North Miami-Dade

At age 102, her 15 minutes of fame comes from hours of waiting to vote

Desiline Victor never in her 102 years saw herself as a hero.

But her story, a North Miami-Dade woman who stood in line for three hours to try to vote during the 2012 presidential election, captured the attention of many, including the president of the United States.

“We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor,” said President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address last month.

Since then, the centenarian who loves evangelical music and who sits down every morning to a bowl of chicken Ramen noodle soup, has become a cause célèbre for voters’ rights. She has been the subject of thousands of tweets and political blog posts, and prompted a skeptical mention on Fox News Radio.

“What’s the big deal?” asked Fox’s Martha MacCallum, discussing Victor on the Kilmeade & Frie nds radio show. “This is such a non-issue. Ridiculous.”

To Victor, who cast her first vote at age 97 in the 2008 presidential election after becoming a naturalized citizen in 2005, voting is a small but sacred act. A native of Haiti, Victor had been denied the right to cast a ballot until 1957, when Haitian women were finally allowed to vote.

But political violence and unrest that often erupted during Haitian elections kept her away from the voting booth until she moved to South Florida and became a citizen.

“I did what I had to do to vote for my president,” said Victor in her native Creole. “I didn’t think all of this would happen.”

“All of this” includes many accolades:

• U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson , D-Miami, gave her a congressional proclamation. “As an immigrant, former farm worker and respected elder, Miss Victor embodies what makes our country great,” Wilson said in a statement.

• Miami-Dade County commissioners declared Feb. 13 “Desiline Victor Day.”

• State Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, named a voting-rights bill after her: Desiline’s Free and Fair Democracy Act.

• The city of North Miami, where Victor stood in line for hours to vote at the North Miami Public Library, is renaming part of the library for her and will induct her into the North Miami Hall of Fame.

Victor is not accustomed to the attention.

The pink home she shares with her godson, Mathieu Pierre-Louis, and his family, is cozy and modest. Framed portraits of Victor and her family are clustered on a living room wall, sharing space with the congressional proclamation.

On warm days, Victor ventures out to her small garden of herbs and pigeon peas, a testament to her decades of farming in Haiti.

“I am a farmer, it’s in my blood,” said Victor, who lived in Haiti until she moved to the United States in 1989.

Dressed in her favorite sky blue robe with lace and vintage buttons, in between spoonfuls of soup, she said, “I feel joyful. To see that at 102 years old I have arrived, I would have never thought this.”

Born Dec. 15, 1910, in a farming community in Gonaives, a city in northern Haiti, Victor is pensive when she reflects on her homeland.

“I never voted in Haiti — it wasn’t safe. In this country, I have the right to vote. In Haiti, I did not.”

Jean Robert-Lafortune, president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, said Victor is inspirational.

“Many people can learn from her dedication,” he said. “She knew it was her right to vote as an American citizen, and she would not let anyone mess with that right.”

Victor might not fully understand the breadth of her popularity. Told she was a hot topic on Twitter, she politely smiled and nodded.

“Oh my Lord, I love me some Desiline Victor! #making102lookgood,” tweeted journalist and Black Entertainment Television personality T.J. Holmes to his more than 76,000 followers.

“Everyone in Haiti called her maren, godmother,” said her godson Pierre-Louis. “She was always helping people. She didn’t have any kids of her own, but her house was always full of children she cared for.”

Pierre-Louis, 38, was one of those children.

“She had me ever since I was 2 days old. She raised me and tolerated me,” he said. “She’s my mother.”

She moved to South Florida to find a job and help support her family. At an age where most people are retired, the then-79-year-old began working as a migrant farm worker in Belle Glade’s bean fields.

For 10 hours a day, she crouched, deftly stripping beans off plants.

Victor doesn’t remember how much she earned. “It wasn’t a lot.”

In conversation, she is quick-witted and fiercely independent. When talk veers to her getting a wheelchair, she cuts in: “For what? You see my two legs? They work. If I can walk, let me walk.”

It is that self-reliance that kept her in line for hours on the first day of early voting, Saturday, Oct. 27. She stood in line at the library for three hours before she reluctantly gave up.

“I could barely stand after three hours, I stood so long,” she said.

Later that day, she returned to the library, stood in line again, and finally cast her ballot.

At a press conference held later by Miami Haitian activists concerned about the delays in early voting, Victor spoke about her support for Obama.

“He loves the old people,” she said.

Peppered with questions about the secret to her longevity, she told the roomful: no stress, no sex.

Gihan Perera, executive director of the Florida New Majority, a group monitoring the elections, had learned from a field worker in North Miami about Victor’s story.

“Ms. Victor is a hero for everything she did to go out and vote,” he said. “There are some simple fixes to restoring and expanding early voting so that voting does not have to be the debacle that it was in South Florida.”

At home, Victor leads a simple life.

She prays in the mornings and listens to Haitian radio. Nelson “Piman Bouk” Voltaire, a fiery radio personality who ends each segment with “Piman Bouk power!,” is her favorite.

Every Sunday she attends services at the Tabernacle of Bethlehem in Opa-locka.

“I have to go to church. I love God,” Victor said.

Pierre-Louis said he always considered Victor a strong woman with an unwavering will. He plans to start a foundation in Victor’s name.

“I want to continue her legacy. Whatever your age, you have the right to vote in this country,” he said.

Looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election, Victor said she doesn’t know whether she will be alive, but she has one wish: Shorter voting lines.

“I hope what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else,” she said. “I hope those who a re here won’t be discouraged to vote.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

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