Pablo Liriano is an 85-year-old urban gardener who is voting for the first time in November’s election. After waiting more than a decade, he got his citizenship in 2018, and he then registered to vote at Hartford's Park Street Library in the heart of the city’s Latino community.
“I am Dominican and today I am American. I came here legally on July 10, 1999, and I’ve been here for almost 22 years,” Liriano said in Spanish.
Roughly 32 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote in November, according to the Pew Research Center. In Connecticut, there are more than half a million Latinos; for some of them, voting in the U.S. is a new or different experience. Local in-person assistance centers are vital to voter engagement.
Numbers indicate that there are more Latinos who are eligible to vote, but Charles Venator Santiago says the challenge has been registering them.
“So even though there is a high possibility that Latinos are going to participate, but Puerto Ricans in particular because they’re citizens, there are all kinds of conditions that are making it really hard for Puerto Rican and for Latinos to participate because of the economic crisis,” said Venator Santiago, who is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.
While potential voters can register online and request absentee ballots, Venator Santiago says that it’s a challenge for families who have temporary addresses or who may not have access to digital tools. He says a physical place with access can make a difference in engaging Latinos in the voting process.
Graciela Rivera is a librarian at Hartford Public Library’s Park Street branch, which was doing outreach to register more people to vote. Rivera also grew up in this neighborhood and would often visit the library for resources when she was younger.
“Sometimes, as a Latina myself, we don’t think about how important it is to make sure your voice counts. Because at times we don’t feel like our voice matters,” she said.
With Black and Latino communities being hit the hardest by the pandemic, Rivera says that outreach might change in order to meet people where they are. But as the pandemic exacerbated the need for more resources, voting became one of many variables that residents have to deal with.
“Having to worry about what I’m, what my kids are going to eat every day is a bigger priority than going out to register to vote,” she said. “Basic necessities that people in the community have to go out and find in order to meet the needs of their family. So that alone will change our priorities … so completing a census or registering to vote is not at the top of your list when you’re going through those things. We sympathize with that.”
In order to work around these roadblocks, Rivera built connections prior to the pandemic through women’s empowerment groups and community gardens.
Sandra Rivera arrived from Puerto Rico in 1992 and has been living in Hartford ever since. She met Graciela Rivera through that women’s empowerment group. Unlike Pablo Liriano, who had to wait 15 years for the right to vote, Sandra Rivera has been voting since she arrived from the island.
“I now exercise my right to vote here in the United States, because it’s very important,” Rivera said. “However, in Puerto Rico, you get the day off so everyone can go vote.”
As an unincorporated territory of the United States, roughly 3 million Puerto Ricans living on the island will not have an electoral vote in the presidential election. In Sandra Rivera’s case, as a citizen of the United States and a resident of Hartford, she can exercise her right to vote. She is also helping others do the same.
“Sometimes people may have disabilities or maybe they can’t write or they can’t read, and I tell them that as long as I’m here, I can help to interpret,” Rivera said.
While the mechanics of voting in the U.S. differ from other countries, there are other things that set it apart. Liriano remembers his time in the Dominican Republic when fraud and gunfire were part of the process. But he also says voting there is also far more festive -- political parties and their supporters drive through the island in caravans encouraging voters to participate. Nevertheless, he never had a chance to cast a ballot.
“I was a police officer and I couldn’t vote in my country, I wasn’t allowed to,” he recalled.
Now Liriano finds himself in a different electoral system. And it took time. He was able to apply for citizenship because he was both over 55 and had been in this country for at least 15 years. After almost 17 years with his family in New York City, Liriano moved to Hartford three years ago.
“My desire was to come to this great country ... America, to enjoy the great privilege you have here,” he said. “And I thank this country because it has had the freedom that man deserves here, it’s a country that everybody wants to come to.”
And now that Hartford is home, he’ll cast his first ballot here.
Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.