Cristina Camarillo with her parents on graduation day. Courtesy of Cristina Camarillo. 

This is a part of a series connected to our partnership with the Greater Houston Community Foundation's regional project Understanding Houston. This story, and others, also appears on the Understanding Houston website.

Every American citizen remembers their first time voting and the sense of pride that comes with making your voice heard. But for Cristina Camarillo, her first trip to the polls meant speaking for her entire family. As the daughter of two immigrants from Mexico and the younger sister of two DACA recipients, she feels the responsibility for being the sole representative for the Camarillo family in the voting process. 

“Growing up, a lot of people within my own family would be like, ‘Hey we can’t vote, but you’re going to be able to vote when you turn 18, so you better go out and vote,’” Camarillo said.

But when it came to her time to vote, she realized that the importance of voting wasn’t always instilled in her peers like it was for her. 

In 2017, during her junior year of high school at Houston’s Heights High School, she volunteered with Mi Familia Vota and Student Voter Initiative to register seniors during their government classes. 

“So here we are as 17-year-olds — 16-year-olds, some of us — telling 18-year-old seniors, ‘Hey, we can’t vote, but you can,’” Camarillo said. In the class presentations, Camarillo and the other student volunteers were trying to explain the importance of voting to the seniors, specifically during local-level elections. 

By the end of the presentations, Camarillo registered about 40 students to vote all by herself

But with the November 2018 primaries fast approaching, Camarillo wanted to do more to make sure her own senior class would take advantage of their right to vote in the upcoming election. In addition to speaking to more than 500 students at her school’s voter registration drive, Camarillo worked through election day, helping first-time voters find their nearest polling stations. 

Using the power of social media, Camarillo even gave her peers shout-outs on Snapchat once she discovered they voted. “I was asking everyone in all of my classes, ‘Have you voted today?’ And when they said, ‘Yeah.’ I’d be like, ‘Okay, hold up. Let me Snapchat this so everyone knows that you voted, ‘cause this is a big deal.’”

In the fall of 2019, the 18-year-old plans to attend Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota on a full-ride scholarship through The Posse Foundation. While there, she plans to register to vote in Minnesota, get involved with school organizations involved with student registration and civil work and to continue to advocate for her peers to register. Her ultimate goal is to return to Houston after college and work within her community in the Near Northside. 

“Even within my own community, I know a lot of people who could vote, but don’t, because they don’t see the major importance in it,” Camarillo said. “I hope people actually keep going out to vote and not just saying that they will or putting in their opinions on something politically, but not doing anything about it or going about change. That really irks me.”

Improving voter turnout means reaching out and continuing the conversations started by people like Camarillo. Check out the Understanding Houston website to learn more about civic engagement in our communities.