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I’m an elections reporter — and I just cast my first vote as a naturalized U.S. citizen

For a long time, I didn’t want to think or talk about elections or politics. That changed four years ago.

A woman with short brown hair and wearing a white blouse holds a sticker that says "I Voted" while posing for a photograph outside.
Votebeat reporter Natalia Contreras after voting for the first time in the United States on Feb. 25, 2024 in Corpus Christi, Texas. (Courtesy of Natalia Contreras / Votebeat)

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I still remember the first time I was told I could not vote.

After leaving our home in Mexico to live in Texas, my mom and I, with my stepfather’s help, had spent months shuttling between government offices and appointments with an immigration lawyer, part of the lengthy process required to become permanent United States residents.

The final step was an appointment with an immigration official in San Antonio. I was about 12 years old at the time. He told me and my mom that our application had been approved, and that we’d be receiving our green cards in the mail soon. He said the document would allow us to do everything needed to live in the U.S.: We’d get a Social Security number — with that, we could apply for driver’s licenses and work when we were ready. I felt a sense of relief, because this meant we were finally done with this process.

Then, his tone changed. “But you cannot under any circumstances vote,” he warned us in Spanish. “If you do that, and we find out, we can take this from you.”

That stuck with me. My parents had worked so hard to get us to this place. They’d spent a lot of money, too, because this process was not cheap. I was not going to do anything to risk losing that.

I kept voting and elections off my mind. Honestly, that wasn’t too hard at first. Like most teenagers, I was preoccupied with hanging out with my friends at the mall and wondering whether my high school crush was aware of my existence.

But the topic became harder to avoid as I got older.

When I was 17, the conversations in the classroom and among my friends revolved around how excited they were to turn 18 so they could vote (and get tattoos). I never reacted or showed any interest. I often changed the subject. When a group of volunteers from the League of Women Voters were at my high school encouraging students to register to vote, I avoided making eye contact and walked quickly away from their table.

I avoided telling anyone that I would not be able to vote when I turned 18. You see, back then, I was made fun of for being the kid from Mexico with an accent. I didn’t want to give my peers more reasons to do that.

As I started college and became more interested in issues affecting people in my community, the restriction became harder to ignore. I was curious. I wanted to become a journalist. But even then, during election seasons, I resisted talking about politics with my friends or colleagues, worried that they’d ask me whether I had voted yet.

I spent years like that. And that also meant that for years, I was in the dark about how elections worked in my community.

But all that changed about four years ago, when I could finally afford the nearly $800 fee for the application to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, plus the associated travel and other expenses (requesting driving records, background checks, printing and postage, etc.). I felt truly privileged, because this step is unattainable for so many immigrants.

Voting became a real possibility in my mind. I wrote stories about other immigrants’ experiences voting for the first time, and I felt excited because I knew that I would get to do that one day.

I stopped avoiding the subject, and started telling people that I could not vote and why. In fact, when I applied for this reporting job, I told Votebeat managers that I had never voted and that I knew very little about elections. I told them that’s why I’d be a good candidate for the job: I could bring the perspective of a new or aspiring voter, and report on this topic with fresh eyes.

I wanted to ask questions and learn as much as I could about elections, so that other readers in my position could understand it along with me, and I could look forward to being part of it. I wanted to feel empowered to participate.

I became a naturalized citizen last year and filled out a voter registration application right away. By then, I had already been an elections and voting reporter for about a year. Although I did hit some hurdles registering, I felt more informed about elections than most people. I made sure I’d be able to cast my first ballot.

And I did. Weeks after turning 35, I voted for the first time. It took a lot of work, time, money, and patience to get here. And my first time voting went so smoothly — no lines, no technical problems — that it took me less than 15 minutes to get in and out of the polling location.

This time, no one can take this away.

Are you voting for the first time this year? We want to hear about your experience voting in Texas. Do you have questions about the process? Reach Votebeat reporter Natalia Contreras at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

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