Above: Leslie Renteria, left, poses with one of her mentors at a youth organizing event encouraging young people to be civically engaged.
By Hannah Esqueda
Photo Via Free Our Dreams
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in We’Ced’s #IfICouldVote series, which aims to share the powerful voices of young people who can not vote, with an end goal of motivating others to cast their ballots on November 8th.
Growing up in San Diego’s diverse City Heights community, Leslie Renteria was aware of her undocumented status from an early age. It wasn’t until the seventh grade however, that she learned the extent to which that detail would affect her future.
“I knew I was unable to get the resources or participate in certain stuff growing up, but I think when I came about actually knowing that I couldn’t vote was in middle school,” she says. “That’s when everything just kind of clicked and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have that social security number so I’m not eligible.’ ”
Born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. at the age of 2, Renteria is among the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the U.S. Despite the prominent role immigration policy has played in this election cycle, Renteria points out that her views, and the views of millions of others, will not be included come November 8.
But the University of California, Merced sophomore hasn’t let her immigration status stop her from getting involved. Renteria is working to encourage her fellow students to exercise their political voices this election cycle.
“I always try and joke around with my friends and tell them ‘If you don’t vote, you’re going to be the reason why I’m gone next year,’ ” she says.
“They laugh about it and everything but it’s also serious. I’m not kidding when I say, ‘This is going to happen. Me and my family will be gone and you’re not going to have me in your life anymore.’ ”
“That’s when they kind of get the hang of it and realize, this matters. Voting matters,” she says.
Renteria has been working with Students Advocating Law and Education (SALE), a UC Merced group comprised of undocumented students and allies that has been promoting voter registration on campus this fall. A week of registration and voter education events are planned for Oct. 18 through 21, in the lead up to California’s deadline on Oct. 24.
“Many of the students I talk to know there are undocumented people, but they just don’t know there are undocumented students,” she says. “Once you find a way to relate it to them though, it’s easier for them to understand the importance [of the issue] and pay attention.”
Renteria wasn’t always so open about her immigration status. She recalls her parents telling her to keep that part of her identity fairly quiet as a child. It wasn’t until she began working with the Building Healthy Communities (BHC) program in her hometown of City Heights that she began sharing her story with others.
The 10-year grant-funded BHC initiative seeks to promote healthier outcomes in target communities throughout the state by working with local advocates. Renteria joined the group as a freshman in high school and quickly developed a passion for advocacy work.
“A lot of people in City Heights came over as refugees, so we try to emphasize the message to them to vote because even though they are refugees, they have some kind of privilege in this country, whereas Latinos and Hispanics in City Heights are most likely not eligible to vote,” she says.
While she believes the basic idea of allowing only U.S. citizens to cast a vote makes some sense, Renteria says she’d still like to see a way of including all stakeholders in the political process.
“I think a lot of times, we don’t think about the people who live here who contribute a lot to this country and have helped this country grow. We just kind of exclude them and let them deal with their problems on their own, only because they don’t have a social security ID,” she says.
While Renteria is clear on her plans to help others exercise their vote, she has some initial hesitation when confronting the idea of her own vote.
“If I could vote…man, that seems scary,” she says. “If I’m eligible to vote then I’m eligible for every other thing. So I think that if I could vote I would and I would try to be an example for others.”