NEW YORK — Molly Roth was proud to move to a neighborhood she considered real America. As she walked along the main thoroughfares in this 170,000-resident enclave of Queens, she heard conversations in languages she did not know. She passed corner stores selling fruits that she had never seen. And now she sat in Arepa Lady, a restaurant that specializes in Colombia’s sweet corn cakes, biting into food she never had before.
Roth then noted one other thing she liked about the neighborhood.
“I got to vote for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” she said.
“Are you in her district?” a friend asked. “That’s really cool.”
A cautious hope is reemerging in this slice of America, and it has come from the most American of traditions: voting. Residents clamoring for change in the 14th Congressional District last year ousted a 56-year-old white Democrat, one of the most powerful men in Washington, and replaced him with a 29-year-old Latina socialist working as a bartender.
But they didn’t stop there. They voted a formerly undocumented immigrant to the state assembly, and they replaced another long-standing politician in the state Senate. The political old guard had been toppled. In its stead were three leftist Latinas with no prior experience in government, who echoed their neighborhood’s desire for a radical shift in politics.
Though none have much power in the traditional sense, their victories made many residents feel like their lives were newly injected into the American consciousness, along with the rural voters and white conservatives who rejoiced that Donald Trump’s ascent had done the same for them.
Roth’s incoming congresswoman was now sitting with Stephen Colbert and spreading the gospel of the urban working class to audiences across the country. Roth said she liked her liberal lifestyle and felt a little bit like it was expanding. If it wasn’t expanding, at least the outer shell was thickening enough to shield the other America.
“They say we are living in a bubble, but I like my bubble,” said Roth, a 30-year-old graphic artist who grew up outside Detroit. “There are two different realities going on in America, and a part of the country is living in a way that’s unfathomable to me.”
Alejandro Osorio, the 39-year-old owner of Arepa Lady, encountered that other America only through the filter of social media clips his friends posted from Fox News and other conservative sites. Pundits called Ocasio-Cortez a hypocrite when the avowed socialist wore expensive clothes, derided her after she flubbed distinguishing the three branches of government, mocked her meager savings account and, last month, questioned her fortitude after she said she needed a week-long break for “self-care.”
For Osorio, the idea of feeling misunderstood extended to his outgoing congressman, Joseph Crowley. Osorio had always heard Crowley was a “power player” in Washington, but he had no idea what that meant or why that might have been relevant to his life.
In his world, life just kept going on — no matter who the president was or how beloved Crowley was in the nation’s capital. In Jackson Heights, Osorio said, residents simply dealt with whatever decisions came down from Washington. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory gave him hope that his version of America could become part of the national conversation.
Back when Osorio moved here in the late 1980s, his family was like most families — new to the country, not fluent with the language. Since then, those families have learned English and gained citizenship and sent their children to schools where they learned the importance of civic engagement.
That new generation no longer wanted to feel like they were on the sidelines of American politics — they wanted to believe that they, too, had an ability to shake things up.
“They say looking at your phone is a bad thing, but I’m learning a lot from what the young people in the neighborhood are talking about,” Osorio said. “That’s how I learned Ocasio-Cortez. That’s how I learned about intersectional feminism.”
Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated Republican Anthony Pappas in November’s general election, spoke about the minimum wage and assuring health care and the difficulties of working strange hours for service jobs — which all made sense to Osorio. She sounded like she was from “the real New York, not the one you see on TV where it’s just white people,” Osorio said. “She created a buzz around here, just because it felt like she knew our story.”
Gus Santana, a 31-year-old son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, didn’t imagine his concerns as a Latino working-class person were much different from a white working-class person: He was concerned about going broke if he got sick, feeling safe in his neighborhood, his parents not losing their Social Security checks.
Yet he never felt that his experience, or those around him, were the image of the working, everyday American. Ocasio-Cortez could change that thinking, he hoped.
“The best thing she’ll be able to teach people is that the voice of the inner city matters,” Santana said.
Santana recently graduated from a local college and was working at a relative’s appliance store while he waited to hear back from the human resource companies where he wanted to work.
“My parents already made their American Dream come true — coming here, having a family and being able to provide for them,” Santana said. “I guess my American Dream is different because I grew up here. When you grow up in this country, you are told to have the picket fence and the front yard and a backyard.”
Still, the polarization in this country had lessened his desire to achieve the American Dream that he had once learned about.
Outside his bubble, Santana wondered why so many around him were gripped by fear. Why be fearful of losing a way of life, he wondered. Most around him were foreign-born and had already lost their way of life. Why be fearful about having to leave a job and learning a new skill? Many of his friends’ parents were professionals in other countries and opted to slug it out in America instead.
Santana hoped Ocasio-Cortez, her voice and her popularity, might usher in a broader thinking about the American ideal. He didn’t want to have to leave city life to feel like he was in a prized part of the country.
“It does suck, though, that you would have go out of New York to get that kind of American Dream,” he said. “Like you have to move to North Carolina or something. I know that’s what I’m supposed to want, but living in a place like that seems kind of corny to me. Bland.”
The heart of the neighborhood’s multicultural ethos is Diversity Plaza, an outdoor festival space braced by a host of mostly South Asian restaurants and shops. One recent weekend on the lower level of a Pakistani restaurant there, a majority-white group of residents gathered in a computer repair shop. They met to figure out what they could do to thwart what they felt was the most immediate threat to pierce their bubble: the crackdown on illegal immigration.
“We’re happy to host you,” Agha Saleh, the owner of the computer repair shop, told members of the Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network.
The group talked about handing out fliers to discuss some of the recent tactics immigration officials were using to identify undocumented migrants in the neighborhood. They figured they would need to print fact sheets in Spanish, Bangla, Urdu, Nepalese, Punjuabi and more.
“We’ve got our own issues, people are worried about the gentrification and all that; but everything crystallizes the immigration issue,” said David Stock, 67.
Then, they discussed attending an immigration forum in the new year, and a member of the group started to run down the list of guests. They included Jessica Ramos, their new state senator. And Catalina Cruz, the formerly undocumented immigrant whom they elected to the state assembly.
“And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, if she can make it,” she said.
The group smiled and nodded. Crowley had pushed legislation mandating that immigrations and customs officers file a report every time they stop someone, rather than every time they make an arrest. Ocasio-Cortez’s push to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency altogether seemed more resonant and radical.
“She just gives us a little more hope,” Stock said after the meeting.
“Not too much hope because after the 2016 election, I’m not sure I understand the country anymore,” said one woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she didn’t want to endanger her husband’s green card renewal. “You never know with politics.”
“At least she’ll fight,” another participant said.
Saleh walked outside his restaurant to puff a cigarette. Around him were a man with a cart working 12-hour shifts selling shish kebabs and families headed to buy saris from stores in Little India. He looked up at the high-rise under construction, casting a new shadow over his restaurant. Change, he said, is definitely coming here, as the train continued to rumble. Their hope was that Ocasio-Cortez would help lead it.
“Whenever she speaks, you feel the vibrations of change,” Saleh said. “But she has to do the work. This is a neighborhood of people who do work. They respect work. They don’t take vacations. If she doesn’t do the work, she won’t be reelected. She’ll be just like Crowley.”