AS SHE ZIG-ZAGS THROUGH THE UH STUDENT CENTER, one thing becomes clear: Maria Villenas may be soft-spoken, but she is not afraid to interrupt your lunch. In her teal backpack and American flag T-shirt, clipboard in hand, navigating a room full of Chick-fil-A scents and harsh lighting, she marches right to a table of summer-school students, ready to give her spiel about why they should register to vote. “We’re kind of in the middle of a test right now,” says one. Whoops!
Onward. A UH staffer, it turns out, is a legal resident, but not a citizen. A young man in a blue polo, meanwhile, seems like a promising lead, until it’s revealed he lives in Fort Bend County, outside Villenas’s jurisdiction. Two middle-aged women look almost sad to admit they’re visiting from Ohio. No matter: To be an effective registrar requires thick skin and geniality, and the indefatigable Villenas has both. “I love this,” she says. “I see my job as, I’m here to get us awake. My target is always the same: register everybody.”
Villenas moved to Houston from Mexico as a toddler, going through the naturalization process when she turned 21. Now a real estate agent in her forties, she’s long valued the right to franchise. “There is so much need in our community,” she says, “to be aware of the issues, to be critical about them, and to help mold the country.”