photo: Carmen Cusido

My Cuban mother Magaly Pacheco-Cusido has been a proud United States citizen since 1976, the year America celebrated its bicentennial. But even the love of her adopted country will not compel her to register to vote.

“I’m traumatized by my experience in Cuba,” says my mother, an exile who fled her beloved island because of the Castro regime. “If it wasn’t for the dictator, I would have stayed in my country. While I love the many freedoms we have in this country — of expression, of religion of the press — I just can’t participate in the process,” she explains in heavily accented English sentences peppered with Spanish words.

My mother left Cuba 55 years ago this month. What triggered her leave was what happened while she was preparing to take exams at the University of Havana. A few communist military officials went to each classroom to announce to students that they were to either teach illiterate farmers how to read and write, cut sugar cane, or work to pick cotton. She immediately called relatives who told her to stay put and they would figure out a way to have her leave the country. One of her friends — the son of the hotel owner where my mother and her aunt and uncle lived was sent to jail — accused of distributing anti-communist propaganda. His influential family was able to secure a passage out of Cuba. My mother's visa to Spain eventually followed, thanks to her aunt and uncle's connections. 

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There are 27.3 million — or 11.9 percent — Latinos eligible to vote in 2016, according to Voto Latino, a nonprofit organization that focuses on voter registration campaigns, get-out-the-vote initiatives, and issue advocacy. But my mother will forever remain a part of another sobering statistic: that 41 percent of Latinos who were eligible to vote during the last presidential election year did not register.

I’ve mentioned several reasons why it’s important to vote to my mother: It’s a way to hold elected officials accountable; it’s a way to express your concerns about important issues in your community; it’s the most important privilege we have as American citizens. If those reasons weren’t compelling enough, let’s remember that women weren’t granted the right to vote until 1920, and our foremothers had to fight like hell for that right.

Still, my mother won’t budge.

When it comes to exercising my civic duty, I take after my father, Armando. Days after my 18th birthday in May 2001, I registered to vote. In the last 15 years, I’ve only missed two elections: one because I was feverish and the other because I was studying for an important exam in college.

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My father, on the other hand, has cast his ballot every year since 1969, the year he became a citizen. He once dragged himself — broken foot and all — to vote in a gubernatorial election. I tend to pick candidates based on policy issues and not along party lines, but my father has never once voted for a Democrat.

When I briefly lived in North Carolina in 2012 (a presidential election year), one of my top priorities was to register to vote. I did that even before assembling my bedroom set because my right to vote took precedence over a good night’s sleep.

Even though she won’t vote, my mother will watch the debates and discuss the issues with my father. Of all the candidates, she likes Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio the most.

“I love the idea that we could have the first female president,” my mother says of Clinton. “She’s also really smart and you could tell that politics is her life. She not only spent eight years in the White House, but she was a senator and served as Secretary of State.” Regarding Rubio, she takes pride in knowing that he would be the first Cuban-American president of the United States. “I like his solid family values and he seems to have integrity,” my mother adds.

But she’s disappointed that all the candidates have criticized each other and worries that each political hopeful makes promises they don’t keep.

I asked my mother if she’d support me if I ever run for office. She said yes, but wants me to promise to stay middle-of-the-road with my views and never drag another candidate through the mud to win an election. “If you do, you’d lose my vote,” she teases.

Later this year, on Tuesday, November 8, my father and I will cast our votes early in the morning, as is our tradition. My mother will miss her opportunity to weigh in on another presidential election, and I’ll have to find a way to make peace with it.