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Working through direct contact with fellow citizens has been the basis of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaign. Photos: Corey Torpie, Andy Hur and EFE.
Working through direct contact with fellow citizens has been the basis of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaign. Photos: Corey Torpie, Andy Hur and  EFE.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Millennial, Latina... Socialist?

“No one in the United States should be too poor to live.”

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If you’re unfamiliar with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now is the time to get to know her and get used to hearing her name, as this 28-year-old candidate is here to stay.

At a time when political correctness seems to have disappeared from the national political scene, and traditional parties are disputing the leftovers of each presidential disaster, a different voice not only surprises us but is joyfully received.

This is what happened during the Democratic primary elections in New York in June when a young Latina appeared all over the media in shock over her sudden victory against a longstanding incumbent Democratic representative.

Her name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has become the champion of those who envision a different country, and in doing so, she is now the most important “threat” to the American conservative establishment.

Of flesh and bone

We’re used to having kilometric distances between our needs and the ears of those who represent us in government.

But, what happens when a regular citizen becomes a political candidate?

This is the story of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, born in the Bronx, New York City, on October 13, 1989.

The daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and an architect from the Bronx, Alexandria lived in the Parkchester section of the borough until she was 5 years old, when her family moved to a suburb in Westchester County, without ever losing her roots from her first home.

From Yorktown High School to the Legislative Youth Sessions of the National Hispanic Institute, Ocasio-Cortez lived like any other Latina girl in the United States, witnessing the differences and paradoxes of growing up in a strongly divided country.

Entering Boston University and working as an intern in the immigration office of Sen. Ted Kennedy made her vocation clear. She ultimately graduated with a degree in economics and international relations.

But every day, every trip back to her neighborhood, and every corner of her hometown made her recognize the value and complexity of the “working class” of the United States, a background of which she is proud and which has been the epicenter of her political campaign.

“From an early age, Alexandria grew up with a deep understanding of economic inequality,” reads her campaign text. During her many journeys between her school in Yorktown and the Bronx, the young woman recognized how “the zip code a child was born in determined much of their destiny.”

“The 40-minute drive represented a vastly different quality of available schooling, economic opportunity, and health outcomes.”

Donald Trump’s presidential victory may have convinced some in the country that money can buy almost everything, but for those for whom every penny counts, transforming the direction and facet of their community is a human work of titanic proportions.

Just two years after graduation - and at that key moment in which young people have just begun to shape themselves as professionals - Ocasio-Cortez had to face the death of her father due to lung cancer and join forces with her family to survive.

She decided to roll up her sleeves and get to work, helping her mother - who worked cleaning houses and driving buses - and returning to the Bronx to work as a bartender and waitress.

“We just couldn’t afford to keep our home, and we had bankers going up the curb of our home and taking photos of our house,” the candidate recalled.

After selling the house at a “crisis” price, her mother and grandmother had to move to Florida. Meanwhile, Alexandria stayed in New York to join Bernie Sanders’ political movement.

Politics “from the bottom up”

When you know the needs of the “ordinary” citizen - having experienced them in your own skin - your choices are to either be carried away by the system or to fight it.

Ocasio-Cortez chose the second option.

Thanks to financing from the Sunshine Bronx Business Incubator, the young woman managed to create a publishing house for children’s literature inspired by the reality of her neighborhood under the title Brook Avenue Press.

Ocasio-Cortez also ventured into education within the National Hispanic Institute and made direct contact with her community from a different perspective.

It was after finding out that she was purged from the voting process in the 2016 primaries that Ocasio-Cortez decided to join Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and his brand of progressive grassroots politics, knocking on doors and trying to fight the money with ideas and human interaction.

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Trump’s victory in the 2016 election didn’t discourage her, and she decided to travel around the country visiting key places such as the Standing Rock Indian Reservation where her life would take an important turn, especially after seeing the reality of the social struggle against the Dakota pipeline.

“An activist she knew at Standing Rock (...) told her that the camp could use more women. So the then 27-year-old Ocasio-Cortez and two friends set up a GoFundMe page, loaded up a car full of supplies, and set out for South Dakota,” Mother Jones reported.

Ocasio-Cortez lived “for weeks” with the water protectors of Standing Rock, and with the firm conviction of “having a first-person idea of what was going on in America.”

