"Most organizations that get people out to vote don't talk to them until the next election"
María Teresa Kumar chairs Voto Latino, an NGO that each month serves 4 million people who do not know how or where to vote. In an exclusive dialogue with LPO, she questions those who only seek votes and praises new generations.

The Colombian María Teresa Kumar grew up seeing the inequalities that her family went through in the United States. She lives in the country since she was 4 years old, but during her university days in California, a legislative initiative that unleashed a wave of discrimination against the migrant community motivated her, along with other young people, to mobilize for the vote and political participation of the Latino community. Today, at the helm of Voto Latino, the organization she founded in 2004 to promote Latino political participation and representation, Kumar is an influential voice in the struggle for equality.

How did your militancy start?

I was 18 and in college. The governor at that time convinced Californians to introduce legislation against immigrants and that is when I became aware of what was happening. Our neighbors began to turn against us and against my family, simply because my grandmother had an accent and my cousins had a darker skin. So I had a conversation with my family and told them it was time for them to become American citizens and vote. Like me, millions of young Latinos and Asians were having the same conversation with their families. I always thought that what they did to our families in California could happen in other states, and unfortunately we are seeing it now.

Why is the Latino vote important today?

In 2010, when they declared the Latino population the second largest in the United States, we did two things. We counted the number of Latinos who could vote and how many children were in college and would graduate in the future. When we started, they told us: Latinos do not speak English, Latinos do not understand technology and social media, young Latinos don't care. That was what bothered me the most. Because they were seeing a young person's perspective through the eyes of their own children, who have all the privilege in the world. But a young Latino person who is navigating the two cultures knows exactly how to do it. That was my experience and that of my cousins in the United States: we had to get involved, for ourselves and for our families. Especially when we talked about institutional racism.

So we put our heads down, we started experimenting with the community, talking about the issues that really mattered. We did an experiment in 2008 in Colorado and we found that it was the young Latino population that influenced not only aunts and moms, but also their brothers and their boyfriends. All of our campaigns have young women because we tell them: "We look at you and we know you care, we know your influence."

We registered more than 650,000 people just in eight states: Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida. In Georgia, for example, where Biden won by 12,000 votes, we registered 23,000 people. 11 thousand of them were early voters, young and Latino people. So we did it that way everywhere. The Latino vote was the one that made the difference.

"Most organizations that get people out to vote don't talk to them until the next election"

What is it like to go out and find those voters? What are your resources?

Using technology in a good way. We do it in two parts: we register the voter but at the same time we inform them all the time through social media and platforms. Every month we talk to 3 to 4 million people. During the campaigns, we speak to 28 million people each year who surf the networks looking for information. Sometimes we do not know how or where to vote. We are creating a civil community among the Latino community, and we do it through young people.

"Si los partidos no movilizan el voto hispano joven, hoy no hay forma de ganar una elección"

Most of the organizations that do this work focus on getting people out to vote but don't talk to them until the next election. It is a lack of respect and losing the opportunity. Voters who can begin to direct not only who gets elected, but also how that person works on the policies we need to excel.

With the 2010 Census, we said that the Latino community will be the second largest voting population by 2024 and that happened in 2018. The future arrived almost 6 years before. Even what we had expected. We have almost 4 million new Latinos aged 18 every 4 years in the states that need us the most, like Texas or Arizona. As a country, we are not investing in the participation of these young people. This needs to happen now, because we are seeing in the same ultra-conservative states a setback in the right of access to the polls. I work with urgency, recognizing that we are facing greater forces that want our sweat, our work, but not our rights. If we do not participate now, we are going back to a story we have rejected in this country for a long time.

When we started they told us: ‘Latinos do not speak English, Latinos do not understand technology and social media, Latinos don't care. A young Latino person who navigates the two cultures knows exactly how to do it.

In this complex panorama, what happens to you when you hear in the media that the Latino population is turning Republican?

It is bad press campaign that was published in a newspaper in December 2021. The headline said that if Latinos voted at that time, half would have gone for Biden and the other half for Trump. That was bad practice. It was a questionnaire with only 162 people with a very high margin of error.

The media took that article and started to say that Latinos were going Republicans. It's partly because we need more diversity in the media. They were saying what they thought, that Latinos are Catholics and that we don't believe in women's rights. So everything they thought suddenly had an identity and it was very difficult to fight it because it was a reinforced belief. I'm laughing now because I was walking around with my papers saying no, because it's proven here.

