Santiago Vasquez will soon vote in his first presidential election.
“It feels awful,” says the young Kansan. “Honestly, I don’t think either candidate is equipped to fix any of the problems in our country.”
Vasquez says he’s lost faith in government institutions’ ability “to correct things in a meaningful way.”
He’s not alone in those feelings, but he’s had an unusual amount of first-hand experience with the particular brokenness exposed by this hellish year.
Born in Lima, Peru, Vasquez was a year old when his father came to the United States to finish a doctoral degree, and three when his family moved to Salina, where his parents are pastors at La Miel Covenant Church, which serves the Latino community.
“Just by the nature of the church, my father has to go deal with a lot of legal issues around immigration and a lot of people who are undocumented,” says Vasquez, adding that he is not religious but often helped his father with translations.
“From a young age, I’ve been exposed to families where kids are separated from their fathers. I know people who’ve had traumatic experiences crossing the border,” he says. “And I’ve watched people I’d known get deported.”
His interest in government and politics grew through high school debate and forensics at Salina High School South, and George Floyd’s death at the end of his senior year was a call to action.
Vasquez and other young people in Salina formed the Sunflower Coalition, began attending city commission meetings and drafted a proposal for modest police reforms: a citizens’ review board and a ban on the department acquiring surplus military equipment.
When the city commission held a public study session on Sept. 21, Vasquez and other coalition members faced a backlash from a room full of mostly white and unmasked people with what he describes as a “back the blue mentality.” During his time at the microphone, people jeered him.
“It was a very hostile environment to be in,” Vasquez says.
Commissioner Melissa Rose Hodges was so disturbed that she posted a Facebook message lamenting “the defensiveness, attempts at intimidation, and poor behavior.” And Commissioner Trent Davis’ apology at the next week’s commission meeting is the latest episode of Kansas government must-see TV:
Tired of hearing opponents tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about, in late summer Vasquez enrolled in the Citizens’ Police Academy.
“I learned a whole lot of things,” he says, citing a litany of information about the department’s operations. But the experience mostly reinforced what he already knew.
“They repeatedly highlighted that the two biggest issues in Salina were drugs and homelessness,” he says. “They admitted they didn’t have a very good response to either.”
Vasquez is set to graduate from the academy this week, having spent every Wednesday evening driving back to Salina from Lawrence, where he’s now a freshman at the University of Kansas.
Three weeks after classes began, he caught COVID-19.
After being exposed by someone in their dorm, Vasquez and his roommates fielded mixed messages about whether they should stay put or move to the quarantine dorm, which Vasquez eventually did. By the time his own test came back positive, most of his fever, muscle pain and fatigue had passed.
Having the coronavirus “hit me in kind of a weird way,” he says, because both of his maternal grandparents in Peru had died of the same disease a few months earlier. He’s grateful he visited them in January. In February, his paternal grandfather died of causes unrelated to COVID.
He feels weighed down by the losses, and the fact that he could experience violence at the hands of his community at any time, even when government officials are around.
“It’s a lot to hold onto,” he says. “There are not a lot of people who can relate.”
He says he takes comfort in that he’s grown closer to his family. And his tone brightens when he talks about school. He likes his classes (all online) and is keeping his grades up, and he’s finding causes in Lawrence to help with.
“I’m constantly fueled by the sense of anger,” he says.
But talking one-on-one, Vasquez doesn’t sound angry. He sounds like a better man than some of his fellow Kansans.
“I have a sense of duty to my community, to people who are like me, to people who are unlike me,” he says, citing wisdom he learned from his mother: “You shouldn’t do this kind of work because you hate your oppressors but because you love the people you’re helping.”
Talking to a young Kansan like Vasquez is supposed to make us elders feel hopeful that the future’s in the right hands. But we should never have let them graduate into a world of failed institutions.
“Settling for Biden is not how I wanted to open up my voting career,” Vasquez says.
He’ll do it because voting is important, he says.
“But we can’t wait for people above us to fix the country and the world,” he says. “No matter who wins, there is still a lot of work to be done. It’s up to the people around us and community organizing to move things forward.”