Juan Venancio and his parents flipped through an old photo album in their home in Southwest Houston, reflecting on the chaos of 2020. A first time voter, Venancio keeps COVID-19 and the economic fallout in mind as the election approaches.
“Most people, when they turn 18, they’re really happy you know to get a car or go to college,” Venancio said. “I was obviously happy to go to college and do these things and become more independent, but one of the things I was most excited about about turning 18 is being able to vote.”
Venancio is a 19-year-old, first-generation American. He made plans to cast his first ballot for Joe Biden, citing his disappointment of policies brought on by President Donald Trump.
Venancio is no stranger to civic engagement, and he credits his parents’ immigration experience for that. His mother, Catalina Elvia Herrera, was born in Honduras and came to the U.S. to escape poverty. His father, Oliverio Venancio, is from Veracruz, Mexico. He had plans to come here to work for only one year but ended up living in the country for 23 years now.
Catalina works in custodial services and Oliverio is a landscaper. As immigrant workers, they quickly learned fair wages had to be fought for. So, Oliverio joined a union called Fe y Justicia, or Faith and Justice.
Venancio remembers his father frequently leaving their home Saturday mornings to attend meetings with the group. It wasn’t until one day his father invited him along that he realized what organizing meant.
“It was the first time that I experienced, like, civic engagement up front,” Venancio recalled.
While in high school, Venancio was introduced to a new Latino political advocacy group: Mi Familia Vota — “My Family Votes.” Venancio attended one of their weekend workshops at Rice University and while free food served as a small incentive to attend the event, it was the message that hooked Venancio immediately.
Fast forward a few years, and Venancio remains dedicated to community engagement. He’s currently studying government and economics at Harvard University and like most students across the country, he’s been taking his classes remotely. But studying from home has perhaps come at an opportune time, as he considers this year’s election.
Venancio has several issues on his mind when it comes to casting his ballot: Immigration, climate change, universal health care, the Black Lives Matter movement, police reform — all areas where he feels the Trump administration has fallen short.
Venancio is only one of the roughly 15 million Americans who turned 18 since the last presidential election. That means 1-in-10 eligible voters will be members of Generation Z, those between the ages 18 and 23.
Younger eligible voters have historically trailed their slightly older peers when it comes to participating in elections, but youth engagement and activism has risen in recent years. It’s too soon to tell if that will boost voter turnout, but to Venancio, being young and politically engaged comes with responsibility.
“If you come from a mixed status family and you’re an American citizen, voting is not just an act of civic engagement anymore,” Venancio said, “voting becomes an act of community service.”
On the third day of early voting in Texas, Venancio took the time to think about the significance of this moment. This was his first ballot ever, in what he believes is an election that will go down in our country’s history.
When Venancio pulled into his polling site, he realized voting in-person in his home town wouldn’t be possible had the pandemic not disrupted the usual school semester. He would have been over 1,800 miles away filling out a mail-in ballot, rather than masking up and heading to a voting booth.
“A lot of people in my community, including people in my family don’t have this right to vote,” Venancio explained. “And I definitely today not only voted on behalf of myself, I voted on behalf of my parents, I voted on behalf of members of our community that need their voices to be heard.”
Venancio will graduate from Harvard with his degree in government and economics in 2023 and faces a critical time ahead of him. The economic landscape of the U.S. has completely changed. We’ll likely still be crawling out of the pandemic-induced recession for years to come.
But Venancio is hopeful his education, experience and future career will further propel him into his work of advocacy and help in the recovery process.