Click here to read part one.

After an exhausting week of interviews, I found myself rising early Saturday morning to volunteer at the “Juneteenth” festival in Durham. Excited to have an opportunity to “Get Out the Vote,” I set up my table four full hours before the festival started, hoping to catch people who were wandering downtown to check out the action. Four hours later, with no completed voter registration forms to show for my efforts, I laughed at myself for thinking that at celebration of political and civil rights my table would be crowded with people needing to register. I flipped through a novel and hoped that someone would approach me before my skin started blistering in the hot summer sun.

Finally, someone interrupted my reading with a tap on my table. A man with dark hair, dark sunglasses, and a Durham Bulls cap stood in front of me. He held two plastic bags filled with groceries in each hand.

“Hola. ¿Cómo estás?” he said slowly, testing my ability to comprehend. I responded with the usual niceties, hoping that my limited Spanish wouldn’t be exhausted too quickly. He gestured toward my “Register to Vote Here!!” sign that I proudly displayed on the front of the table. “Para votar?” he said. “Si! Para Votar!” I exclaimed, happy that he understood my broken Spanish. I was also happy to finally meet someone who may not have been registered.

As I shuffled around to find the voter registration forms and a ballpoint pen, the man suddenly put down his grocery bags and made a frantic “time-out” signal. “No papeles. No votar,” he said slowly so I could understand. I retracted my outstretched clipboard and stared down at the “SOLICITUD DE INSCRIPCIÓN PARA VOTAR EN CAROLINA DEL NORTE” inscribed across the top, hoping some words on the page would jump out and save me from the seemingly endless silence that followed.

The awkwardness that paralyzed my face soon departed, and a heavy, defeated, hopeless, shameful feeling settled in its place. I couldn’t help this man, not because I couldn’t communicate or he could understand the importance of voting and what was at stake in this year’s election, but because of just two words–“No Papeles.” It was hard to turn away someone who seemed so interested in fully participating in the community in which he lives and works. My exchange with him revealed more about the realities of democracy in North Carolina, and in America, than all of my interviews with clergy members combined.

Erin Sweeney
Democracy NC Intern