In Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they see ‘a symbol meeting a moment’

In Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they see ‘a symbol meeting a moment’


St. Martin’s. 218 pp. $26.99

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s vertiginous ascent from millennial bartender to one of the most talked-about political figures in the nation has spotlighted the deep divides in our public life on issues ranging from gender and generation to race and religion. In “AOC: The Fearless Rise and Powerful Resonance of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” broadcast journalist Lynda Lopez eschews both-sidesism and instead resolves to “check in with people from the communities to whom she has meant the most.” As the book’s editor, Lopez has collected smart, briskly written and often inspiring essays about the Bronx-born Boricua phenom. The pieces largely concentrate on two central themes: identity and policy. “AOC is not just culturally symbolic,” Lopez explains in the volume’s introduction. “She is a symbol meeting a moment, a particular American moment that is massively important to communities not used to having their voices heard.”

Ocasio-Cortez has become an instant political star, Lopez writes, by using her mastery of social media and political rhetoric “to force the media to cover and politicians to address some of the most pressing – and most pushed aside – issues of our time, including poverty, gender and racial economic disparities, massive and unsustainable income inequality, and the urgency around environmental issues.”

Apparent throughout the collection is how profoundly many of its essayists identify with AOC, how they revel in her success after years of feeling unrepresented in a political system dominated by people who are wealthy, male, White and connected. English and ethnic studies professor, novelist, and essayist Jennine Capó Crucet revisits the night she watched AOC upset longtime incumbent Joe Crowley, the fourth-most-powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives. “I watched your brilliant, ambitious campaign from half-way across the country,” she writes, “with much hope and with a kind of dread, thinking I already knew the ending; like you, I’d often been exactly the right person for an opportunity, and many times I’d been kept from it because of forces outside my control – my Latinidad, my working-class roots, my gender, my youth.” And when AOC emerged victorious, Capó Crucet shared in “that feeling of astonishment that comes when our hope and brilliance really and truly pay off (against all odds and the expectations of those who purport to know better). . . . The night you stared at the screen, in a shock stemming from the true extent of the revolution you’d started, I saw in your face my own face.”

A similar sentiment animates Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez’s recollection of AOC’s response to President Trump when he suggested that she and three other congresswomen of color should go back where they came from. Mojica Rodriguez, a Nicaraguan American who has a master’s of divinity from Vanderbilt University, remembers AOC’s retort to the president: “You are angry because you can’t conceive of an America that includes us,” adding: “I felt that. I felt that in every inch of my body, because she said what many women of color have wanted to say but have been afraid to.”

Equally important to these authors is AOC’s advocacy for working-class people.Tracey Ross, a director at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity, reminds readers that “Representative Ocasio-Cortez often repeats a simple yet powerful phrase: ‘No person should be too poor to live.’ ” With her election, Ross adds, “people living in poverty gained another ally in Congress.”

But righteous indignation and good intentions go only so far. AOC’s economics degree and her seat on the House Financial Services Committee have prepared her to delve into policy issues and helped her hold wealth and power accountable. “To not know how money and the system work is to fall prey to them,” writes business journalistCarmen Rita Wong. “The financial system all too often exploits our lack of knowledge.” Wong celebrates AOC’s aggressive questioning of figures like Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and the way she lays bare the advantages accorded the wealthy by the finance and technology sectors.

The essayists worry about the expectations that they and others have laid upon Ocasio-Cortez, especially knowing the entrenched interests and vocal opposition she faces. “My fear,” writes Capó Crucet, “is that knowing how much you mean to us will put too much pressure on you.”

AOC’s significance is hard to assess because she is still new to the national stage, and the contributors are appropriately tentative in their conclusions. Urban historian Pedro Regalado contextualizes Ocasio-Cortez as part of a long tradition of Puerto Rican activists in New York and casts her as essential to her party’s future. “The Democratic Party’s rejuvenation, if it is to have one at all,” he writes, “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.”

AOC’s role in any such rejuvenation will depend on the breadth of her political appeal. Her progressive platform is highly popular in deep-blue New York, but will it play in Peoria? The Democratic Party’s selection of Joe Biden as its 2020 standard-bearer shows that it remains more center than left. But if AOC’s allies can win districts in suburbia, they will have a stronger claim to future leadership.

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Sandoval-Strausz is the director of the Latina/o studies program at Pennsylvania State University and the author of “Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City.”

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