I understand that you were born in Elmhurst Hospital, grew up in Queens. Are there moments from your childhood that you turn to that define Queens for you?
There’s just so many!
I grew up in Astoria in the late 80s, 90s and we were already pretty diverse. All my friends’ parents made delicious food. It was the best! Food’s the big connector, bringing people together and making conversation happen. I learned so much from other people and other cultures. That’s always stayed with me and largely informs my work as a legislator.
For high school, I went to the Academy of American Studies in Long Island City right as its skyline was beginning to change. Coming of age with the gentrification of the area sparked a quest to understand and question displacement, an interest in urban planning, and inspired the love to protect my neighbors.
You are the daughter of Colombian immigrants. Did your family have a community in Queens when before coming or was it something you had to discover and build?
My parents arrived in Jackson Heights some 40 years ago when Colombians started arriving in big numbers. It became a dangerous time as the cartels came too. My dad got scared and moved our family to Astoria before my sister arrived from Colombia and I was born, but he always gave back to Jackson Heights to organize with organizations like Centro Civico Colombiano. My dad helped found many groups, including the Colombian Parade down Northern Boulevard in July. He was a local community board member and did many things, but the one that’s left the most indelible mark in my heart was when he started a visitation program for incarcerated Colombians. My father was so hurt that they didn’t have loved ones to visit them in jail, that he organized families to adopt some of these men who were so desperate for a means to provide for their families that they got involved in the drug trade.
It sounds like politics has been a part of your life since you were young. Could you talk about where that value in politics comes from?
My mom got my dad involved in the local chapter of the Colombian Liberal Party and began organizing for dual citizenship and representation in the Congress based on remittances. I grew up attending those meetings and where I was introduced to the International Socialist Organization. Dinner table conversations eventually shifted to local politics as Latinos organized for the very same seats held today by AOC, Jessica González-Rojas and myself. They made so much noise during the redistricting that followed the 2000 Census that “a Latino seat” was created so we could finally have State representation, and that’s the seat held today by Catalina Cruz.
You were born and raised in Queens and now represent part of Queens in the 13th District of New York State Senate – one of the epicenters for COVID-19. What did that show you about the spirit of the 13th District?
Queens has great reason to be proud. We leave all our differences behind and pull through together time after time. So many folks have stepped up to organize mutual aid groups and I’ve seen a lot of cross-culture and interfaith collaboration to extend information outreach and even resources like food. It’s been a critical lifeline while the state and federal government remain largely inactive in providing aid. We lost well over 1,000 people in the district, so many of them breadwinners and parents. Surviving has become increasingly difficult for many, especially those who can’t qualify for unemployment insurance and the like. Food lines are longer than ever and the temperature is dropping, making us increasingly fearful of evictions. I’ve introduced a bill to tax billionaires so we can have the funds to take care of our most vulnerable.