Even when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes much-needed breathers from the onslaught of political pressure she faces, the Congresswoman is still doing work for her community.
The Representative of New York’s 14th district (which includes areas of the Bronx and Queens largely populated by Latinx folks) sat down with PRX’s Latino USA for an intimate, mask-off interview released on Saturday. Among the many topics covered, she focused on the unique hardships Latinx people faced throughout Donald Trump’s time in office and during the pandemic especially.
Specifically, Ocasio-Cortez championed the need for everyone impacted to “recognize trauma,” an especially poignant message to send during Mental Health Awareness Month.
“I’m doing therapy but also I’ve just slowed down. I think the Trump administration had a lot of us, especially Latino communities, in a very reactive mode. So I’ve been putting myself in a more proactive space.” she said.
Destigmatizing the need for mental health help has become an increasingly prominent part of the Congresswoman’s platform following the traumas of the Capitol riot in January, which she previously detailed in a now-iconic Instagram live.
In the USA Latino interview, Ocasio-Cortez went even further back, though. She explained how she personally knew the cost of not seeking necessary professional help. After her father died at an early age, she bottled up the trauma due to what she describes as the unique burdens firstborn and only daughters of Latino families often face.
“I learned my lesson, then,” she said, going on to describe how she’s applying them now by prioritizing her mental health. “I’ve had to take a beat. Because if I take a couple months now, and just be really good, then I don’t have to live with this thing festering and lingering with me like a roommate in my apartment for years.”
By revealing that she’s been in therapy, Ocasio-Cortez counters many of the unique barriers and stigmas Latinx people can experience when seeking mental health help.
“There’s a direct throughline through imperialism and the attitudes and power structures there.”
While mental health issues are just as prevalent in Latinx communities, only 34 percent get treatment as opposed to the 45 percent U.S. population average, according to a report from the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI). Among the many contributors to this disparity (lack of insurance, lack of resources, language and cultural barriers with doctors), AOC’s openness helps to combat the added shame around mental illnesses that can come from within Latinx communities themselves. There’s a big fear of being labeled “loco” (crazy), and disdain for those who “wash their dirty laundry” (like airing family and personal trauma) in front of strangers, the NAMI report found.
The constant terror created by the Trump administration’s anti-immigration stance as well as the pandemic (New York City was an epicenter early on in the U.S.) took a particular toll on her district, Ocasio-Cortez believes.
“It was just an assault. And for a community that’s 50 percent immigrant, that has really high concentration of essential workers, where we have mixed-status families, you know, these federal policies that even democrats champion don’t help us—we’re excluded from them due to just political convenience and narratives.”
Of course, Ocasio-Cortez recognizes how this touches many other communities of color as well, hitting a nerve that goes much further back and even deeper than these most recent traumatic assaults.
“There’s a direct throughline through imperialism and the attitudes and power structures there—to anti-Asian violence, to what’s happening at the border, to anti-Black racism. All of it,” she said, positioning this trauma as always ongoing, no matter which administration is in power. “People want to think that this stuff is disconnected because they want to believe in this mythology of America or the United States that we were fed as children.
The interview is well worth a full listen, getting into a variety of the complex hardships of the Latinx identity in America, particularly the push-and-pull of familial pressures to “know where you come from” clashing with the pressure to assimilate, particularly in educational settings.
“A huge part of life is us just figuring out who we are, and just continuing to grow into who we are. And there is this question of, you know, am I Latina and Latino enough?… We grow up in a colonizing educational system, that does not tell us who we are. And it tells white people who they are right? You started this country, you are pioneers, you are explorers,” she said. “So if we really want to embrace who we are, it’s kind of attacks [the colonizing narrative] in a way because it wasn’t given to us. We have to give that to ourselves.”