Why I Vote

My young and poignant experience with the freedom of speech

“You don’t know what you have until its taken away.”

This is an old saying, mostly said when someone has lost something or someone they love: a woman or man, a free membership, or perhaps for some teens, their smart phones. Devastating, I know. But I doubt anyone has ever thought about having a fundamental right taken away from them. At least not by anyone born and raised in this country. As I young Filipino, I never had to worry about my fundamental rights being taken away because I never had it in the first place.

by Fidel Andrada

Living in the Philippines during the early 1970s was very simple: I went to school, played with friends, and tried my best not to get into trouble. This may sound like a typical day, but unlike Smallville, Kansas, a typical the day in the Philippines would end with a siren blaring at 9pm reminding the residents that it was time to return home; although I would already be home, the siren was for all citizens and businesses to seize all activities. Anyone who defied the curfew would be arrested and detained. One of my neighbor’s father was detained and he returned home after a week. My friend only said his dad wasn’t going to break the curfew again.

One Saturday evening, my brother and I were allowed to play outside later than usual when the siren sounded at 7pm. Although it was two hours early, everyone in the neighborhood (both children and adults) panicked and ran back home. I remember jumping on my brother’s back and he quickly carried me to our house; I recall crying in tears, frightened of being arrested. Not one person in the neighborhood complained that the siren was early, nor waited for the police to arrive to make the complaint. No one took that chance.

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Martial Law

You see, the Philippines was under Martial Law when I grew up. Our president, Ferdinand Marcos, had decided to place the country under a pseudo-stratocracy and suspended all fundamental rights, primarily the freedom of speech and press, and other judicial rights, such as the protection of search and seizure to our homes. The media was state controlled and propaganda was ubiquitous. The most prominent was, “For the nation’s progress, discipline is needed” (it sounded more poetic in Tagalog). A well known comedian once made fun of the propaganda and we didn’t see or hear of him for a year after he made the comment on live TV.

Growing up under the Marcos regime, I knew nothing about the Freedom of Speech, Press, and Privacy. I was simply taught to obey the government and the police, and that President Marcos was a righteous president. And although I was told that my future home, the United States, was a “free” country, I had no idea what that meant because I was only seven years old.

Freedom of Speech

When I finally arrived to the United States at the age of eight, my mom and older sister were already living here for five years. My mom was slowly bringing her children to the U.S. legally; the process took many years. We lived in a duplex at Arlington, Virginia where my first haircut, done outside the front lawn by my sister, included an introduction to the sport called football as I watched two people throw a strange oblong ball at each other on the street. A few weeks later, my sister introduced me to something even more strange.

My sister drove me to Washington DC to take a driving tour of the monuments. Although seeing all the monuments were awe-inspiring, which included the White House, there was something very odd going on outside the President’s home. There were people at the White House gate holding up signs and banners, and yelling inaudible chants.

“What are they doing?” I asked in Tagalog.

“They’re protesting. They don’t like what the President is doing.” She explained.

“Wait, they’re protesting in front of his House?!? Where are the police? Why aren’t they being arrested?!”

“They’re allowed to that here. This is one of the freedoms allowed by the government.”

“So, what you’re telling me,” I bemused, “is that the government allows its citizens to protest against their leader?”

“Yes,” she replied with a chuckle, understanding my confusion.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” shaking my head in disbelief, “This country isn’t going to last for too long if they allow the people to do that.”

Decades Later

I tell this story during almost every election, but especially during a Presidential election because I want people to understand the importance of the freedoms that many take for granted. You see, I understand what it’s like Not to have fundamental rights, because I have lived it and believed that an oppressive government is normal. This belief ended when I learned more about the United States, its history and ideology.

Today, as I enter a polling place, I give thanks for being an American. I’m a proud Filipino, but I’m more proud to be an American. I don’t beat my chest and wave the flag because I’m more grateful than patriotic. I wasn’t born with these “unalienable rights,” they were allowed to me; I know of their importance and I don’t want them taken away.

The ultimate exercise of one’s Freedom of Speech is to vote. Most of you probably understand the importance of our fundamental rights, but for the few others, I hope it doesn’t take “until it’s taken away” to understand “what you have.”

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