The Low-Key Matriarch Cultivating Brooklyn’s Progressive Movement


Twenty-six years before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled incumbent Joe Crowley in a stunning primary defeat that propelled her to Congress and the national stage, there was Nydia Velázquez, a street-smart transplant from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, in her late thirties and determined to climb the rungs of New York City political power to better her community.

She ran against a nine-term incumbent in a district recently redrawn to enable more Latino representation in Congress. After a bruising campaign in which the New York Post published details of her attempted suicide, Velazquez won by a slim margin and became the first Puerto Rican woman to serve in the U.S. Congress.

“My election, as you can see, enriched the institution of Congress,” she said at a press conference with newly elected House Democrats in 1992. “My election is a clear mandate for change, for action.”

Now, 30 years later, her actions are bearing fruit. Velázquez has cultivated an extensive network, providing guidance and mentorship to a flock of progressive lawmakers who are challenging the establishment.

“I always think about my legacy,” Velázquez told Gothamist/WNYC after a recent press conference in City Hall Park. “I want to feel that in some way I paved the way to bring along young, progressive public servants who will be dedicated to bring about transformative changes for the people that we represent.”


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