Adrift, Broke, and Disillusioned
New York magazine|February 14-27, 2022
How a struggling bartender became the face of a resurgent left.
By Lisa Miller. Photography by Jose A. Alvarado Jr.

Even her haters call her a “generational talent,” a disparagement candy-wrapped as a compliment, the implication being that the astonishing rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was somehow encoded in her DNA. Frame a thing as expected and it can be discounted. But rewind five years and it becomes clear just how unprecedented her rise has been. “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” she said at the start of her journey to Washington. She was only stating facts. Months before AOC became the new face of the Democratic Party, she was working in a bar where she was expected to look “hot,” riding the 6 train, fretting about health insurance, and not really sure what she wanted to do with her life.

Her victory on June 26, 2018, over her mainstream Democratic opponent, Joe Crowley, was a marker delineating the moment after which American politics would never be the same. It established AOC’s prodigious political gifts while showcasing a new sort of Democratic candidate and a new way of recruiting them. Barack Obama, previous holder of the “generational talent” title, may have resembled Ocasio-Cortez in some ways. Brown-skinned, good looking, with his own misadventures in the postcollegiate wilderness, he challenged political convention even as he titillated its guardians. But he had a résumé—the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review, constitutional-law professor at the University of Chicago—that the Democratic-consultant class could easily recognize and safely admire. The Establishment didn’t know what to make of AOC. As she put it in an interview then, “If a spaceship landed in your backyard, it’s like, ‘What the fuck is that? Is it going to hurt me?’”

Latina and working class, Ocasio-Cortez was demographically distinct from her new colleagues in Congress. She also represented a new generation. With the skills of a social-media influencer, Ocasio-Cortez helped bring the millennials and their younger siblings into battle. She was cool, gorgeous, a digital polyglot—she streamed, she posted, she tweeted—but she also loved literature, photography, and fashion. Her leftist mission, her savant-like communication skills, and her moral ferocity propelled her rise, but what people loved about her, at the beginning, was that she was regular. Not, like Crowley and other career pols, ostentatiously folksy. Ocasio-Cortez was really regular: vulnerable, fun, someone you might actually know, like your friend’s roommate.

As Americans turn their attention to this midterm year, Ocasio-Cortez has shown that her brand of politics can be formidable. With more than 20 million followers on Twitter and Instagram combined, and the ability to raise $20 million mostly in small-dollar donations in a single campaign cycle, she has amassed so much power that she is a human incendiary device. But as her public persona eclipses the waitress who launched that out-of-nowhere run against Crowley four years ago, she is in danger of becoming more prop than person. Whether the Democrats keep Congress or lose it in 2022, the result will be cast by the natterers as her influence or her fault. The transformation of Ocasio-Cortez from lost millennial into the incarnation of every American hope and fear has been dizzying.

It might serve at this moment to look away from the blinding star she has become and to the mechanics of her rise, for it’s there that the arguments for optimism lie. Since she was elected with the help of former operatives in the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, her greatest achievements have been a new generation’s continued interest in politics and the door she has left wide open behind her. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and women are entering Congress in historic numbers, though there are still surely not enough to be truly representative. If not for Ocasio-Cortez, there would have been no Squad, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus would not have evolved into a powerhouse. At the very beginning, before she had been elected to anything, Ocasio-Cortez revealed her mission in what would become her mantra. “We can only accomplish great things together,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez, like so many other people of color in her generation, had been seduced by the promise that higher education would open up opportunities.

But life out of college was a shock, as it was for millions of other millennials entering the post-recession job market. Her father, Sergio, who had died when she was a sophomore at Boston University, had told her she was special, destined for greatness, capable through intelligence and grit of attaining her dreams, and her education had reinforced that notion. But upon graduating in 2011, she saw that it didn’t matter how smart she was, what she knew, how ambitious or imaginative her ideas were. It didn’t matter that she’d won science prizes; been chosen to give speeches; immersed herself in economics, music, and literature; and graduated cum laude. Sandy, as she was sometimes known back then, was a petite young Puerto Rican woman with bills to pay. She moved into an apartment in the Parkchester development in the Bronx that had belonged to her father, with $25,000 in student loans and no health insurance. Up in Yorktown Heights in Westchester, her family relied on food stamps.

Throughout high school and college, she had attended the National Hispanic Institute, a youth leadership organization, and now she was given a paid fellowship there, helping the administrators develop high-school curricula, traveling the country to set up and lead summer programs, and receiving a grant to try to launch a series of children’s books with Latino characters. She wanted to share the pleasure of reading with young kids in the barrio, who, she thought, might more easily take to it if they saw themselves reflected in the books. But she wasn’t able to get the series off the ground. At around the same time, she rented space at a small-business incubator in the Bronx. People who knew her then remember her working on a tool to help educators track kids’ emotional and mental health. She took meetings and reached out through her networks, but that project was going nowhere as well, and she became extremely discouraged.

