Why I Vote
Our absentee ballots from the Albany County Board of Elections arrived two weeks ago as promised, and Richard and I filled the ballots out immediately to make sure they arrived in time for the November 6 election. Voting from abroad, we felt like we were still part of the country. It gave us a connection to home and reminded us that when we return at the end of the year, we will live with the consequences of ours and everyone else’s decision.
The post office is two blocks from where we live, and I asked the clerk there if he would let me take his picture of us handing over the ballots to be sent to Albany.
My Portuguese wasn’t good enough to explain in full why I wanted to take this picture, but various people in the country as well as those whose families left years ago described what it was like in the 48 years that they lived under a fascist dictatorship. From 1926 to 1974, the Portuguese people weren’t allowed to choose their leaders. They weren’t allowed to choose the policies that would affect their lives. And they weren’t allowed to question or criticize the policies that their dictator — for most of the period António de Oliveira Salazar — chose for them.
What did it mean to live under a 48-year dictatorship — except for the Soviet Union, the longest in 20th century Europe? I am a writer, so books, literacy, and freedom of expression are very important to me. Under the Salazar dictatorship, funding to public schools was drastically cut, and children were only required to attend school through the third grade. Salazar believed (and I saw evidence of this in posters and proclamations in museums and at a “Portugal and the Holocaust” conference I attended; more on that later) that the people of this agricultural country were on the same level as the beasts — expected to be productive and docile. According to Salazar and his lieutenants, education caused people to question their lot in life and made it less likely that they would follow orders and be satisfied with the traditional, low-skilled, and/or low-paying occupations available to them. By the end of the dictatorship, nearly half of the population was illiterate, and only a quarter had a high school diploma. Despite increased educational spending under democratic governments, Portugal continues to suffer economically because a dictator two generations ago did not trust his people with knowledge.
Those who know my work know that I regularly create protagonists who challenge authority. In a country ruled by a dictator, this is what happened to those who challenged authority.
This building, on a busy street in Lisbon, was the notorious Aljube prison, where hundreds of government critics found themselves during the 48-year dictatorship. Most were kept in isolation cells where they weren’t allowed to make a sound. People who had returned from torture sessions at the nearby police headquarters could not cry out in pain, lest they receive additional beatings. Prisoners — most of them labor leaders, teachers, and writers — could not have books, papers, or writing materials in their possession. Silence served as a punishment, but it also kept the people living in the vicinity or passing by in the streetcar from knowing all of the horrors that occurred inside this otherwise ordinary-looking building with bars over the windows. Rumors of what went on inside only compounded the terror felt by the neighbors and the rest of the people.
Buildings like this one may be found in places all over the world, from Portugal to Franco’s Spain, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, from the Soviet Union of the past century to China today, in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship that served as the basis of my novel Gringolandia. People went to prisons like this one — they suffered and died there — for the right to choose their own leaders and the policies their government would follow. In short, they suffered and died for the right to vote.
I vote in honor of the billions of people who could not, and still cannot, choose their leaders — kept ignorant and frightened like the beasts of the field — and of the millions of people who sacrificed their lives for the ballot. It’s the very least I can do.