Like many women of color with Puerto Rican roots, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bears a multilayered identity rife with complexity. The Puertoriquena, who will become the youngest congresswoman in U.S. history next month has revealed that on top of her identity as a feminist, a woman of color, a Latina is also of Jewish Heritage. During a week that has been so important to the culture and beliefs of Jewish people, one which celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple and the surprise that came when oil meant to last for one day burned for eight, the up and coming politician revealed a surprise of her own.
At a Hanukkah celebration hosted by the Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Ocasio-Cortez told the crowd that she is a descendant of Sephardic Jews.
On the eve of the last night of Hanukkah, the Congresswoman-elect attended a celebration at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center in Queens, New York. To much elation, Ocasio-Cortez shared that her family in Puerto Rico has Jewish ancestry.
“One of the things that we discovered about ourselves is that a very, very long time ago, generations and generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardic Jews,” she said to the crowd who cheered her on.
Sephardi Jews are a group of people, originally from Sepharad, Spain or the Iberian peninsula, that is a Jewish ethnic division. “Around 300,000 Jews lived in Spain before Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand ordered Jews and Muslims to convert to the Catholic faith or leave the country,” according to Haaretz. The Jewish publication also reports that there are “roughly 3.5 million direct descendants of those expelled from Spain in 1492, living in countries like Israel, France, the United States, Turkey, Mexico, Argentina, and Chile.”
“The story goes that during the Spanish Inquisition,” she said, “so many people were forced to convert on the exterior to Catholicism, but on the interior continued to practice their faith even though they were pressured to not be that on the outside and a strong group of people, strong-willed that were determined to continue living their life as they wanted to live it, decided to get on a boat and leave Spain. And some of those people ended up in Puerto Rico.
For the most part, during her campaign, Ocasio-Cortez had identified as a Catholic, though said she has discovered more information by “doing a lot of family trees in the last couple of years.”
If anything, the stories of our ancestry give us windows of opportunity to lean into others, to seek them out, and see ourselves, our histories, and our futures, tightly knit with other communities in a way we perhaps never before thought possible.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) December 10, 2018
Today, after news broke about her jewish history, Ocasio-Cortez — in anticipation of any negative response, she clarified her statements about her ancestry.
“Before everyone jumps one me — yes, culture isn’t DNA,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “But to be Puerto Rican is to be the descendant of: African Moors + slaves, Taino Indians, Spanish colonizers, Jewish refugees, and likely others. We are all of these things and something else all at once — we are Boricua.”
She also added: “Just because one concrete identity may not be how we think of ourselves today, nor how we were raised, it doesn’t mean we cannot or should not honor the ancestors and stories that got us here. I was raised Catholic, and that identity is an amalgam too — especially in Latin America. If anything, the stories of our ancestry give us windows of opportunity to lean into others, to seek them out, and see ourselves, our histories, and our futures, tightly knit with other communities in a way we perhaps never before thought possible.”