The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the narrative about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets wrong

The future of the Democratic Party runs through Latinx candidates

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Women of color burst through in last week’s midterm elections to diversify America’s local and national politics. Deb Haaland, Jahana Hayes, Ilhan Omar and Lauren Underwood were just a few of the candidates who added to this national achievement. In New York, this success had special resonance. The enthusiastic Queens native Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was joined by other Latinx candidates, including Julia Salazar of Brooklyn and Jessica Ramos of Queens, both first-time contenders of Colombian ancestry who succeeded in winning state Senate elections.

These women tapped into more than the progressive movement or frustration with the status quo and President Trump. They also built on the long history of Latinx political activism, and their victories provide a distinct formula for how the Democratic Party can re-energize itself.

Ocasio-Cortez, Salazar and Ramos did not simply embrace the platform of the mainstream progressive left. Rather their victories show how the mainstream progressive left is shifting in the direction of policies that previous generations of Latinx activists, politicians and everyday people have struggled to achieve for decades.

All three candidates form part of a longer lineage of Latinx New Yorkers and their organizations, from Aspira to UPROSE and beyond, who have worked over the past 60 years to bring the diverse issues affecting the city’s Latinx and other poor communities to the fore.

Waves of Latinx families immigrated to New York during the post-World War II period. Almost 600,000 Puerto Ricans arrived in Gotham between 1940 and 1960. A decade later New York had become home to 1.2 million Latinx residents, consisting of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians, Mexicans and others. Upon arrival, these families confronted immediate hardship, including intense discrimination, a lack of affordable housing, limited access to health care, unequal schooling and an increasingly stratified job market. To make matters worse, Latinx New Yorkers became victims of a political culture that held little place for them in decisions affecting urban development, even as they increasingly constituted a major part of New York’s population.

Contrary to the narrative advanced by the influential 1963 book “Beyond the Melting Pot,” these Spanish-speaking groups did not resign themselves to their new fates. Instead, they quickly began to organize politically.

One of the first groups to combat these issues was Mobilization for Youth (MFY), formed in 1962 by the African American and Puerto Rican mothers of the Lower East Side. The community social work agency used direct-action politics, including school boycotts and sit-ins at the city welfare department. MFY also demanded decent, affordable housing and an end to residential segregation. They organized rent strikes and battled to keep the city’s landlords accountable.

As historian Tamar Carroll has demonstrated, these activists shaped the national War on Poverty in the process. Lyndon Johnson’s Community Action Programs (CAP) in 1964 were modeled after MFY’s efforts, particularly their commitment to the concept of “maximum feasible participation” on the part of local residents along with the direct influx of federal funds.

New York City’s Young Lords Party, established in 1969, became one of the most prominent and radical groups in this long tradition of Latinx activism. Originally a chapter of the Chicago-based Young Lords Organization, the Puerto Rican group challenged the structural poverty that plagued much of urban America during the height of the civil rights movement with, once again, community-based direct action. In particular, they organized around the rights of New York’s Puerto Rican community who City Hall had shunned, bringing awareness and change on issues ranging from lead poisoning to neighborhood displacement prompted by urban renewal. When its members forcibly occupied Lincoln Hospital in 1970, they did so because they believed that the Bronx’s poor residents deserved basic health-care services that were sorely lacking.

Before it disbanded later that decade, the group addressed the lack of garbage service in their neighborhoods, organized a free breakfast program and tested residents for tuberculosis. They also left behind a powerful ideology that championed community pride, as well as direct action politics that separated them from the famed Latinx politicians of the era who were far less confrontational in their approach, including Herman Badillo, the first Puerto Rican elected to the House of Representatives.

Ocasio-Cortez, Salazar and Ramos are products of this history. Tactically somewhere between organizations like MFY and the Young Lords and trailblazing politicians like Badillo, these three elected officials are harnessing the political opportunities that a previous generation of Latinx politicians made possible.

Their fusion of the tools of distinct Latinx activism and politics with the those of the wider progressive movement provides them opportunities that earlier leaders did not have. After all, many proudly call themselves democratic socialists, they knock on doors, they reject big campaign money and they recognize that black and LGBTQ+ lives matter.

Still, mainstream media outlets have often ignored their cultural particularities. Search for related headlines and you won’t find many articles that grapple with their Latina backgrounds. This is despite the fact that each of the congressional and Senate districts they will represent are comprised of nearly 50 percent or more Latinx residents. In Jessica Ramos’s district in Queens, they make up 61 percent.

These candidates, notably all women, teach the wider public that the issues that have shaped their own Latinx communities, and that have led them to seek office, are intimately affecting more and more people across the nation. As Ocasio-Cortez’s recent trouble in securing an apartment in D.C. demonstrates, housing is becoming less affordable, and well-paying jobs are few and far between. Good health care, too, is hard to come by.

That they fight for issues that have universal resonance from a vantage point that is highly particular announces to Democrats that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, they demonstrate that the Democratic Party’s rejuvenation, if it is to have one at all, partially lies in tapping into the voices of those who have been historically neglected, but who have fought for today’s most pressing social issues for decades.