“Alex, I think, had a Mary Poppins understanding that you follow a particular pathway, and bingo! You’re successful,” says Ernesto Nieto, a co-founder of the NHI. When she foundered, she felt she was to blame. Facing the disparity between how she saw herself and how the world saw her “was not very pleasant,” Nieto adds. “That’s the journey for a lot of Latinos. The same doors are not there for us as for somebody else.”

On long car rides to NHI events, Ocasio-Cortez and Nieto swapped stories of losing loved ones at a young age, of living between the city and the suburbs, of shouldering the responsibility of caring for family. Nieto tried to frame Ocasio-Cortez’s struggles as systemic, not owing to any shortcoming on her part. Only recent college graduates with family support could afford to gild their résumés with high-prestige, low-paying internships or to take the financial risk of starting a business. In the car, unburdening themselves to each other, Ocasio-Cortez and her mentor would cry.

Exhausted, Ocasio-Cortez turned to waitressing, which was at least reliable. “Working with young people, as immensely fulfilling as it is, did not pay the bills,” she told Cornel West and Tricia Rose in 2020. There was something liberating, finally, about abandoning the imagined, idealized path to a fantasy career in favor of meeting the pressing need. On a good night, she could earn hundreds of dollars—cash—which she would stash in a purse against future expenses. She worried about what her father would think of her life, whether he would be disappointed in her, but she also felt unshackled by admitting that this was what she needed to do for now. Whenever she tried to map her life in terms of achievements or goals, “I was deeply unhappy,” she has said. “And when I started focusing more on how I want to be, I was much happier, even when I was a waitress.”

At Coffee Shop—as well as its sister location next door, the taqueria Flats Fix—Ocasio-Cortez found herself, once again, at the center of a scrappy group of millennial outsiders. Founded in 1990, Coffee Shop was a model joint in its heyday. Owned by models, staffed by models, patronized by models, it had the after-hours feel of a high-tone speakeasy. “The revolving door of people that came through there was insane,” remembers Jesse Korman, a photographer who often took work meetings at the restaurant and was dating one of the bartenders. “Artists and high-end celebrities and crazy tech entrepreneurs and music-industry people and normal people.” Speakers mounted behind the bar played Brazilian music and indie rock. By the time Ocasio-Cortez worked there, its flash had faded, but it retained the flavor of a hot spot.

The staff understood that beauty was a prerequisite for employment. Waiters and bartenders were often hired by the owner, former model Carolyn Benitez, who appeared to conduct job interviews like casting calls. “She’d say, ‘Come on and sit in the booth,’ and she looks you up and down,” remembers Maria Swisher, who worked with Ocasio-Cortez behind the bar. “She asked me how to make these two trashy cocktails that you really don’t need to know how to make in order to be a bartender. A Slippery Nipple, or something. And I was like, ‘I don’t know, I can make you an old-fashioned.’” Bartenders were expected to look hot at work. “I think it even said in our manual we were supposed to look fashionable,” Swisher says, “and it was always very unclear what that was supposed to mean.” Ocasio-Cortez, some times wearing red lipstick, her hair up in a messy bun, “probably dressed the most conservatively.”

The front-of-house crew at the restaurant was an assortment of creative, idiosyncratic anti-authority types familiar to anyone who has ever been young in New York. Swisher was doing political theater; another bartender was a performance artist launching a fashion line; a third was a sailing instructor and tarot-card reader. “It was this free-spirited thing—Hey, we’re in New York City figuring things out,” Korman, the photographer and patron, recalls. The Coffee Shop girls, as he called them, were always high-energy, operating at a ten and yelling at one another across the room.

Adapted from Take Up Space: The Unprecedented AOC, a book-length, kaleidoscopic biography by the editors of New York Magazine, with contributions by Andrea González Ramírez, Lisa Miller, Michelle Ruiz, Rebecca Traister, David Wallace-Wells, and many others. Published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2022.

Restaurant work has always been a temporary solution for people who are between things or hard up. Ocasio-Cortez has since spoken of the very exploitative nature of this work, the undocumented old men washing dishes in the kitchen, the front-of-house staff working mainly for tips, without protections or benefits or scheduled breaks. She translates this experience into an equity fable of how, for some, bad luck can lead straight to financial calamity, forcing a person to hold down a demanding, demeaning job to keep from drowning, while business and government perpetuate the notion that misfortune is somehow the sufferer’s fault. But this was personal for her. At the restaurant, “so many of the people that I worked with had parents that passed away, or they were born in circumstances that led to these outcomes,” she said. “Whereas in society we’re taught you’re there because that is what you deserve. You didn’t work hard enough. You didn’t educate yourself enough. You had messed up in some way.”

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