Election Day Audacity in Immokalee, Fla.

05/25/2011 12:50 pm ET

Immokalee, Florida - Beula Gilbert Votes for Barack Obama

Santa Barbara, California, is a long way from Immokalee, Florida. From one of the bluest counties in the country, to one of the reddest. From the watering hole of the rich and famous, to the tomato plantations of impoverished farm workers. From Oprah Winfrey to Beula Gilbert.

My wife and I had made the journey to southwest Florida to play a small role in making history - foot soldiers in Barack Obama's volunteer campaign army. Joined by my daughter, who teaches middle school in Naples' eastern suburbs, we spent the first few days leafleting the endless grid of streets that cover what had been, for thousands of years, slash pine forest and everglade waterways. That was before land speculators drained the land and sold it to developers, who cleared it and built thousands of homes, in what is now one of the fastest-growing regions of the United States.

Or was. Many of the homes in what was hopefully named Golden Gate Estates - mainly small working class bungalows - were empty, with "for sale" signs on overgrown yards, or foreclosure signs and lockboxes on the doors. I doubt that these sad reminders of our current national crisis were casualties of over-zealous low-income housing organizing by ACORN. They once belonged to working Americans - immigrants and native-born - who had lost their jobs, and then their homes. Judging by the number of earth-moving trucks we saw parked in driveways, many of those jobs were in the now-dying Florida construction industry.

On election day the Obama campaign redeployed us to Immokalee in a final get-out-the-vote effort. That is where we met Beula Gilbert. Immokalee, Florida's largest farmworker community, is the home of a four-year-old boycott of Taco Bell, and a recent anti-slavery case involving tomato workers who were found beaten and chained in a forced-labor camp. Three-quarters of Immokalee's 20,000 residents originated in the indigenous highlands of Mexico and Guatemala. The rest are from Haiti, or - like Beula - are U.S.-born African Americans.

Our first assignment was to pick up Beula's husband and drive him to the polls. We drove past tiny homes, some tidy, but mostly run-down trailers. When we arrived at Beula's trailer, her husband declined to go with us - "next time," he repeated in a soft voice, although his age and health suggested that would be unlikely. But Beula was eager to go.

Beula, who was born in 1931, had never before voted. Although she had just gotten out of the hospital for back surgery, and was clearly in pain, she was determined to make this her first time. She dressed for the occasion in an ankle-length blue dress covered by a white blazer, with polished black pumps that could not have made her labored walking easy. But with my support, and the help of her cane, we managed to make it down her broken pathway, and with difficulty into our small car.

As we drove to the Immokalee community center, Beula told us over and over why she was voting for Barack Obama: "Ah nevah voted in my life. This is the first time I evah voted. Maybe my vote make the difference." She also told us of her life - of coming to Immokalee from northern Florida some twenty-five years ago, of working all her life in tomato and pepper fields, of eventually scraping together enough money to buy several trailers for her children. She told us with pride that they had all completed high school, and that one had even gone to college and was now a school teacher.

Voting was not easy for Beula. Since she could not walk unassisted, and moreover had no idea how voting was done, the poll workers allowed me to accompany her throughout the process. The first challenge was finding her name on the voters' list; the second producing the photo ID required by Florida law. Once at the voting booth, Beula was confused by the 2-page, 4-sided ballot (in Spanish and English), with its 8 state constitutional amendments, judgeships, local initiatives and elective offices, and of course Congressional and Presidential voting. I had to explain how to bubble in the form, and I had to read her the ballot measures. Beula eventually decided to vote on the few offices she cared about - beginning with the President of the United States. She cautiously bubbled in the appropriate circles.

After Beula completed her vote, we walked unsteadily to the electronic scanning machine, where the poll worker explained that she now should insert her ballot. Slowly, carefully, and with a widening smile, Beula surrendered each of the two pages to the computer, which rewarded her with a message, in Spanish and English, thanking her for voting. The poll worker, whose smile now rivaled Beula's, pasted an "I voted" sticker on the lapel of her blazer. Beula was beaming.

I am not embarrassed to admit that at that moment I could barely hold back my emotions, which came flooding out once we had returned Beula to her trailer and begun the drive back to campaign headquarters. I knew that I had just experienced, in the most personal way possible, the audacity of hope.

Richard Appelbaum is a Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he directs the Graduate Program in Global & International Studies.