Samuel Olivares, Progressivism, and the Power of Style

The election of 2016 in the United States was a pivotal moment for progressive politics. This was the year when the Democratic Party failed to deliver the first female president. It’s also the event that prompted women like Rashida Talib, Illhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress, establishing the most diverse congressional body in history. For Samuel Olivares, it was the election that made them realize they could run for office too and that politics in the United States was not serving the communities it swore to protect. 

“One of the things that I learned was that the society at large was just much more ahead and had a more progressive vision than what the Democratic Party was looking for,” Olivares says. 

Fast forward to June 2020, Olivares won their first run in politics, becoming the newest District Leader in Brooklyn’s  Williamsburg and Bushwick. Their campaign was endorsed by Cynthia Nixon, New York State Senator Julia Salazar, and Rep. Nydia Velazquez. Olivares’s mission is simple: to provide safe spaces and push policies forward that allow marginalized people in the United States – and the world – to live a decent life. 

While their political awakening happened after working in the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, Olivares’s focus on marginalized communities has been a lifelong endeavor. 

Born in Yauco, Puerto Rico, Samuel Olivares is one of two siblings from a Puerto Rican mother and a Dominican father. Their mother, they say, is a product of the intersection of marginalized conditions – poverty, dwarfism, classism, domestic abuse, and mental illness. Still, she managed to become a social worker inside the Department of Correction in Puerto Rico, lived in Egypt, and raised Olivares and their sister as a single mom. “I’m a second copy of my mother,” they say. “I hardly will achieve the level of confidence, resiliency and mastermind of life that my mother did, but I am truly inspired by her.”

Olivares’s upbringing was plagued by the same issues that limited the possibilities of their mom’s life. They recall being bullied at school for being feminine and gay and suffered directly from the discrimination their mother experienced as a dwarf, single woman working in Puerto Rico’s government. 

Growing up as a poor, queer person in Puerto Rico inspired their campaign platform in 2020.  The poverty rate in Yauco is over 50%, almost six points higher than the average rate in Puerto Rico. Conversion therapy wasn’t explicitly banned until 2019 and the island’s 2020 civil code limits the ability of transgender individuals to change their birth certificates and allows employers to discriminate against LGTBQ employees. “I didn’t see politics as a field for me,” they say. “I mean, Puerto Rico is very white, privileged, upper class, masculine, misogynist, elitist and homophobic.”

While they studied Communications at University of Puerto Rico, it wasn’t until they moved to New York that they decided to focus on human rights and advocacy, getting a master’s degree in International Affairs at The New School. Since then, they’ve worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Center for Popular Democracy and have remained active in their community’s board. Intersectionality is at the core of their mission as an activist, communicator, and district leader. “We are all together in the fight for gender rights, women and LGBTQ people, because our discrimination stemmed from patriarchy, misogyny, and the attack on femininity,” Olivares says. 

Their understanding of femininity is one of their most powerful tools, especially when it comes to style. As a gender non-conforming person, Olivares knows fashion is political, saying “any gender is expressed through style.” On the campaign trail, Olivares sported t-shirts with slogans like “We the gente” one day and a statement necklace with white button down and a pamela the next. Their style is a mix of vibrant printed dresses with bold earrings and minimal t-shirts with shorts and heavy eye makeup. They also embrace the trans flag as a political accessory, often wearing it as a bandana or on their t-shirt. There are also symbols of their heritage, like the t-shirt with the Puerto Rican flag colored with the trans flag hues. 

“For someone who grew up being bullied for being gay or feminine, who grew up with a strong, very defiant mother, that wore short hair and pants, defying gender norms for me is an act of resistance,” Olivares says.

Frances Solá-Santiago

Born in Puerto Rico, based in New York City. She is the editor-in-chief on Emperifollá. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, NPR, Glamour Magazine, Numéro, Refinery29, Remezcla, and Bustle.

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