LatinXcellence: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Youngest Woman in Congress
Celebrate Latinx Heritage Month with People CHICA's LatinXcellence series, spotlighting the incredible women who are changing the world through their work and activism. Today is all about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman who's determined to shake things up in Washington, D.C.
Here at People CHICA we celebrate our Latinidad 365 days a year, but during Latinx Heritage Month, we go extra hard. Established in 1988, Latinx Heritage Month recognizes the generations of Latinx Americans who have positively influenced and enhanced our society. All month long, we'll be celebrating with a series called #LatinXcellence, highlighting women who are making a difference in Latinx culture today through their art, work and activism.
Last year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever elected to the United States Congress at just 29 years old. She's been in office less than a year, but she's already become nationally recognized for her policy proposals, social media savvy, and ability to infuriate Donald Trump, who only managed to further raise her profile after he told her and the other three members of the so-called Squad — Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib — to “go back” to the countries they came from. But even when the president is leveling racist attacks at her, Ocasio-Cortez never loses her cool. “You are angry because you can't conceive of an America that includes us,” she said in response to the “go back” comments. “You rely on a frightened America for your plunder. … On top of not accepting an America that elected us, you cannot accept that we don't fear you, either.”
Born and raised in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Ocasio-Cortez graduated from Boston University in 2011 with a major in international relations and economics. While in school, she interned for Senator Ted Kennedy in the office of foreign affairs and immigration, and as the office's only Spanish speaker, she often had to help families whose members had been taken by ICE. In 2008, she lost her father to lung cancer; her family then struggled financially and Ocasio-Cortez started taking extra shifts as a waitress and bartender. “I'm proud to be a bartender,” she said earlier this year. “There is nothing wrong with being a working person in the United States of America and there is everything dignified about it.”
Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, worked for Senator Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign, where she developed some of the organizing skills that would help her win her own election two years later. She started the primary campaign as something of a long shot — Joe Crowley, her opponent for the nomination in New York's 14th Congressional District, was a 10-term incumbent who'd been in Congress for 20 years — but she ended it with a lead of almost 15 percentage points. In the general election, she defeated her Republican opponent Anthony Pappas with 78 percent of the vote.
Since taking office, Ocasio-Cortez has been more active in nine months than some congressmen are in their whole careers. She introduced the Green New Deal just a month after being sworn in. Republicans defeated the legislation in the Senate, but the idea has remained an important topic in the presidential primary race, with many of the candidates releasing their own climate proposals inspired by the original bill. This July, she announced that she's co-sponsoring the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, which would ensure the basic labor rights of domestic workers in the United States. “As a child, I grew up reading books on the staircases of other people's homes,” she said of the bill. “And doing homework on other people's dinner tables, because my mom was pursuing domestic work so that I could go on field trips and have a future. When you all are fighting for this, you are fighting for little girls like me.”
Ocasio-Cortez champions many other progressive policies, such as tuition-free public college and trade schools for everyone, student debt cancellation and stricter gun control, and supports the Abolish ICE movement. “I don't believe that an agency that systematically and repeatedly violates human rights … can be reformed,” she's said. Most recently, she's called on establishment Democrats to take stronger action against the Trump administration in the wake of the whistleblower complaint about Ukraine. Whether her colleagues in the House listen to her remains to be seen, but no matter what, it's clear she'll keep standing up for her beliefs as long as she's in office.