by Naomi Thomas
Raquel Bartra, 41, moved to America from Paraguay when she was 16 and became a citizen at 24. Since then, she’s always cast her vote in Presidential election years.
When Bartra first became a citizen, she struggled with English and didn’t always completely understand what she was voting for. She relied on friends for advice.
“Back then all my friends were telling me vote Republican, so I would vote in the poll when it was only presidential elections, just pick Republican even though I have no clue about what they were saying on all the issues.”
It also took Bartra longer to realize that there was more on the ballot than the contest for the presidency.
Bartra improved her language skills and became involved with the Athens Latino Center for Education and Services (ALCES). Susan Wilson, executive director of the center, understands how hard it can be for new immigrants to understand the U. S. political system.
“They might feel like if they don’t have strong skills in English that they might not understand all the information that’s out there,” she said about elections.
Like Bartra, many ALCES clients think that voting is all about the presidential election. Wilson wants them to know that other elected officials also make decisions that affect them, and that policy initiatives are also important.
“There’s quite a few amendments to the state constitution that are being voted on this time around that are going to have a huge impact on people’s day to day lives, so it’s really important for people to know,” she said.
Being able to vote is a hard-won prize.
“The folks that I’ve seen working towards their citizenship do work really hard for it,” said Wilson.
Elected officials know that naturalized citizens take voting seriously. “It is probably more important to them because of what they had to go through to become a citizen,” said Harry Sims, a Clarke County Commissioner
As for Bartra, she’s become more engaged with U.S. politics and more confident about making her own decisions.
“I was very naïve just to vote whatever I was told,” she said. “I don’t do that anymore, I know better.”
Bartra uses the internet to prepare. “Now I’m an informed voter, I go and I read what each candidate is saying and I don’t vote for a particular party, I vote for the issues that concern me.”