Charuka’s mom was from Sri Lanka and her dad Saju was from a village in Gujarat. She had three older brothers who were very light skinned like her mother; Charuka was very dark like Saju.
Saju moved to Houston with his family in 1990. They left India, lived in Mexico City for a few months, and then hired a coyote to take them across the border. Charuka remembers the smell of the open truck they rode in. It was piled high with empty burlap bags that had been used for green coffee beans.
It was a 2-day drive to the border in McAllen, and the merciless sun beat down, as they say, relentlessly. Throughout the trip Charuka’s mom would scold, “Keep your head out of the sun! It will make your skin dark!”
When they got to the border they burrowed down to the bottom of the bags, the truck was subjected to the most cursory of checks, and they were across. Many years later she wondered why, during such a perilous trip, the only thing her mother had been concerned about was the color of her skin.
No bicycling for you, young lady
Charuka’s brothers all got bikes for their birthdays, but she didn’t. “It is too sunny in Houston,” her mother said. “It will make your skin dark.”
“But my skin is already dark!”
“The sun will make it darker!” her mother angrily replied, so Charuka contented herself by sneaking rides when one of her brothers’ bikes was free.
The family eventually got legal status and became citizens, but no one ever voted. “Voting is stupid,” Saju always said. “Make money, save money, go to bed. Your vote won’t change anything.”
Charuka never voted.
You’ve got mail
One day Charuka got a letter that looked official. “Due to your past traffic violations, you are not eligible to vote in future elections,” it read.
She panicked and went to the DPS to sort the matter out. She had never gotten so much as a parking ticket. “Your record is clear, miss,” the lady told her. Charuka showed the letter. “It might be something to do with the county clerk. They handle voting registration.
Charuka went to the voter registrar’s office. “This thing is a fraud,” the clerk told her. “Republican operatives send these out to people in your zip code so they won’t vote.”
“Why my zip code?”
“Because it’s where poor people live.”
Charuka drove over to her parents, who she lived near, and told them what had happened. “You don’t have any rights here unless you use them,” she said in disgust as her father began his mantra about money.
Her mother looked at her disapprovingly. “You should be wearing sunscreen and gloves when you drive and not worrying about politics. Your skin is getting very dark.”
“What’s wrong with you, mom?” she asked. “What in the hell is wrong with all of you?”
Two months later, on election day, Charuka’s father called. “Are you voting today?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Okay,” said Saju, and hung up.
Charuka went over to her neighbor’s house. “Can I borrow your bicycle?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said.
She put on a t-shirt and shorts and felt the hot Houston sun on her neck, face, arms, and legs. In moments she was sweating. “If mom could see me now,” she laughed grimly to herself. The polling place was only about fifteen minutes away but by the time she got there she was drenched. Houston can be fiery hot even in November.
As she stood in the long line she saw her father’s car drive up. He piled out with her mom and three brothers. Her mom, for the first time in Charuka’s life, wasn’t wearing a head covering, long sleeves, or gloves. The merciless sun beat down, as they say, relentlessly, on her too.
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