Commentary: We Cannot Be Silent

Commentary: We Cannot Be Silent

As another Election Day approaches — a crucial one for Virginia — I can’t help but think back to Nov. 8, 2016.

I was waiting in line to vote with my daughter, Jessica, who is now 12 years old. I asked her how she felt about this historic day. Her reply has been imprinted in my memory ever since: “Someday, I’m going to vote for Manuel’s mom and everyone like them so they can stay in this country. I want a change.”

Five years ago, Manuel made an indelible impression on my daughter. Jessica and Manuel were friends in elementary school, two very bright kids with a lot of things in common: the color of their skin, their moms’ Spanish accents and their love for arroz con frijoles. Unfortunately, they soon discovered a crucial difference that would shape both of their futures.

I was an American citizen. Manuel’s mother was not.

One early morning, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement barged into Manuel’s home and deported his mother and grandmother to Mexico. Manuel, who was just 7 at the time, was put in the custody of his 17-year-old sister, who was fortunately able to be legally emancipated so that Manuel wouldn’t be sent to foster care.

Manuel’s heart was broken. He would cry for hours at school. Jessica tried to console him, but how could anyone, let alone a child, explain what happened? How could I explain to my daughter that this country allows a child to be torn from his mother who risked everything to escape her life of poverty, who traveled miles through the desert, so that her children could have a better life than the one she had?

Eventually, Manuel’s sister told me she was leaving Virginia to get a better job. We never saw Manuel or his family again. Still, Manuel and his experience made a powerful impression on my daughter. He inspired her to become an activist, to march in protests and continue sharing Manuel’s tragic story. She “wanted a change.”

Sadly, last November did not bring about the kind of positive change Jessica – and so many others in my community – have been fighting for. Instead, America elected Donald Trump, who is leading this country down a dark path littered with bigotry, discrimination, and fear. Trump is doing everything he can to live up to his campaign promises: rounding up and deporting people who are undocumented, limiting the freedoms of people from Muslim-majority countries, discriminating against minorities and women and banning refugees fleeing unrest to give their families a better life.

Trump’s first year in office shows us what we can expect from Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia. Gillespie’s campaign suggests that he will follow closely in the steps of Donald Trump: his run for governor has intentionally provoked fear and hate, whether he’s defending Confederate monuments or releasing fear-mongering ads scapegoating Latinos and people of color. If we don’t make our voices heard on Nov. 7 – if we allow Ed Gillespie, whose beliefs and tactics mirror our President’s, to be elected governor, we will have failed thousands of children like Manuel.

This November, I hope America has learned its lesson. People of color, especially the Latino community, cannot afford to be silent. I ask that you join me in casting your vote for Ralph Northam – a proven leader who understands that diversity and unity, not hate and fear, are what truly make Virginia and America great. Together, we can show my daughter and the rest of America that Virginia is a place where positive change is possible.

Jasmine Moawad-Barrientos is lawyer, civil rights advocate and a Virginia-based communications fellow for the Center for Community Change Action.