Peruvians in New Jersey battled gridlock traffic and hours-long lines on Sunday morning to vote in the South American nation’s hotly contested presidential election.
Some 20,000 voters or easily far more – no one had an estimate this morning yet – were greeted with a large inflatable jar of hot Peruvian peppers and free samples of the homegrown delicacy “cancha de maiz,” or huge fried corn kernels, and other treats courtesy of Goya.
It seemed anybody’s guess which candidate would win here, in a region that represents the second-largest Peruvian community in the U.S. after Miami.
Those in favor of 36-year-old Keiko Fujimori mostly talked about their worry that her opponent, 48-year-old Ollanta Humala, would tilt the nation too far to the left like his ally Hugo Chávez. Even though her father, Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s former president, is currently in jail on corruption charges, voters said he was overall a good president who miraculously helped to stamp out terrorism.
One person liked Keiko Fujimori for her gender. If elected, she would be Peru’s first woman president.
“Women usually in South America, you can trust more in them,” said Rafael Zevallos, 40, an entrepreneur who lives in Hoboken, which sits across the river from Manhattan.
Yet a 50-year-old high school teacher railed on Keiko Fujimori on women’s rights.
Lourdes Chávez, a high school teacher who lives in Bloomfield, said she’ll never forgive Keiko Fujimori for not preventing her father’s government from manipulating uneducated women into agreeing to get an operation that would prevent them from bearing more children.
The incident occurred while Keiko Fujimori was first lady – she ascended to the role at age 19 because her mother had died – and yet, “she didn’t do anything,” Chávez said.
People who wanted Humala to win said he's the more “sincere” candidate of the two, working to help the poor, children and seniors, while Keiko Fujimori would bring back corruption.
Voters started lining up well before the 8 a.m. start time. It took at least an hour and a half to get to the front of the line. By 10 a.m. the parking lot at Passaic County Technical Institute in suburban Wayne was full. People had to park in overflow parking at a nearby mosque and walk about 10 minutes along snaking traffic to get to the college campus.
Those without cars arriving from urban Paterson, the epicenter of Peru’s New Jersey population, spilled out of yellow school buses rented by the Peruvian consulate. Riders said the service was quick. Several people said they waited just two minutes in downtown Paterson on Market Street for the free shuttle.
José Benzaquen Perea, the general consul for Peru’s consulate in Paterson, said he had no idea how many voters to expect today. In the first presidential election round on April 10, held at Paterson’s Eastside High School, 20,000 people showed up. That venue was considered too small for this second round, poll workers said.
About 750,000 Peruvians live outside Peru, of which 275,000 live in the U.S., Benzaquea Perea said.
Within Paterson’s consulate region, which covers New Jersey and Pennsylvania and opened in 1986, there are 42,000 voters and 150,000 total Peruvian-Americans, he said. The larger number includes minors or adults born in the U.S.
All was orderly today at the polls. The only glitches have been election workers failing to show up, said Benzaquea Perea, who himself helped verify voters’ identifications. He and others were asking random voters to volunteer to help, he said.
But in general, “I’m happy because there’s a lot of participation,” the general consul said.
Some worried about fraud.
“The process needs reform, they’re still using paper ballots,” said Richard Esquiche, 36, former councilman of Prospect Park, a tiny town in Passaic County. “That gives way to fraud. There’s no guarantee.”
One man who has lived in Paterson for 28 years said he’s never seen so many Peruvians come out to vote for their country’s election.
Others said that the wait would be worth it.
“Today it’s organized, it’s nice,” said Lili Murillo, 39, a domestic worker who lives in Harrison.
Karen Keller is a freelance journalist with 10 years' experience and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. Her stories have appeared in The Daily, The Star-Ledger, AOL News, amNY, msnbc, and others. She's also the author of "Portuguese For Dummies."