Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has revealed that generations ago, her ancestors were Jews who fled Europe to escape religious persecution.
The progressive Democrat, who has long identified as a Catholic New Yorker with Puerto Rican heritage, said that she discovered her Jewish roots because her family has been “doing a lot of family trees in the last couple of years.”
“A long time ago, many generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardic Jews,” Ocasio-Cortez, 29, said during a Hanukkah event on Sunday in Queens, referring to Jews who were originally from Spain and Portugal.
Sephardic Jews were forcibly expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition, fleeing to other parts of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. Thousands of Sephardic Jewish families converted to Christianity during this tumultuous period, some still clinging to their Jewish beliefs in private while presenting as Catholic in public.
Some Sephardic Jews who sought refuge in Puerto Rico later discovered that the influence of the Spanish Inquisition extended to the island. Judaism was prohibited on Puerto Rico for years, prompting Jewish transplants to practice their faith in secret or move to rural areas. It wasn’t until the Spanish-American War of 1898, when Puerto Rico was ceded to the U.S., that Jewish people were able to live openly on the island.
Listen to Ocasio-Cortez speak about Puerto Rico’s Jewish history during a Jews for Racial and Economic Justice event in Queens.
Ocasio-Cortez said that Puerto Ricans are an “amalgamation” ― a mix of many different heritages.
“We are no one thing,” she said. “We are black; we are indigenous; we are Spanish; we are European.”
“I think it all goes to show that our destinies are tied beyond our understanding, beyond even what we know,” she added, according to Haaretz. “And as we learn more and more about the histories of others, our friends and neighbors, we start to uncover what we already know to be true: Your destiny is mine, and my destiny is yours.”
The congresswoman-elect told Haaretz this was the first time she’s spoken publicly about her family’s Jewish roots. She later addressed the subject on her popular Twitter account.
During the Sunday event, which was organized by the progressive advocacy group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Ocasio-Cortez helped light the menorah and joined attendees in singing a Hanukkah song in Ladino, a variant of Spanish used by Sephardic Jews.
Ocasio-Cortez was elected to represent New York’s 14th Congressional District, which encompasses Queens and parts of the Bronx. She will be sworn into office in January.
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