I am a citizen of the Republic of the Philippines, or in my native tongue, the “Republika ng Pilipinas.” Before World War II, my mother country remained under the sovereignty of these United States of America, as a territory not unlike Guam or Puerto Rico. In the aftermath of the war, on July 4, 1946, the Philippines gained independence. I was born July 11, 1992 in the capital city, Manila.
My family immigrated to the U.S. in 2000, my dad accepting a position as a software engineer for Diebold. We lived in New Jersey for a while, where I spent my formative years of elementary school, before moving to Ohio to be closer to my dad’s job. Learning English was never problematic since we lived in Singapore for a few years before moving to the U.S., where English is commonly spoken, though I do recall making a conscious effort to rid myself of any sort of recognizable accent.
It wasn’t until high school that I realized the unique position I occupied. Unlike my peers, I was an alien. Perhaps not an alien culturally – I had been steeped in American culture through my entire childhood – but a political alien. When everybody was turning 18 during the 2008 presidential elections and exercising their Constitutionally-granted right to vote, I twiddled my thumbs and watched. I took part in the roaring debates that took place in the cafeteria during lunch and I even wrote an opinion column for the school paper, occasionally throwing in my 10 cents on political issues. Yet, in the end, I could do nothing to directly affect the election.
Yes, I could campaign. In fact, I volunteered during that campaign season, passing out flyers and posters and telling people to go out and vote. “Exercise your right,” I’d say, “Exercise your right that I don’t have!” I would say it in a gleeful, self-deprecating tone, but inside I did feel those green pangs of envy. To the candidates touring the nation, from the presidential to the local, wooing the electorate for their support, I was a non-person.
I could write all I wanted, debate day after day, voicing my support for one party or the other, but in the end I was not a vote. I was not a citizen. I was not a person. It wasn’t like I could donate thousands of dollars to a campaign to express my support either.
So when I hear people – American citizens – who say they are exercising their right to abstain from voting, I cringe a bit. True, it is well within your right to choose not to vote and I’m not going to rail at you for doing so, but it’s the political process equivalent of piling your plates with food and then tossing it out because you just weren’t that hungry, while folks starve a few miles away.
While I may not be able to vote, I still have to pay taxes. I still have to abide by the laws passed by the government elected by the people. That’s why when bills are proposed in Congress that might have a direct effect on me as an individual, my eyebrows shoot up and I hope and wish that my voting peers have the intelligence and foresight to learn what issues are at stake. Because it’s not just going to affect you or your family or even just the strangers who live down the street – it’s going to affect non-citizens and residents of the U.S. like my family and me, too.
You are America. This is a country governed by the voices of its people; use that voice, exercise these rights that thousands of people are fighting for right now! If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. And when you do use it, use it wisely. You have the power. You are America.
Maybe someday I will be too.