The dapper gentleman from Ecuador raised a trembling hand as he took the oath of citizenship at a packed Memorial Auditorium on Wednesday, where more than 1,000 people from 76 countries became new Americans.
At 87, and coping with Parkinson’s disease, the gentleman had an American flag tucked into the breast pocket of his powder blue blazer. He leaned on a cane to steady himself. His youngest son wrapped an arm around his back to keep him upright.
The gentleman had lived in the U.S. for 30 years and had resisted the suggestions of his children to take this step, to become an American citizen, until he suddenly changed his mind in the last year and pursued U.S. citizenship with urgency.
Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, had scared Washington Espinoza into becoming an American.
“I want to vote because I want to make sure that crazy man doesn’t (become president of the United States),” said Espinoza, who was named after George Washington because his father had been inspired by America’s first president.
When you live in Ecuador, a nation that has forsaken democracy more than once in Espinoza’s lifetime, George Washington is a big deal. For the Espinozas, George Washington represents America idealism, the reason this country remains a beacon for immigrants living beyond its borders. The dream that’s so alive in Espinoza’s heart exists in opposition to Trump’s campaign rhetoric of immigrants wreaking havoc in the U.S., an idea he again floated during his speech accepting the Republican nomination for president.
So there Espinoza was on Wednesday, summoning all of his diminished physical strength, to fight in his own way for America’s future. “My vote alone won’t count for much this November,” he said. “But one vote plus one vote plus one vote. That would count for a lot.”
Movements begin when people look in the mirror and ask, “What am I waiting for?” That’s what Espinoza did. America had done so much for him. Its heroes such as Washington inspired him during his formative years. Its rule of law served as a telling counterpoint as the institutions of Espinoza’s homeland were mismanaged by cronies of dubious leaders. America is where his two sons, Patricio and Pablo, eventually settled after becoming smitten with the country as high school exchange students. Espinoza’s daughters from a previous marriage also had come to America. A bank auditor and accountant by trade, Espinoza joined them in the mid-’80s.
On Wednesday, Espinoza’s citizenship ceremony was a major family milestone. He traveled from Elk Grove to the Memorial Auditorium with Pablo, his daughter-in-law Nancy and his two grandsons. He wore a stylish Panama hat that, despite its name, originated in Espinoza’s homeland centuries ago. Espinoza was physically frail, but the moment was powerful.
He stood with great difficulty during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And then he stood with more difficulty during the oath of allegiance, administered by officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“When he said he wanted to do this, it was out of the blue,” said Pablo, a former TV news reporter who works for the California Assembly.
Though he came to America legally as an exchange student, and then remained after securing his residency, Pablo still felt the sting of anti-immigrant sentiments in his adopted country. “When I worked for (an English-language) station in Fresno, a viewer called the station and asked, ‘Who is that spic on the air?’ I said, ‘You’re talking to him.’ ”
While covering the immigration battles of California, Pablo learned how people of Latin American origins can feel targeted by rhetoric purportedly aimed only at “illegals.” “I had the luxury of choice,” he said. “I didn’t have to come to America for economic reasons. But not everyone has that choice.”
Because of his surname and his motivation to participate in November’s general election, Washington Espinoza would appear to be part of the wave of Latinos registering to vote this year in what some observers describe as a “Trump effect.” This movement is purported to be driven by Latinos enraged by Trump’s conflating Mexican immigrants with “rapists” and with his repeated calls to build a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Some observers such as Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, have predicted that more than 13 million Latinos will vote in November. That would greatly surpass previous records established in the last two presidential elections.
In California, voter registration efforts – such as the one being led by the state Assembly Democratic Caucus – are using a photo of Trump’s face with a red line through it as a prop while canvassing Latino-heavy neighborhoods, primarily in Southern California. These efforts focus on finding young Latinos who want to vote because they’ve been angered or frightened by Trump’s words. Efforts such as these have resulted in more than 700,000 new voter registrants in California this calendar year, according to statistics compiled by Political Data Inc., a consulting firm tracking political data. Of those, 427,743 have registered as Democrats and 73,068 have registered as Republicans (the rest cited no party preference or identified with alternative parties).
Espinoza will turn 88 on Election Day. His age suggests he’s more likely to cast a ballot than young Latinos, who traditionally vote in smaller numbers than any other group in California. Moreover, Espinoza’s fear is not based on Trump’s Mexico bashing, given that Espinoza is a native of a small nation tucked between Colombia and Peru in the northwest corner of South America.
There is no perilous border crossing in Espinoza’s past. He flew to America in a plane. His legal residence had been established by his eldest son, himself a legal resident, who successfully petitioned to bring his dad legally to the U.S. via family unification provisions in American immigration law.
Though mindful of Pablo’s experiences with anti-immigrant sentiments, Washington Espinoza has different reasons for fearing Trump. He had been a bank auditor in Ecuador and was powerless to stop bank failures created by corruption and incompetence. He saw how the judiciary and other major institutions lacked independence and were manipulated by allies of ruling leaders. He saw the damage that can be caused when a country falls prey to populism without specific policies to better the lives of people.
“What does Trump know?” Espinoza said. “What experience does he have except making money?”
Ultimately, Espinoza doesn’t fear Trump rounding up immigrants for deportation. He fears Trump running the country, and its institutions, into the ground. He left that experience behind in Ecuador. He doesn’t want it in his new home.
After Wednesday’s ceremony, he happily filled out a voter registration card, as did his grandson Adrian, 18, who also will vote in his first election in November. Washington Espinoza said he is voting for Hillary Clinton.
The dapper gentleman was asked by his son what the experience would be like in November. “It will be like flying through the sky,” he said. “I will be so happy.”