It’s March 31, 1992, and then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and California Governor Jerry Brown Jr. are both at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York, debating education in urban America and sparring over tuition affordability — and gun control — just before the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries.
It’s pandemonium outside the college and all Nodia Mena can do is soak it in.
“I don’t know anything about U.S. politics, but it was such huge enthusiasm,” she said. “Someone invited me to go around, we couldn’t even get into the event. I mean, it was so many people, so many cars, and that was all new for me.”
This experience was Mena’s first introduction into American politics.
Mena is Afro-Honduran and moved to the U.S. nearly 30 years ago. She left Honduras when she was 19, but was able to vote for the first time before leaving.
She said the lack of change in her country led her to not take voting seriously.
“It was always whoever got into power will always do the same thing, they may have relied on corruption and so on,” Mena said. “My very first vote was a rebellious vote. I voted for the least likely to win the party. I just felt like it didn’t matter, like we didn’t count. As a Garifuna, a Black woman in Latin America, my vote didn’t matter.”
But after witnessing the enthusiasm toward politics in 1992, Mena started to take it more seriously and researched politicians and how the U.S. government operates. The more she researched, the more interested she became.
In 2008, that feeling intensified. That’s when Barack Obama ran his campaign on messages of “change” and “hope.”
“It wasn’t until Obama when I really started paying way more attention to what was going on,” she said. “The fact that he was there as a Black man, but his message, the way in which he connected with people, how generally he presented himself to people, it resonated with me personally.”
Mena canvassed for Obama’s campaign and made sure she connected with the people she spoke to, to encourage voter enthusiasm.
“I realized that we needed to, as Afro descendants, get involved with the decisions that are being made for us,” she said.
Her Afro Latina identity puts her in an interesting dynamic when candidates try to solicit her vote. Mena said candidates usually either go for the Black vote or the Latino vote, but never the Afro Latino vote.
‘I don’t think politicians should continue to think about people as ‘this is Indian,’ ‘this is Black,’ ‘this is Latino,'” she said. “I think that this is the time where we should strive towards equity.”
As a Spanish-language instructor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Mena makes sure that she informs her students about Afro-Latino history.
“In Latin America, that solidarity is nonexistent, as far as the non-Black Latinos with the Black Latinos. As a matter of fact, when you say Latinos, it does not include me in that group. You have to specifically say, ‘Afro Latinos.’ Why?”
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