The Lenny Interview: María Teresa Kumar, President of Voto Latino

On getting Latinos to vote, and why not voting equals surrender.

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My first presidential election was in 2004, and I was ready as HECK to cast my vote. One, because it's important (duh); and two, because as a Puerto Rican, I did not previously have this right, simply because I lived in a colony (I mean, a "freely associated state"). I wasn't going to ignore my newfound privilege. The night Bush won his second term, I got hella depressed and decided to dye my hair blonde in a huff. It came out terrible, and I had to dye it black the next day to cover it up. I voted for Obama in 2008. I was a huge ball of nerves before he won, thinking, God knows something will happen to McCain and we will end up with Sarah Palin as president. *shudders* I remember waiting for the results at a bar in Brooklyn, and when the Obama win was finally announced, the whole bar, nay, the whole street, erupted in cheers and cries. Strangers hugged each other. There were free shots all around. It was wonderful.

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I keep thinking back to those elections past as we count down the days to November 8. Whatever our nerves, whatever our fears were in previous years, they have been multiplied exponentially beyond any level of acceptable stress. I started smoking again.

On the phone with María Teresa Kumar, the president and CEO of Voto Latino, an organization that aims to engage Latinos in the democratic process, I immediately felt a kinship with her, and it calmed me down. She told me that she realized she needed to get involved with Voto Latino — which was founded by the actress Rosario Dawson — after seeing a commercial with Tego Calderón, a Puerto Rican rapper and icon. He told the audience: "Register to vote because I can't."

"It touched me, and said out loud something that I felt, that while I was proud to be Latina, I was American," María Teresa remembers. While I sometimes struggle with my identity — am I giving up my Puerto Rican–ness the longer I live in the States, the more I adapt to this way of life? — I realized that she was right. I am proud to be Puerto Rican, but I am also an American.

María Teresa and I talked about her political path, growing up between two cultures, and why it's so important for the aesthetics of Voto Latino to be on par with any other political organization. The election is in just a few days, and I implore all of you to please go out and vote. This one is truly too important to sit out.

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Laia Garcia: Can you talk to me about your experience growing up between California and Colombia?

María Teresa Kumar: I was raised in Sonoma, California, and I would spend my summers in Bogotá, and my mom would always tell me that she went back to Colombia because she wanted me to really appreciate my biculturalism. It wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties that it hit me that it was because she was a single mom and needed to save on child care over the summer.

Oftentimes, people say, "Sonoma is so beautiful!" And that's absolutely true. My mother and my family helped make it beautiful. My mother was a housekeeper for a time, and I've had relatives that were grape growers and caretakers. So from the beginning, I was able to see up front the duality of two different worlds based on being Latino. In Colombia, we'd go and I'd see people dressed in suits, and it wasn't until I was 21 or 22, when I first came to Washington, DC, for an internship, that I actually saw women of color and men of color dressed in suits in the U.S.

LG: How did you get involved in politics?

MTK: I was always in love with politics. I think it was because I would go back between the United States and Colombia, and I was fully aware that in Colombia, my mom was a single mom, and she was working class. Had I been raised there, I would have had very limited opportunity just by my birthright. While living in the United States, my opportunities were open. There was no limitation of who I could be if I worked hard enough.

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I knew that, and I felt that from a very young age. I went to a Catholic school — and in class they asked, "What are you thankful for?" I remember raising my hand and saying, "I'm thankful for being a citizen." I was nine years old. None of my classmates knew what I was talking about. I remember saying it with pride, and I remember the teacher congratulating me and looking at me very curiously, like, Who are you?

LG: What was the process like for you to become a citizen when you were nine?

MTK: I was grandfathered in by my mother. Basically, we had been living in the States at that time for about seven years, and we came here because my mother remarried. I remember signing the paperwork, and I had just learned cursive, so it was a really big deal. I remember being in San Francisco City Hall and raising my right hand with everybody. Everyone was so proud, being in this packed room, and you see every single stripe and color and age. It was just that impactful.

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LG: That's incredible. I feel like Americans don't really know what that process is like. It's somehow never really in the media.

MTK: It's so special. I was adopted by my father, and he always says, "The beauty of being your dad is that we chose each other." The same for patriotism. The people that become American citizens, we choose this country. It's a different level of kinship as a result.

LG: How was your move from California to DC?

MTK: I did an internship in DC when I was an undergrad at UC Davis and just loved it. I knew that I wanted to come back, and when I graduated, I came and worked for my congressman. But then a funny thing happened. They offered me the job in June and asked if I could start right away. I said "Absolutely," only to find out that in order to move, I needed first month, last month, and a security deposit. That amount was not in my bank account, so I worked at Longs Drug Store, which is kind of like a CVS, and I literally put on security tags for three and a half months to make my way to DC.

