Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez captured the imagination of Democrats across the country last fall, when the 28 year old won an upset in the primary race for a seat in the US congress. Ocasio Cortez beat out the incumbent, Joe Crowley, for the Democratic nomination and went on to win the seat, becoming the youngest woman ever to be sworn in to the US Congress.
After being sworn in, Ocasio Cortez put up an emotional post on Instagram, thanking everyone who had sacrificed to make her journey to Congress possible. She thanked her mother, Blanca, most of all, writing, “Mami mopped floors, drove school buses, + answered phones. She did whatever she needed to do, for me.” Here’s what you need to know about Blanca Ocasio-Cortez.
1. Blanca Was Born in Puerto Rico & Spoke No English When She Arrived in the US
Blanca was born in Puerto Rico. She met Alexandria’s father, Sergio, when he was visiting his relatives on the island; Sergio was born and raised in the Bronx but had relatives in Puerto Rico. The couple fell in love and eventually married and moved to New York City. They initially settled in the Parkchester, a working class neighborhood in the East Bronx. Then, when Alexandria was five years old, the family moved to a two bedroom home in Yorktown Heights, a suburb in Westchester County known for its good public schools.
In an Instagram post after being sworn in as a member of Congress, Alexandria wrote, “She [Blanca] met my father, a Bronx boy visiting isla family, at a young age. They married + moved to NYC – she didn’t even speak English. My parents started from scratch: new languages, new life, new everything. Then came me, and they moved to start over again so I could have an education.”
2. Blanca Was the Primary Caretaker for her Own Siblings Growing Up
Ocasio-Cortez wrote that her mother’s childhood was far from easy. She says that Blanca grew up caring for not only herself, but her younger brothers and sisters; Blanca was responsible for her siblings while her own mother worked to support the family. Ocasio-Cortez wrote in an Instagram post, “My mamá was born + raised in Puerto Rico. She practically raised her siblings in poverty while her own mother worked nonstop to provide food and shelter.”
All of that changed when Blanca met and married Sergio Ocasio Cortez, a Bronx man who was visiting relatives in Puerto Rico. After the couple married, they moved to The Bronx and settled in the working class neighborhood of Parkchester. Alexandria said that her mother didn’t speak English when she arrived in the United States and that she was forced to start a brand new life “from scratch.”
3. Blanca Became a Single Mother After Her Husband, Sergio, Died of Cancer
Alexandria’s father, Sergio Ocasio-Cortez, was an architect who was able to buy his family a modest, two-bedroom home in Yorktown Heights, a Westchester suburb. But when Alexandria was 19 years old, a sophomore at Boston University, Sergio died of cancer. His death threw the family into turmoil. Alexandria said she remembered Blanca calling her when she was in the middle of an economics class; Alexandria rushed home and rushed to the hospital to see her father.
After Sergio’s death, the family struggled financially. They became embroiled in a battle with the Westchester County Surrogate’s Court, which handles the estates of people who die without a will. The family feared that they might lose their Westchester home. Eventually, they were allowed to sell the home at a profit. But Blanca struggled to provide for the family, and after Alexandria graduated from college, she took on extra work to help keep the family afloat. Alexandria began bartending and waitressing in addition to her job as educational director with the National Hispanic Institute, a nonprofit that provides leadership training for Latino youths.
4. Blanca Scrubbed Toilets & Drove a Bus to Help Make Ends Meet
When Alexandria was five years old, her family left The Bronx to move to Yorktown Heights, a much tonier area with good public schools. Alexandria says that her family was the “underclass” in the new neighborhood and that she grew up conscious of their difference from other residents. She also says that her mother pitched in, working as a house cleaner to help support the family. Over the years, she says, her mom also drove a school bus and answered phones, doing whatever she could to help provide for the family.
“The thing that people don’t realize is that wherever there is affluence, there’s an underclass. There’s a service class. And that’s what I grew up in, scrubbing toilets with my mom,” Alexandria told Bon Appetit. She also reminisced about her family befriending Dunkin Donuts employees and inviting people over for special Thanksgiving dinner where pernil — Puerto Rican style roast pork shoulder — was served alongside the turkey.
5. Blanca Said Her Daughter Was Always Political & ‘Nobody Could Shut Her Up’
Blanca told the New York Times that Alexandria grew up actively participating in the family’s discussions about politics, held around the dinner table. Blanca said Alexandria was also very vocal and passionate about her opinions. “There was nobody who could shut her up,” she told the New York Times. “I saw the political tendencies since she was very, very young.”
Ocasio Cortez was a serious science student in high school, winning second prize in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in her senior year. But her senior year science teacher, Michael Bluegrass, told the New York Times that Ocasio-Cortez tended to think politically even when she was talking about science. “She was interested in research to help people in all areas, including developing nations, not just for the people with money,” Bluegrass says.