Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or the Insidious Attempt to Disappear the Latina Intellectual

Mar 11, 2019
10:51 AM

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been insulted on a weekly basis since being sworn in after the midterm elections in 2018. Despite more than 80% of U.S. people approving of the components of The Green New Deal, despite her experience working and campaigning for Ted Kennedy and Bernie Sanders, and despite successfully becoming one of the youngest members of Congress due to her own campaigning savvy, she is regularly condescended to in an attempt to erase her clear merits.

She has been called a “pompous little twit” by a former leader of the disgraced NGO, Greenpeace, who now works for a conservative, libertarian think tank. She has been called “the little girl” by the Republican Great America PAC Chairman. She has been called “adorable…like a five-year-old child” and then in the same ironic breath “shallow” by a Fox News analyst. Even supposedly liberal outlets are insulting the experienced woman, saying that if Trump gets re-elected, it will be her fault. It will be the radical Latina’s fault, not the fault of his misguided followers, not the fault of a Congress that refuses to stop voter suppression and/or eliminate the Electoral College, not the fault of lobbyists that stump for corporations that basically hold the puppet strings of Washington insiders.

The message is clear. A Latina intellectual is not welcome. A Latina radical outsider, who actually has the approval of the majority of U.S. voters, is not welcome. Anywhere. Her education will be ignored, her political integrity and knowledge will be downplayed, and her years of wisdom will be reduced to nothing. She will be seen as a child, an annoying child who doesn’t know much of anything, according to Kellyanne Conway.

It has gotten so bad that some news outlets are even trying to defend her, saying that the treatment is sexist. That is true, but it is only part of the truth. There is an intersection of racism, sexism, ageism, and classism that Ocasio-Cortez is experiencing, and there is great fear of discussing this intersection. In fact, the normally progressive Guardian published an op-ed piece by a woman who repeatedly claimed to be incapable of understanding intersectionality, stating that the term is dangerous jargon. My community college students fully understand intersectionality, so maybe I should put her in touch with them. That said, there are countless conservative articles that can easily be found with a simple search that state that intersectionality is the most dangerous ideology today. In other words, the concept, developed by women of color as seen in the pages of This Bridge Called My Back and publications like The Combahee River Collective, and coined by Black intellectual and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is the most dangerous concept in the world, to conservative thinkers. I repeat, one of the most widely used concepts in scholarship, developed by women of color, is considered the most dangerous by white men. Not surprising. This is the concept that explains the attacks on Ocasio-Cortez, and women of color in Congress, in general.

If Ocasio-Cortez were more capitalistic in her thinking, she would be insulted less (although not much less, if we consider the insults Ted Cruz has faced). If Ocasio-Cortez were male, she obviously would be insulted less. If Ocasio-Cortez were much older, there would be less focus on her appearance (although not much less, if we think of the insults hurled at Hillary Clinton). If she were not Latina, she would be insulted less. It is unfathomable for someone, a woman of color, to introduce such radical thinking into any space. It pains people to look at her, look at what she looks like, and be forced to accept that she is also intelligent and radical. Bernie Sanders, old white man, has similar thinking and he has never been insulted in the same fashion as Ocasio-Cortez. Indeed, he is met with cheers everywhere he goes. Congress is insulted that Ocasio-Cortez would even try to think as radically as an old white man. How dare she? It reminds me of when I was in graduate school and encountered a professor who had multiple tattoos —and old white guy— and thought, “Oh, great, I can do that, too.” I had a feeling the experience wouldn’t be as welcoming for me, and I was right.

In fact, I had a feeling Ocasio-Cortez would face insults left and right as soon as she was elected. Also right. As a wise Latina myself, I am very familiar with this territory. I wrote a piece about the invisible Latina intellectual a while back, and it resonated with many Latinas. Not only have I been constantly insulted by being told that I “look like a student” when I clearly don’t, my level of intelligence and where my allegiances lie are constantly questioned. It is challenging to be a radical intellectual in any environment, but if you are also a Latina, or a Black Latina, like me, it is downright painful because of how one is treated. For example, when I wrote about the film “Boyhood,” from a cultural perspective, a member of the New York Critics Film Circle, wrote a disparaging piece in Film Comment, implying that the editors at Salon were not critical enough when choosing what to publish. He did not bother to learn that I graduated magna cum laude with a journalism degree and a minor in film. He did not bother to learn that I had a Ph.D. He assumed what I was by my Latina name, and that assumption was: uninformed person without credibility. His piece also did not recognize that Latina outsiders must forge their own path, which may look different from the traditional paths that white people are so keen on upholding, but that our paths are no less rigorous than the paths they have treaded. Ultimately, the scene in “Boyhood,” where a Latino is “saved” by the white protagonist came into question, and more complex films by Latino directors have shined, and won awards, in subsequent years. My commentary seemed to echo the thoughts of others, despite the limited viewpoint of the article in Film Comment.

That is to say, the ideas of Latina intellectuals cannot and should not be silenced, and Ocasio-Cortez cannot be metaphorically disappeared, the way many of these talking heads wish she were. I use the word disappeared because that is often how Latinos, the subjects of colonial imperialism and its aftermath, are silenced, in dictatorships, at the border, and through poverty and lack of representation. We are changing that dynamic. Latinas are incredibly happy about having leaders like Ocasio-Cortez, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Rep. Veronica Escobar, and many others. We are happy about Latina leaders in our educational institutions, in our creative circles, in our neighborhoods, and throughout our lives.

You will not disappear us.

Our voices are literally the blood of this earth. If you try to disappear us, we will only get louder, taking on the voices of our ancestral ghosts. Count on it. We will haunt you.


Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta is the editor of Latina Outsiders Remaking Latina Identity (Routledge 2019). She is an Associate Professor of English at City University of New York—BCC.