Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino
by rina rapuano
From California to the Capitol, Kumar is energizing the Latino population.
Maria Teresa Kumar believes that being born in Bogotá, Colombia, and raised in California, with her American father and Colombian mother helped prepare her for the role as president and CEO of Voto Latino, an organization that seeks to galvanize the vote of the growing—and increasingly powerful—American Latino population.
“I grew up in a bicultural household, so my whole life I have been translating,” says Kumar, 38. “And with Voto Latino, it is about translating to mainstream America what it means to be Latino.”
Although her master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government probably doesn’t hurt her success, Kumar’s position at the top of such an influential nonpartisan organization is due in no small part to her unrelenting passion for representing one of the country’s most underestimated populations.
With the US in the throes of another big—and decidedly contentious—election cycle, Kumar is pushing to register more American Latino voters and, she says, to make elections personal to this pivotal group. She hopes that once they are drawn into the political process, they will stay.
“Voting is a continuous drumbeat,” says the MSNBC political analyst. “The work of the voter isn’t finished after the vote is cast.... Because the Latino voter [comes from] such a young population, our job at Voto Latino is to teach individuals that it’s about constantly participating.”
Since joining the organization soon after actor Rosario Dawson founded it in 2004, Kumar has brought about technology-based answers to the fundamental question of how to engage the masses. Voto Latino pushed to get American Latinos to fill out the 2010 census via a bilingual iPhone app, has fine-tuned the concept of texting campaigns, and is reaching out through Twitter and Facebook. “This audience is hungry for political knowledge and how to navigate the political system,” says Kumar.
When asked whether President Obama is doing enough to support the American Latino population, she laughs and says, “He’s learning.” She cites—and supports— the president’s stopgap move on the Dream Act, in which he circumvented Congress to issue an executive order that allows children who were brought to the United States illegally, and who have maintained a clean record, to remain in America without fear of deportation. “He allowed these people to come out [of] the shadows and get working permits until Congress does something,” she says. “It’s not a perfect solution, but... these young people came here through no fault of their own.”
Kumar, who perhaps has even more hope for the future since her daughter was born on July 4 of this year, has her sights set on another dream: “I like to say that the United State’s first Latino president is going to be somehow connected to Voto Latino.”
photography by PATRICK MCDERMOTT
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.