I never thought that almost 50 years after my days as a law student in Philadelphia, I would still find myself trying to convince Americans that Puerto Ricans are co-citizens.

Early in the 1970s I was a student at Temple University School of Law. The disparity between the Puerto Rican community and the rest of the citizens was palpable. One of the first projects I participated in while I was still a law student was identifying Puerto Rican children classified as handicapped because they could not speak English. The result was a series of cases where the federal courts ordered various states to provide bilingual education to these citizens who had recently arrived from Puerto Rico.

The truth about the situation of Puerto Ricans is that, regardless of whether we are born on the island or in the United States, we are born American citizens. This has been a fact for more than 100 years, when in 1918 the federal Congress, through the Jones Act, granted citizenship to all Puerto Ricans residing in the island, as well as to their descendants. Since then, we have served in all wars in which the United States has participated. However, our community, even after a century, has remained bogged down and without good access to the middle class.

During the last three years our community has lost even more ground. We have lost very basic and fundamental benefits, including access to the Affordable Care Act which was an advantage to many Puerto Ricans. With the high incidence in our community of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, any complication from an illness could lead to the denial of insurance coverage, which could be disastrous.

But this is not the only issue which has burdened us. We have seen how the present administration dismantles programs that support us, while enacting policies that choke our community and reduce benefits to which all citizens are entitled.

To my Puerto Rican colleagues, I suggest that our political strength is in our vote. In the United States, we have absolutely every right to register and vote. Each one of us has the power to make a great difference, particularly in a state like Pennsylvania, where the margins of victory in past elections have been small. Each and every single one of our votes is important. There are no exceptions to this rule.

In addition to electing candidates who have our best interests at heart, voting also sends a signal to our government and other co-citizens that we are a community with a strong, solid, and powerful voice. This shows our leaders that they must respond with policies that help our communities who got them elected.

What Puerto Rico and our community need is not rolls of paper towels. What we need are responsible leaders who will ensure better access to health, access to quality education services which prepare our community for the jobs in a 21st century economy, and access to ballot boxes so we can vote for the candidate which will best respond to our needs.

Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte was the first Puerto Rican-born woman confirmed by the Senate as Ambassador for the United States. She also served as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the United States Department of State and was the first Puerto Rican woman admitted to the practice of law in Pennsylvania.