LG: That's so real!

MTK: What was really funny is that when I reached out to my boss, she thought that by stalling I was negotiating. I kept telling her, "No, I just don't have any money."

LG: You're like, "I literally need to work so that I can work."

MTK: She was lovely. She's still a close friend. Also, it was funny, because the lesson I learned from that is when someone gives me a job offer, I should always negotiate for more.

LG: How did you and Rosario Dawson get together?

MTK: This story is all about the beauty of mentorship and not being afraid to tell people exactly what you'd like to do. About a year before I met Rosario, I had been working in New York and I experienced the September 11 attacks. I was working in the private sector, but I wanted to figure out how to start giving back to my community. I told that to a mentor of mine, and a full year later, he happened to sit next to Rosario at a dinner, and she was like, "I just came up with a media campaign called Voto Latino that's in partnership with MTV, and we have Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz. I don't know if it's more than an idea." He's like, "Oh, I know someone you should talk to."

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Rosario was great. She was just like, "Do whatever you want with it." It was very clear that there was no salary at the beginning, so I quit my job, packed my bags, moved back home with my mom, and basically survived for almost three years on credit cards. Don't do that.

LG: How have the goals of your organization changed from when you first started in 2004?

MTK: When we first started, the goal was to register voters, and we quickly learned that we can't get someone excited about registering and voting if they don't see themselves in the political process to begin with. We started identifying the issues that people care about. So now we have a full-blown program that talks about teen pregnancy, choice, and reproductive health aimed at young Latinas. We have a partnership with the Hulu show East Los High, where we basically have been integrated into the story line. If you watch the newest season, there is a Voto Latino office, and half of the most interesting scenes happen there.

We're also trying to figure out, how can we make civic education cool? Last year, we were asked to testify in front of the president's policing task force on how to better police. We don't do that, so we asked our audience. We crowd-sourced policy recommendations from over 400 folks, and one of them actually made it to the president.

LG: I also wanted to talk about the look of your site. I feel like sometimes, when things are geared toward Hispanic or Latino people, they look a certain way and have a certain kind of language. I hate it when I'm being talked down to, and they just throw a Spanish word in there just to make it seem like they "get it." I love that you don't do that. Can you speak more about that approach?

MTK: When we started Voto Latino twelve years ago, people thought we were absolutely nuts and we were wasting our time because we wanted to talk to people in English, we wanted to target young people, and we wanted to use technology. People would say, "Latinos don't speak English," that there's a "digital divide." I'm like, "You're not talking to my experience at all."

We navigate the United States of America. Yes, we do get together with our friends and use Spanglish, but that's not how we address each other in a professional setting. I was 29 when I started with Voto Latino. I remember running into someone after I had just given a presentation on Latino habits, an older gentleman within the Latino community, and he was really upset. I was like, "What's wrong?" He was like, "Well, why are you telling people we speak English?" I said, "Well, when's the last time you and I spoke Spanish?" [Laughs.]

I think that young Latinos are very brand-conscious. We want to look at things that are beautiful. I think people fall short in the political arena, they fall short in corporate America, because they expect us to have a lower threshold, and that, to me, is insulting. They expect that we shouldn't have quality, and that carries a lot of their own perception of who we are, or what spaces we should occupy, and that's not acceptable.

LG: I know you are a non-partisan organization, but do you feel like the stakes are a little bit higher this election in the work that you need to do?

MTK: This is the first election where our inboxes have been flooded from friends, family, and supporters saying that they've had their kids — six- and seven-year-olds — come home crying, saying that they're going to be deported because their classmates are telling them that Trump is going to deport them. We have never had an election where it hits so close to home, into the bone. I keep saying that it's happening because we haven't flexed our "political muscle." They would never say that about any other group and get away with it.

I actually think that we need to have two strong political parties so that they can do a battle of ideas and fight for our vote, but this election's not about the battle of ideas. It's about defining who is American. We have an organization called the VL Action Fund where after Mike Pence said "that Mexican thing," we actually created a website for that Mexican thing. That Mexican thing is to vote.

If you were to ask me, "What do you want out of this election?" I would say I want a tsunami of Latinos and our friends coming out and voting against hate, because that's exactly what this is. This is about defining who America is and what we stand for, and I deeply believe that we are a country that believes in justice and equality and fairness. I really believe that this is what this election is about.

I keep hearing folks saying, "I'm just not going to vote," and my big thing is, people work hard to discourage you from voting, and those people that are discouraging you, you got to believe that they're voting. It's because they know that that's how you change your environment. There's nothing cool about sitting it out. Congressman Keith Ellison said it best: "Not voting is not protest. It's surrender protest. It's surrender."

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Laia Garcia is the deputy editor at Lenny.

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