicious."

That's why he calls himself Chicano. "I'm about struggle," he says. "I'm about the little guy struggling. Everyone in this country wants things to be nice and quiet and safe, and they do that by disassociating themselves from others. Well, that just won't work."

Alonso says he can't ignore what he sees as "a tendency in this country to tell Latinos to their faces that they're second-class citizens." He calls blaming Mexicans for the problems of this country a "national pastime" dating back to such episodes as the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when Mexican neighborhoods in Los Angeles were invaded by violent Mexican-hating whites. He says only the method of discrimination has changed since then. "Then, you could call a 'spic' a 'spic' and get away with it. Now discrimination is more in-stitutional, like with Propositions 187 and 209, and it seems more greed-based."

Like many young politically active Latinos, Alonso gets exercised when he talks about Latinos who voted for Proposition 187. He says they are mainly third- and fourth-generation, don't speak Spanish, and weren't born in the barrio. Which in his book doesn't excuse them.

"I know how it's like being in this country," he says. "You want so bad to be American that you're willing to sell your soul. You've got Latinos saying, 'I will do what it takes to be an American. I will vote as an American.'

"Well, my answer to that is, 'If you're not deep with your culture, then at least be deep with your humanity -- and realize that everyone has rights to a decent life.' "

Alonso registered to vote as soon as he turned 18.
"Voting is my voice," he says. "It's my official way of saying, 'You know what? I don't like that.'

About The Author

Michaela Jarvis

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