[I will begin by telling you that I asked for her permission before writing this article, and my mother obliged.]
My mother came to the United States in 1966, via the Cuban Adjustment Act. She, my father, my Asturian nanny (today 81 and more ornery than ever) and I arrived in the dead of the night at the west terminal of Miami International Airport, among the last of those fortunate enough to benefit from the generosity of the Freedom Flights the U.S. provided to those of us fleeing Castro.
My father died shortly after we arrived in the U.S., and over these past 42 years, Margarita and I have worked to push our lives forward, acutely aware of how blessed we were to be received in America. As soon as the requisite time had passed, my mother took the U.S. citizenship examination and soon we both were U.S. Citizens…they even made me raise my right hand.
As a Cuban-American, my mother registered as a Republican - it was a given in our community. She has faithfully voted along party lines for the past 4 decades. These last years when she has been confined to a wheelchair for road trips, I’ve taken her to vote. My own views changed over time, particularly as a result of an immigration policy I found to be increasingly inconsistent with the story of our nation; although we spoke of my opinions, I never pushed them upon her. Besides, I’ve never talked the woman into anything in 48 years, so what was the point?
When I first heard Barack Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention, I was transfixed. Much has been said about his great speaking style, and that is irrefutable. But I sensed something deeper…an integrity and concern that reflected my own convictions about the tragic mistakes which have cost our nation so much loss of credibility with both the international community and, far more importantly, our own citizens. in the months that would follow, I read everything I could about the man and by the time he won the Democratic nomination, I was convinced that Barack Obama was the only possible person who possessed the formidable intellect, unshakeable faith, and personal passion to reunite our nation. That faith has only been cemented amidst the barrage of false accusations aimed at him, only intensifying in both vulgarity and absurdity in these closing days before the election. The McCain I have always respected seems to have himself "gone rogue" as far as the decorum and fairness for which he has long been known, and the shrill politicking and travesties launched at Obama are, frankly, embarrassing. So, to me, there has only been viable one presidential candidate for a long, long time.
But this isn’t about me, it’s about Margarita.
Beginning early summer, my mother started bantering with me about politics and the upcoming election. Getting her news from Miami’s Cuban American media, she is not generally well-informed about the facts; these guys make Fox come off as the BBC. But one topic which has been near and dear to her heart kept coming up in our little political debates…that of Cuba. Like most Cuban-Americans, old or young, my mother is intelligent enough to understand that the failed policies of the past four decades have done nothing to change Cuba’s regime; but unlike most elderly Cubans (sorry, Bela, you may be a jovenzuela to me but at 86 you’ve earned that moniker you so dislike, hehehe) my mother has the chutzpah to call it as she sees it.
We discussed the fact that a one-nation embargo, such as what we've had against Cuba for the past 40+ years, is ineffective, and that even as U.S. citizens are not allowed to trade with or even VISIT Cuba, the rest of the world is building and investing on the island. We talked about the Diaz-Balart brothers and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the dynamic hyphenated trio who have collectively controlled the Cuban-American boat in South Florida for many years...and how nothing had changed to improve things in Cuba or, for that matter, for the Cuban Americans on this side of the Florida Straits worried sick about their elderly relatives on the island.
But change is a scary thing, and scarier if you are embedded in a community which will all too often adhere to vague philosophical phobias versus educating themselves about the details. (Then again, that is probably an accurate if harsh assessment on many U.S. voters, isn't it?) Being a good Cuban-American immigrant, Margarita did what many disillusioned Cuban-American voters have expressed they intended to do in this critical election: not vote.
Having always voted and having always been committed to the process, I was upset. I reasoned with her, reminded her of what she'd always said to me and, eventually, she cracked: she would vote. So there I was, in all my lobbyist glory, and I had accomplished one thing: another vote for McCain, despite her expression that he was not the best person for the job.
I resigned myself by remember that "every vote counts", and just because I disagreed with her choice, I had done the right thing...the concept of exercising our rights in a democracy trumps any political agenda, and the massive voter turnout in this election is precisely the manifestation of that fundamental truth about America. Imagine my surprise when, she asked me again WHY she could not go to Cuba one last time to visit her only living semi-sibling, her first cousin – 88 year old Claudina. I sighed, having gone over this many times, and I explained once again:
“You cannot visit Claudina because George W. Bush changed the rules and Cuban Americans can now only visit their siblings, children, or parents. Claudina is your cousin so I can’t take you there again.”
This time – and only God knows why it was this time – she looked over at me…and I could see she grasped the full meaning of what I'd been telling her for the last few years. She remembered our prior trip to Havana before the law had changed as well as our prior discussions and it all came together: the Republican President she has faithfully supported despite what she believed to be an unprovoked war and a million other bad decisions for the country was the SAME Republican President who tightened already restrictive travel rules for Cuban-Americans wanting to visit their relatives in Cuba. She was quiet for a bit and then wanted to discuss that more, and she asked me about Obama, his ideas, and why I believed so much in his vision. I pointed out that even the famously hard-headed Cuban American National Foundation is completely unhappy with the Republican’s Cuba Policy and had actually written an opinion piece in the Washington Post last week calling for open travel to Cuba. Before I left, we confirmed a date for last Wednesday so that I could take her to early voting.
The lines were long but with her in a wheelchair, it took us about an hour to get to the polling machine. She was glad to be there and thanked me for persuading her to vote. When it was her turn, I began to assist her with the ballot. With me hunched over her in the wheelchair, we started, and she asked me to explain the language on the long referendum items. But at the top of the ballot was the choice for President. She told me to mark "Obama/Biden". I asked her if she was sure, and told her that she needed to vote for herself, not for me, and that I would soon be casting my own vote when I returned to Gainesville. It took us about 15 minutes to get through her ballot but I have to tell you: never in my life have I felt more hope in my heart than when we inserted the ballot into the box and I looked at her and said “YOU DID IT!”…and I got a high five and a big smile.
As we headed back to her assisted living facility, she laid down the one post-vote rule:
If I tell ANYONE that she didn’t vote Republican, she will VERY upset with me. She did NOT wish to become a pariah amongst her friends and despite the knowledge that she had voted with both her brain and her heart, she was squeamish about sharing that fact.
I laughed and promised I would not but as I was leaving her apartment, I thought about it. I said this to her (translated from Spanish):
“Mom, today was an extraordinary day for both of us. You were able to see beyond the status quo and vote with your mind, exercise YOUR opinion in this amazing election. I, on the other hand, witnessed all these changes in you these past months. I think we need to share this amazing day with the readers of my blog, because the theme of this election is “HOPE”, and you have restored mine fully today”.
So, with Margarita Latour’s permission, here it is. PLEASE GO VOTE!!
[Below is a picture of Margarita, a/k/a Bela (for abuela) and me about a year ago]