If you’re a 5C student planning to not vote, this is for you.
My first memory after transferring to Pomona College is of an outpouring of solidarity. I arrived after a chaotic freshman year at the University of Puerto Rico, during which Hurricane Maria devastated my island and its institutions. Every student I met in Claremont was kind and curious. Classmates and friends wanted to know more about the island’s situation, posted on social media about recovery efforts and offered support. To this day, these same students always ask me: “How can I help Puerto Rico?”
Right now, my answer is simple: Vote for Joe Biden.
I write this message to my fellow students because there is a trend that worries me. Many students have decided to withhold their vote in this presidential election. That decision stems from (rightful) anger towards a political model that has historically placed community interests at the bottom of its agenda and has endangered marginalized groups.
I know where this anger is coming from. It is why I believe in Puerto Rico’s right to independence. Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony until it was invaded by the U.S. in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Our acquirement was a venture of imperialism — not a gesture of brotherhood. Since childhood, I have seen people close to me shamed and persecuted for wanting to change our situation.
Puerto Rico’s economic growth is stunted; our poverty rate as of 2019 is 43.1 percent. We have no self-determination; Governor Wanda Vázquez is not allowed to close down the San Juan airport to halt the spread of COVID-19. We became U.S. citizens in March 1917 — just in time to be drafted into World War I a month later.
In spite of that citizenship, Puerto Ricans have only token representation in Congress and cannot vote in the November presidential election. But we are still affected by every decision Congress makes. And this is where your vote becomes important.
First, I will state the obvious: a third-party candidate will make no significant electoral change. Abstaining from voting is not going to provoke a revolution. What will happen is the following: you will take votes away from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, which puts President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the White House.
As we approach elections, Puerto Rico enters its hurricane season. This is a time that opens the wounds of Hurricane Maria. We have not forgotten being treated as a nuisance by the Trump administration. We have not forgotten the abandonment of our most vulnerable communities. We have not forgotten that there are still homes without a roof, and entire towns decimated by a recent wave of earthquakes.
We have not forgotten the humanitarian consequences of Trump’s tantrums and showboating in our time of need. And we know it will happen again. Hurricanes are an inevitable fact of nature. But we cannot allow Trump to mismanage another hurricane response. Our most vulnerable will not survive. Here, your vote becomes crucial.
I have had discussions with fellow students over the idea of not voting. Some have expressed a desire to take an anti-colonial stance by refusing to play into a vote for centrist Democrats. I recognize that the root of this thought is valid — it comes from the push to secure equality through systemic change. But I have news for you: if you’re going to withhold your vote because you want the personal satisfaction of “standing with the revolution” (whatever that means), if you’re discarding Biden-Harris because academia taught you better: you’re not even close to getting rid of colonialism. In fact, you’re being incredibly colonial.
As an American citizen with the right to vote, you have decision-making power over my entire island. You have a choice: either vote for the Democratic ticket or abstain and stay true to your position. The second one probably feels nice to you. It must feel like the honest thing to do. But that decision is going to subject your fellow colonial citizens to four more years of a president that could not care less about their basic humanity.
To not vote is just a lofty, liberal, academic version of colonialism: because of your selfish decision, many are going to suffer at little or no cost to you.
Puerto Ricans on the island don’t have that choice. We will be stuck with whatever administration wins and there is nothing we can do about it. We will be subjected to every decision Congress makes. And, more often than not, those decisions will be harmful.
I know the ills my nation suffers did not start with Trump. They started with colonization. There is more to solving Puerto Rico’s problems than political status. We need sustainable economic development, livable wages, accessible healthcare, environmental protections — the list goes on. But I would rather have that conversation with President Biden than Supreme Leader Trump. A competent leader in office is the first step towards making palpable change.
I recognize other marginalized groups in the U.S. share similar concerns. I have chosen to only elaborate on Puerto Rico’s situation because it is the one that I am close to. There are figures in Black, LGBTQIA+, immigrant and indigenous groups who are more qualified to elaborate on their communities’ needs.
Ironically, my college residence in California has finally granted me the chance to vote in presidential elections. I am looking forward to casting my ballot for Biden-Harris. If my people can’t vote then I, despite my opinions on Puerto Rico’s status, am going to do everything in my power to ensure the next White House is not a fascist one.
I hope you will do the same.