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Maria Teresa Kumar: Voicing Your Dreams

About the Episode

María Teresa Kumar knew from the time she became a US citizen at the age of nine that she wanted to be involved in the democratic process. As CEO of Voto Latino, she has helped register over one million Latinx voters to have their voices heard.

This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Nicole Haroutunian and edited by Abby Sher. Narration by Paola Mendoza. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

It was a typical San Francisco morning: the sky was gloomy and gray, the air was filled with a thick, cool fog, and the people on the bustling streets had their sweaters and jackets drawn tight around their shoulders. But there, walking in their own ray of sunshine, was a woman named Mercedes and her nine-year-old daughter, María Teresa.

María Teresa was so excited to be walking along next to her mom. Ever since they came to California from Colombia five years before, her mom worked so hard cleaning houses. It was rare that they had a day to spend together. And they were going to do something very special. You see, María Teresa and her mom were going to officially become citizens of the United States of America. 

As they made their way down the street together, María Teresa heard a ferry’s horn in the distance. It sounded like a trumpet announcing their arrival. One of the cable cars jangled its bell, cheering them on. And when María Teresa and her mom got to the grand courthouse, their heels clicked like applause as they climbed up the steps to go inside. 

María Teresa felt so proud and important standing beside her fierce, strong mother as they raised their right hands and recited the Oath of Allegiance. María Teresa was only nine years old, but she felt like she was a part of something big that day. She felt like anything was possible.

Three years later, María Teresa was walking up another set of grand stairs. This time she was with her friends, giggling and having a blast on their class trip to the nation’s capital, Washington, DC. They’d gone on tours, seen a play, and taken pictures of each other in front of the Lincoln Memorial, but now they were headed in to meet with a politician in his office. 

The class sat cross legged on a scratchy rug, squeezed elbow to elbow, waiting for the politician to arrive. To pass the time, Maria Teresa braided her friend’s hair. She also daydreamed about sitting at her own very important desk, a grown up with a briefcase of papers in front of her. 

Finally, the door swung open, then slammed with a bang. All the children got quiet. The politician strode in, barely looking at the kids before launching into a speech about how anything was possible in this country as long as you worked hard and believed in the American dream.

Hmmm, María Teresa thought. No one works harder than my mom. And we all have dreams. But it’s not quite that simple!

Maria Teresa loved her life in America, but it wasn’t exactly easy. Her mom worked nonstop, her dad had been sick and still couldn’t get the medical care he needed. Looking around the room at her friends, many of whom were immigrants like her, she knew they had big responsibilities and big worries. She wondered how much this politician understood about their lives. 

Maria Teresa thought a lot about this experience. As she grew up and went to high school and college, she started getting more and more involved in government. After she graduated, she headed back to Washington, DC to work for congressperson. She got a briefcase full of important papers just like she’d imagined, and rushed from meeting to meeting, talking to people in government about lots of important issues, like the environment, wildlife conservation, and education. 

It was exciting, and also exhausting. María Teresa wanted to make a difference, but would her voice really count?

On election night in 1996, María Teresa’s stomach was in knots as she watched the results come in. The person she worked for was up for reelection and even though people really liked him, it was a very tight race. 

María Teresa and her coworkers were all at a restaurant decorated with streamers and balloons, snacking on chips, and trying to stay positive, but it was hard. All around her, people were talking about why this race was so close. Some people said there were confusing rules about who could vote where. Others said that voter turnout was always disappointing. 

Then María Teresa overheard someone say, It’s the Latino vote we’re missing. I don’t know why Latinos don’t show up and make their voices heard. María Teresa was shocked and a little offended. But most of all, she felt a spark of inspiration catching fire in her belly.

Yes, it’s true, she thought. A lot of Latinos don’t vote. But that’s not because we don’t care. We care a lot! About immigration, about jobs, the environment, healthcare. The list goes on and on!

But María Teresa also knew that it was difficult for a lot of Latinos to vote. Many of the people she knew didn’t speak a lot of English or they didn’t know where to get the forms to register to vote. Not to mention, many of her Latino friends and family — like her mom — worked multiple jobs and weren’t allowed time off to get to the polls before they closed.

[cheers]

Phew! María Teresa was thrilled and relieved when the congressman she worked with was reelected with just enough votes. She clapped and cheered with her friends, proud to be part of this mighty team. But part of her knew that she’d just found a bigger calling. She had to find a way to help her fellow Latinos to get involved in the democratic process. She had to make sure that not only her voice — but all voices — were heard.

Now, the question was, how would she do that?

Then, one day, María Teresa was dancing around her kitchen to a music video on MTV. She loved this song. It was called, “The Voice Within,” and the lyrics were about trusting your inner strength and helping others find theirs too. She twirled and boogied, grabbing a spatula to use as a microphone. Lost in the music, she almost didn’t notice when the video ended and a public service announcement started.

Hello. I’m here to talk about your voice. Your voice matters!

