How One Iowa Woman Made Her Voice Heard Without Voting

Crystal Ambriz (second from the right) stands with other members of the Columbus Junction chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in October. Ambriz was the only non-citizen working for the group to register voters.

By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio News

Crystal Ambriz is a single mom in Columbus Junction. She’s used to maintaining a hectic schedule: juggling her son’s extracurriculars, her career and her own personal life. And she does this in both English and Spanish. Last month, her life was even busier. She persuaded Latinos in the community to go out and vote. But Ambriz didn’t vote herself. She couldn’t.

“The reason why I encouraged many to go out and vote is because I don’t have that privilege,” Ambriz explained.

Ambriz is in the United States because of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). She came from Tijuana, Mexico after she turned 1 year old. She lived in San Diego for 13 years, but California got too expensive. So her family moved to Columbus Junction. And she has stayed there for 19 years. She shared her story with people who were hesitant to vote.

“When people are like, hey, I don’t vote, I’ve never voted. And that’s when I bring my story just because I just feel like that is where I need to come in,” Ambriz said.

Crystal Ambriz (left) poses for a photo while working to help register voters in Columbus Junction. “If I’m encouraging the community to go out and vote, I mean, just getting them out there is what is important,” Ambriz said. “I’m not there to tell them, ‘hey, vote for this person.’ But instead, I want them to know, to provide them that information.”

She has a proposition for them: vote on her behalf.

She doesn’t mean vote for the person she wants. Ambriz actually never told anyone to vote a certain way. She just wants voters to exercise a right she does not have.

“I mean, we are like Americans,” Ambriz said. “We might not have been born here, but this is all we know.”

This is a phenomenon Maricruz Osorio researches for her PhD at the University of California, Riverside. She studies political participation and mass behavior of marginalized people, specifically immigrant women.

“One of the things that we lose track of is just how much these people are already a part of our community,” Osorio said. “So these people participate because they have a stake in their community.”

Osorio said even though DACA recipients are not U.S. citizens, they have a lot to gain by participating in politics. For example, U.S. immigration laws and reform affect DREAMers and DACA recipients. So it’s pretty common for them to try to influence politics in ways other than filling in a bubble on a ballot. She said it’s even more common if they’re mothers, like Ambriz, because they’re used to caretaking and extra responsibilities.


“These people only know America as their home. So for them, for this subset of the population, they lose everything if they cannot be a part of the U.S. This is their home, and this is only home they’ve ever known,” Osorio said.

Osorio studies the undocumented and non-citizen population for her doctorate work through many surveys. She said around 20 percent of U.S.-born citizens say they work to bring purposeful change to the community. For non-citizens, that number is closer to 30 percent. She said if more immigrants get involved in a majority-white state like Iowa, there would be more equality and positive change.

Ambriz’s boyfriend said he thinks so, too. Zach Peterson has dated Ambriz for two years. They met when Ambriz was bringing community issues to the mayor and city council. At first, Ambriz told him she did not feel like she had a voice in U.S. politics.

“If you would have talked to me four years ago, I had nothing to do with politics,” Ambriz said. “I didn’t care for it just because I knew I couldn’t vote.”

Peterson said her change of perspective has inspired him.

“Going from that as a starting point to realizing that regardless of what her status was, and her ability to vote individually, she was able to grow from this place of marginalization to activism,” Peterson said.


Louisa County, where Ambriz worked to persuade people to vote, had just under 77 percent voter turnout, an increase from the 2016 general election. Around 300 more people voted. She said she’s grateful to be bilingual, because that allows her even more outreach possibilities.

Overall, Iowa had a record-breaking voter turnout with an estimated 107,049 more voters in 2020 than the previous record set in 2012.

Ambriz said that increase isn’t just because of her, but it is nice knowing she had somewhat of an impact.

“It’s just a win-win for me, it just fulfills my heart and it just makes me very happy that [people] did go out and vote,” Ambriz said.

She plans to encourage voter participation during the midterm elections as well. Even though she didn’t vote, Ambriz said she’s happy with the results of the election.

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