Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old former bartender who won a surprise Democratic primary for Congress in New York this spring and was later elected to the House, made a surprising declaration over this weekend at a Hanukkah party: She is descended from Sephardic Jews.
“One of the things that we discovered about ourselves is that a very long time ago, generations and generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardic Jews,” the incoming congresswoman said Sunday, as first reported by Taly Krupkin, a correspondent with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz who was present at the event and videotaped the comments.
The comments came at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center in Queens during a party hosted by a progressive Jewish group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Ocasio-Cortez also posted videos to her Twitter account of herself lighting the Hannukah menorah and learning to dance the Hora, adding that “I can never turn down an opportunity to try a new dance!”
Ocasio-Cortez, who was raised as and identifies as Catholic, is not claiming Jewish identity for herself. She merely stated that she believes, based on recent family tree research, that her ancestors were Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, more than 500 years ago, and later settling in Puerto Rico. Nor did the congresswoman-elect ever attempt to make any hay out of this ancestry during the election.
At Hanukkah event with @JFREJNYC in an moving speech, @Ocasio2018 shares that her family were Sephardic Jews who fled to Puerto Rico. “So many of our destinies are tied beyond our understanding” pic.twitter.com/68bjuCFnDD— Taly Krupkin (@TalyKrupkin) December 10, 2018
Ocasio-Cortez, who was born in New York City, addressed the topic more in a series of tweets on Monday.
“Before everyone jumps one me – yes, culture isn’t DNA,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted to her 1.4 million followers. “But to be Puerto Rican is to be the descendant of: African Moors + slaves, Taino Indians, Spanish colonizers, Jewish refugees, and likely others. We are all of these things and something else all at once – we are Boricua… just because one concrete identity may not be how we think of ourselves today, nor how we were raised, it doesn’t mean we cannot or should not honor the ancestors + stories that got us here. I was raised Catholic, & that identity is an amalgam too – especially in Latin America.”
The Ocasio-Cortez story follows scrutiny that has continued to follow Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who after years of claiming Cherokee ancestry recently released a DNA test showing that she had “strong evidence” of long-ago Native American ancestry. This led to an extended debate over the relationship between DNA testing technology and modern conceptions of ethnic identity.