The spring of 2020 will forever be remembered as a time of chaos and grief in New York City. Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths spiked as the city became the epicenter of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, largely ignored by the White House and Republican public officials across the United States.
In New York’s 2nd District, city council member Carlina Rivera sprung into action to serve her community, a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood that’s no stranger to gentrification, displacement and marginalization. Rivera describes 2020 as a year of “multiple crises,” citing the pandemic and economic downfall. All layered and intersectional junctures that left her community vulnerable. “I want to say that we were surprised, but we have just been historically underserved,” says Rivera.
Born in New York, Rivera was raised in a Puerto Rican household in the Lower East Side– or Loisaida, as the neighborhood was denominated in the early 20th century– by a single mother. Both Rivera and her sister, she says, learned community building and organizing from her mother, who was a regular at local meetings. Today, Rivera is the youngest council member in New York City, representing the community she was born in.
“I have to wear the youngest woman in the council hat, the millennial hat,” Rivera explains. “I’m someone who understands college debt and the struggle to try and buy a home. But also, how we [Latinos] are a people that are very, very rooted in our culture.”
Rivera’s no stranger to attending to crises in her community that are escalated by the lack of resources and marginalization people of color face in New York City. She cites the high rates of suicide among young Latinas in the city, as well as the college debt and housing crises displacing and limiting opportunities her community. In 2020, these crises were exacerbated by the pandemic. “As an organizer, that’s when I kicked into high gear,” she says.
Rivera met with Emperifollá to discuss Latinx leadership during the pandemic, her self-care routine, and how a new generation of Latinx politicians and activists might get us through this mess.
Emperifollá: What drove you into politics?
Carlina Rivera: I would say that my mother, she raised me and my sister as a single mom, but she would make sure that on top of work and everything else, that we would go to the local community meetings. All that would eventually lead me to working on a very local community campaign. It was for a large development on Delancey Street. And it had a really interesting history, in that 40 years prior, there were tenement buildings there and they cleared them out and they said they were going to rebuild them and they displaced nearly 2,000 families and most of them were Puerto Rican.
So we wanted to make sure that not only justice was delivered for those families, who were told that they could come back, but that the development side included truly affordable housing and open space and that we were even preserving the Essex Street Market and making sure that those original tenants could really transfer into this new world class state-of-the-art market, but still have all the things that we look for to make their sofrito.
Eá: It sounds like your interest in politics comes from a deeply personal space, how does this translate to your role in the city council?
CR: Politics in New York City is very white still, and it’s very dominated by men. I did this kind of quick analysis of our population versus representatives, and we’re still not even at parity. We don’t have the same number of electives per our population. So representation is still not there. We still are not, I think, given the same room, the same space, and our issues sometimes aren’t taken as seriously. Every Latino community– we have, like different nuances, different things that we worry about.
I think as a leader, you know, I have an obligation to make sure that we’re talking about the rate of Latino suicide, that we’re talking about immigration issues, but also that a lot of us are just wondering how we can get in that pathway to the middle class or to make sure that our kids maybe don’t drown in college debt.
Eá: How have you seen Latinx political leadership play out in 2020?
CR: I think on this election night, there was a clear message sent. Black women were leading the way, and our Latino community turned out. And I think the Biden-Harris win is a direct result of communities of color turning out in historic numbers, especially in swing states.
I think there are misconceptions, assuming that Latinos are also guaranteed to be Democratic voters, not recognizing that we have different identities within the Latino community. And I think that what the Democratic Party needs to also do is to invest in outreach and organizing in communities across the country and not just during election cycles. It has to be year-round.
We saw Arizona go blue. That’s a direct work of Latino organizers. I think Nevada is another example of years of organizing in the Latino communities there. And I think for what’s really, really important is the future of women of color and political leadership. I’m very lucky. I get to have Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right? She is a force locally and nationally. I think we’re seeing a change of the guard in Latino leadership and representation, increasing the number of Latinas in office, specifically in the state Senate and State Assembly.
What I’m hoping to see, I guess, on the national and local level is greater investment in outreach to Latino voters and those communities and continuing to push our federal government to become more representative of our nation. Seeing women from across the country, across the Democratic spectrum is going to empower other women and is going to show that we can run and we can win and we can lead with conviction. And you see it in other places around the world. And as I say, organizing starts at home.
Eá: What have you been doing to take care of yourself this year?
CR: I’ve truly tried to do things I’m into like yoga. So that to me is a point when I can’t use my phone. Your hands are on the floor. You can’t really use a phone. I’m very big into cycling, so I’ll go out on my bike or I’ll take a very, very long bike ride to a different part of the city. I like sitting back and like reading a magazine and like listening to Cardi [B] or Bad Bunny or something very, very chill.
And I think that’s something that I enjoy. I embrace my femininity. I like looking at makeup and clothes and just blogs and things like that. And I love just kind of chilling that like watching some TV, watching The crown right now.
It’s hard, but you try to find these little moments where you can take a few minutes and just breathe. Maybe I take my Bustelo and I go by the window and I just look outside of my community and take a couple of minutes, and then you get back to work.