Here, she saw, once again, that organized power continued to take advantage of citizens “unchecked by political powers.”

It was then that the executive director of Brand New Congress contacted her, sharing with her the goal of “training a slate of primary candidates” from the progressive caucus of the Democratic Party, inspired by the ideas of Sen. Sanders.

The strategy? Work from the base up, and to give voice to those who have been silenced for too long.

An unexpected champion

“Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” said Ocasio-Cortez in her campaign video, after her candidacy was announced in May 2017. She was speaking for the first time to a wider audience about her political project for the 14th district of New York (which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx).

Her formidable opponent in the primary election was the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus Joe Crowley, who faced a Democratic challenger for the first time in years.

It was a battle of David against Goliath, but the young woman didn’t doubt her strategy for a second.

“You can’t really beat big money with more money,” she said during her campaign. “You have to beat them with a totally different game.”

Her plan was focused then on the study and design of grassroots policies “that put people above the party,” diverting the focus of the money that feeds the campaign to the needs of those who will vote for the candidate.

The young Latina described herself as a “Democratic Socialist,” backing measures such as medical coverage for all, tuition-free education, and ending the privatization of prisons.

Likewise, she has reinforced her environmental positions, radically supporting 100 percent renewable energy.

Ocasio-Cortez was also one of the first voices that called for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which she describes as “an enforcement agency that takes on more of a paramilitary tone every single day,” as she explained to Splinter News.

She has been seen in demonstrations against detention centers for immigrant children separated from their parents and has supported the impeachment of President Trump.

During her campaign, Ocasio-Cortez refused to receive money from political action committees, and obtained around $200,000 in donations, 75 percent of which were “individual contributions.”

As the campaign progressed, the differences between herself and Crowley only highlighted the strength of the young Latina’s proposal.

While Alexandria walked the streets of her neighborhood, spoke with people, and spread her message through social media, where she argued that “it’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same; that a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn't drink our water, does not breathe our air, cannot possibly represent us.”

The in-depth use of social networks, her identification as “one of us” and her distance from the political “elitism” represented by Crowley - as well as the work of a campaign team strengthened by the idea of human contact - were the keys to Alexandria’s unexpected success.

While her opponent received the support of senators, mayors, local officials and many of the pro-Democratic organizations, Ocasio-Cortez awoke the support of strongly progressive groups and civil rights organizations (MoveOn, Justice Democrats, Black Lives Matter, etc.), and finally, on June 26, the results of the Democratic primary elections for the 14th district of New York gave Ocasio-Cortez the victory, with an impressive 57.13 percent of the vote, versus 42.5 percent that supported the usual candidate.

When victory is just the beginning

After her success, the name of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spread quickly through social media, headlines and late night TV.

Her message remained clear: “This is not an end, this is the beginning. This is the beginning because the message that we send the world is that it’s not OK to put donors before your community,” the candidate told her team and supporters after the victory.

“You have given this country hope, you have given this country proof that when you knock on your neighbor’s door, when we come to them with love, when we let you know that no matter your stance, you are there for them - that we can make a change,” she added.

The American population remains intrigued by the natural and human figure of a young woman who knows how to use words and channels to make herself go far. Among both admirers and critics, her name is everywhere.

Since her victory, she has been the focus of criticism for describing herself as “socialist,” a label that makes the country’s hair stand on end. When asked, Ocasio-Cortez responded naturally: “[Socialism] is the democratic participation in our economic, social and racial dignity,” she told Vogue.

Her incorporation into the ranks of the Democratic Socialists of America has guaranteed the perpetual attack of Republican representatives and politicians against her, but her arguments remain unmoved: “For me democratic socialism is a principle in which, in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no person in the United States should be too poor to live,” she told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents a community, a generation and a social stratum of this country that got tired of receiving crumbs from established parties; she has awakened the hope of those who know that the United States is a nation created by immigrants, driven by its diversity and profound principles of social justice.

The dimension of her effect will be seen in the November elections against the Republican Anthony Pappas, in a district where there are six registered Democrats for each Republican.

Thus, it is very likely that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will become the youngest woman elected to the House of Representatives in the history of the country, and the first link of the radical change that U.S. politics desperately needs.

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