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Coronavirus Upended Her Family, But This Latina Teen Is Determined To Make Her Vote Count

Marlene Herrera, a first-time voter in San Diego County, on February 23, 2020...

Photo by Max Rivlin-Nadler

Above: Marlene Herrera, a first-time voter in San Diego County, on February 23, 2020.

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First-time voter Marlene Herrera is undecided when it comes to the 2020 presidential election. The coronavirus has upended the issues she is watching.

Aired: May 20, 2020 | Transcript

Marlene Herrera has her entire life planned out in a color-coordinated notebook. It’s helped the 17-year-old Scripps Ranch High School senior keep track of her schedule and big events such as grad night, an annual celebration for graduating seniors.

But the coronavirus pandemic has turned Herrera’s carefully planned world upside down. No grad night, no prom, no graduation ceremony. It’s brought a new set of worries: She’s on track to be the first person in her family to attend college this fall, but how will she pay for it? How will her uninsured family members access health care?

Herrera said she worries the United States is heading toward a repeat of the 2016 presidential election, where her family members were turned off by both parties' failed promises to Latino voters on issues such as immigration and health care.

“My family members, once it came down to the two candidates, they just didn’t vote,” she said of the 2016 race.

RELATED: Are You — Or Do You Know — A Young Latino Voter Who Plans On Voting For The First Time?

Herrera wasn’t yet eligible to vote in California’s primary because she hadn’t yet turned 18. She plans to register to vote after her birthday next month. Still, she was following the election closely before the pandemic hit.

Throughout the pandemic, Herrera has split her time between her two parents’ homes. The pandemic has upended their lives, too.

For the first month of California’s lockdown, Herrera and her younger brother stayed with her father, a Mexican-American born in the U.S. He manages a grocery store and has been working nonstop during the pandemic.

“You can noticeably see how much more tired he is,” she said. “There’s times he doesn’t even want to stay up to eat because he’s that tired. A lot of times when he gets home, my brother and I just say, 'Here’s your blanket, here’s your pillow.' He does this thing where he passes out on the couch first before he goes to bed.”

While her father was at work, Herrera and her brother were stuck inside. Herrera spent time taking online classes from a nearby community college, doing Zoom classes for high school and gaming. She borrowed her brother’s PlayStation 4 and started meeting her friends virtually in the video game, Grand Theft Auto.

“We joked that we were going to use the pier in the game as our grad night,” she said. She faces the prospect of celebrating her birthday online as well: “You can find me celebrating on the virtual roller coaster.”

Herrera just moved back in with her mother, who spent weeks at home sick with flulike symptoms. She never got tested for the coronavirus because she is uninsured and worried about the cost.

While Herrera's mother was paid during the time she was sick, she was laid off for weeks from her job at a law office.

Still, even with all the uncertainty, Marlene has had some recent reasons to celebrate. Her mom’s business was able to hire her back last week thanks to a government loan. And Marlene got into her top college choices. In the fall, she’ll be attending San Francisco State. Virtually, that is — all California State Universities will be going remote for the fall term.

"It’s never going to be back to normal if you really think about it," Herrera said. "Because a lot of schools shut down, a lot of kids are online. A lot of colleges right now are being lenient for our grades and stuff. I just don’t know what to expect."

In college, Marlene wants to study psychology. So she’s closely watching how the country’s health care industry is responding to the pandemic.

Herrera said she is closely watching how the country’s health care industry is responding to the pandemic. She said her family has experienced what happens when health care comes at a cost.

“I am low-income as well. I know that feeling,” she said. “Thank God my little sister and I have [health insurance], but my mom doesn’t. When she gets sick, she needs to just fight through it. She’s worried about how much it’s going to cost. It frustrates me.”

With the pandemic still raging, the U.S. general election is still far from Herrera’s mind.

“Especially because I’m not happy with either of the candidates. Putting aside what I feel for the candidate is different from politically what they’ll bring to the government, and I’ll have to see which one is the best option.”

She said her mom suggested leaving that line of the ballot empty.

But Herrera said she will cast her vote for president. She’s determined to make her vote count in November.

Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.

This story is part of "Every 30 Seconds," a collaborative public media reporting project tracing the young Latino electorate leading up to the 2020 presidential election and beyond.

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Photo of Max Rivlin-Nadler

Max Rivlin-Nadler
Speak City Heights Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover City Heights, a neighborhood at the intersection of immigration, gentrification, and neighborhood-led health care initiatives. I'm interested in how this unique neighborhood deals with economic inequality during an unprecedented global health crisis.

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