María Teresa froze, spatula in hand. She knew and admired the actor who was talking. It was Rosario Dawson. She’d been in lots of hit movies, tv shows, music videos. Rosario’s hair looked different though—short and bleached; she looked bold and sassy. She looked like a rebel!

And what did her t-shirt say? 

María Teresa moved closer to the television so she could read it. In red, white, and blue letters it said “VOTO LATINO. It’s your country…represent!”

Maria Teresa started dancing around the room again. This time, she didn’t need a song to boogie to. She was following the beat of her own heart, brimming with hope and inspiration! This was exactly what María Teresa had been thinking for years! She needed to meet Rosario Dawson and become part of VOTO LATINO – NOW!

[phone dialing]

When she got Rosario on the phone, María Teresa’s mouth could barely keep up with her excited thoughts.

“First of all, I want to thank you for what you’re doing with Voto Latino! If young people are empowered to vote, they’ll help their families. Then we can elect politicians who’ll listen to us!” 

Before Rosario could even respond, María Teresa continued…

“I hope you don’t mind, but I have a few ideas…what if you record an album of awesome Latin music that inspires people to vote? Or make up a reality show? Or, even a soap opera about voting?! I mean it could be really fun, and get younger people more involved and —”

Rosario cut her off. “María Teresa,” she said. “I love these ideas. I really do. But right now, all we have is a name and a message. We don’t have the money to do all of the things you want to do! But listen…”

María Teresa slowly caught her breath, trying not to be too disappointed. And then, Rosario asked a single question that changed María Teresa’s life. 

“Do you want to run Voto Latino with me?”

It was an easy decision for María Teresa to make, even though she knew it would be very challenging.

For starters, she had to quit her job. No more big briefcase full of papers and glittering office buildings. No more power suits or salary either. So, just before her thirtieth birthday, María Teresa moved back in with her mom to save money, pulling an overstuffed suitcase up the front steps. She thought of that day so many years ago, when she and her mom walked up to the courthouse, their footsteps sounding like applause. Could she still hear it? It was faint, but there: a steady beat urging her on.

“Helloooooo!”

Mercedes threw open the door, wearing a lace headband and a bright pink lipsticked-smile. She hugged her daughter and reached to take her suitcase. 

“No no no. It’s too heavy, Ma!”

María Teresa wouldn’t let go, but neither would Mercedes, so they lugged the suitcase inside together. Then they went straight to the kitchen where Mercedes’s special ajaico was bubbling on the stove. 

“Thank you, Mom. For everything.” María Teresa felt so grateful, looking at all the framed photographs her mom had up on the walls. Mercedes had been a constant source of love and support her whole life.

“I’m happy you’re here, I am,” Mercedes said. “But, are you sure you know what you’re doing? You had such a good job!”

María Teresa looked her mom in the eye. 

“Mami, I don’t want to just put my head down and put food on the table. I want a seat at the table.”

Mercedes hugged her even tighter, so proud.

“Better than being on the menu!” she said. And they both started to laugh.

María Teresa jumped into her new role with everything she had. She and the Voto Latino team started a campaign of registering people to vote by text message. They got huge celebrities to support their cause and record public service announcements about the importance of the Latino vote. They even launched a VOTO LATINO reality competition so young people could come up with new ways to get people to the polls!

In 2008, just before the election, María Teresa sat on the couch next to her mom with a bowl of popcorn and a laptop. María Teresa had something special to show her mom. She pressed play and dramatic music started as the words La Pasión de la Decisión scrolled across the screen.

“What’s this?” Mercedes asked her daughter. María Teresa winked and smiled, looking back at the screen. On it, there was a young couple, kissing in front of a fireplace. It looked like they were newly engaged and thrilled to be getting married. 

María Teresa giggled a little. She’d gotten a star-studded cast to do this video and the dialogue was super sappy, just like an old-fashioned soap opera, or telenovela. 

Then, the woman on screen told her sister that she was getting married and the sister revealed a deep, shameful secret. 

No no no! You cannot marry this man. He is not who you think he is. He is not….registered to vote! 

AHhh! No, it can’t be!

The man made all kinds of excuses as the music swelled. 

But it’s so easy!” the bride-to-be cried, throwing her engagement ring back in his face. 

And then, the credits rolled.

Brought to you by VOTO LATINO. It’s your country…represent!

Mercedes was up on her feet, laughing and applauding.

“That was hilarious!” she cheered.

“But wait, Mami, here’s the best part.”

María Teresa tapped her nail on the computer screen, showing her mom how many people were watching this fun experiment. The numbers kept ticking up, up, up. It was a viral sensation!

And each person who watched meant hopefully, another new voter.

And that was just the beginning! Since 2008, María Teresa has become a powerful force for change. She’s organized free rides to voting sites, taco trucks to greet voters, and appears regularly on TV, in magazines, and in Washington, DC, urging people to make their voices heard by voting. 

Most importantly, she’s helped over a million people register to vote! Getting all ages involved and excited about the fact that anyone and everyone can make a difference.

It’s not always easy, but it can be fun. And even if you don’t have a big briefcase full of papers, remember your voice matters. YOU can help shape the future of this country.