"Most organizations that get people out to vote don't talk to them until the next election"

What was the response you received at that time?

Nobody wanted to listen. It was interesting because at the same time we went back to the different states to see if it was true and we interviewed about 5,300 people. We needed to know it to see how we could act. At the same time, so did Gallup, and we came to the same conclusions: Latinos weren't going with the Republicans, they didn't know the difference between a Republican and a Democrat. Especially since the policies that the Democratic president was implementing had not reached them. The system was not trusted and, at the same time, they received messages from the left saying that no party cared about how a Latino lived.

"Los jóvenes latinos son antisistema y rechazan las estructuras de poder que sus padres construyeron"

How does something like this influence you as an organization, and what decisions did you have to make?

Before, we used celebrities, now we are in a moment in which the person wants to see a person just like him or her. We need to talk directly about his or her concerns. We ran a campaign so that they could see their votes count. It is a difficulty that we have in Voto Latino. No parties want to invest in our community in the way it is needed.

If the Latino community that can vote grows this way, why don't they do it if it is an investment in the future?

The Republicans are using that information to their advantage. Their investment is to say in the media that Latinos are turning Republican. Reading that, the democrat also uses it to his or her advantage and wonders why he or she would do it. But no newspaper in the US said that the Latino vote saved the Senate for Biden in the last la election. I'm still waiting.

We register more of 650,000 people only in eight states. In Georgia, where Biden won by 12,000 votes, we register 23,000 people and 11 thousand voted for the first time, they were young Latinos. The Latino vote made the difference.

In a complex electoral system like the one in the United States, what is it that motivates people to register and vote?

It is with patience. Before 2018 I had to convince people and tell them that if they voted, they could change things. In 2018, people became radicalized because when they looked at the White House they saw a president who was against everyone's rights. The Latino community, Afro and young people were mobilized in a way that had never been seen. They brought to the US Congress a camera that reflected American people for the first time. The representatives were the youngest we had ever seen, more veterans, more Latinos, more women, more Muslims women. Over the next two years, nearly 400 bills about the future we wanted as a multicultural country passed. Many of them came to a standstill because the Senate was Republican and it did not accompany. At least we could show that if you vote, the representatives reflected those values.

"Los inmigrantes siguen llegando y la lucha no termina porque los retos todavía son monumentales"

I am proud of the Latino community. We went out to vote during the pandemic when we did not have the same rights as the rest of the people. It was the community that stood out and moved this country forward. Many of us did not have the option to stay at home, to choose, they said that we were essential and that shocked me. Essential for whom? They took away our rights and we gave them service so that they would continue to excel.

We have almost 4 million new Latinos aged 18 every 4 years in the states that need us the most, like Texas or Arizona. As a country, we are not investing in the participation of these young people.

What is it like working with congressmen who value the Latino community?

No one spoke to us when we started. Now they call us. In other states they have seen that without our work, they would not be there. We are showing the community the policies we need. There is a 32-year-old Texan Congressman Gregorio Casar, who has been working with us for almost 9 years. He started as a Council member in Austin and came to Congress in January. He came from the Latino vote and is using his activism within Congress to make injustices visible. We not only mobilize the Latino community, but now we are also helping to find the leaders we need to give voice to what is happening in the community.

You highlight the value of the youth vote for the Latino community. Are they the engine of these rights that are being sought in the United States?

From the beginning, we have said that we must focus on the young Latino community today, because they are the ones who are navigating this country. They are the ones who are in front of the policies that their parents are facing. They are the ones who know how to navigate the system if we give them the instructions.

When I started, a lot of people told me that I was wasting my time, that I was going to ruin my career. It has nothing to do with that. There are institutional forces, such as new immigrants, that we have not understood. We have sacrificed our children for a country that does not recognize everything we have given it. That's why I started. The work is quite personal, and even though I can't help all my cousins, we are helping others.

Translator: Bibiana Ruiz. 

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María Teresa Kumar preside Voto Latino, un ONG que atiende cada mes a 4 millones de personas que no saben cómo o dónde votar. En diálogo exclusivo con LPO, cuestiona a quienes solo buscan el voto y elogia a las nuevas generaciones.