As a senator in the New York legislature, Marisol Alcantara fights for the underdog — because she knows the struggle is real. She emigrated from the Dominican Republic as a kid, then worked her way through several advanced degrees and a career as a union organizer. Now, she serves the 31st State Senate district, giving voice to people who need it most.
What brought you to New York?
I moved to New York for college, but I’m originally from the Dominican Republic. My family moved to Maryland when I was 12. Coming to New York was a big decision! I wanted to come to a city that had a bigger Latino population. That was very important to me.
Did you feel isolated when you were growing up in Maryland?
I did. I felt that my classmates had no idea where or what the Dominican Republic was. I missed my food, my family and my culture. It was a very depressing time in my life. It was really isolating.
So when you arrived in New York, did you immediately feel a change?
Oh, I felt right at home among the huge Latino population here. I went to Manhattan College, a small school, where I had a lot of support from my professors and classmates. It was the first time that I was able to be at a place where there were so many other people that looked like me.
What was it like growing up in the Dominican Republic?
It was awesome! I lived in the southern part of the Dominican Republic. I grew up with my grandparents, because my mom immigrated here when I was three months old.
I went to Catholic school in the Dominican Republic. I was surrounded by family, friends. My grandfather was a farmer, so every weekend I used to go with my grandparents to the farm and just be out in nature. That's why I love parks. I love the outdoors because I spent a lot of time in the outdoors as a child.
I didn't want to come to the United States. They told me that I was just visiting for a week. So I left all my favorite stuff behind, like my pillow, my teddy bears, my clothes!
Because you thought you were coming back?!
Yes! So, I come to this new place to move in with a bunch of strangers, basically. We lived at a dead-end street. There was nobody in my new school that spoke Spanish. I didn't speak English, so it was a very traumatic experience. The food was very strange. I lost 35 pounds. Everything was strange to me.
At what point did you realize you weren’t going back?
When I started school. It was such a shocking experience.
Was there someone that helped you through that time?
My mother was always working, so that made it difficult. My mother worked three jobs! After a short time at my first school, I was transferred to another school that had some other Latino students, so they used to translate for me and help me with my homework. One of my teachers was also Latina, and she was a huge help in mentoring me.
I can only imagine the relief you felt moving to New York.
Yes! Oh my God! It was very liberating, a totally different experience.
What did you study?
Government and politics.
Where did your initial interest in politics come from?
When I was in high school, someone did a project on apartheid in South Africa, and that's when I became more politically aware. We had a professor, a former priest, who would assign us the books of Martin Luther King, books about the Holocaust, liberation theology — that was when my perfect little bubble burst. In Maryland, I was very sheltered. You live in a town, you hang out with the same people in the town, nothing bad happens around you. In my case, I didn't see that other side of America that you are faced with in New York on an everyday basis.
Did unjust causes inspire you to run for office?
I was interested in doing policy, not necessarily running for office. I think when you run for office as a woman, as an immigrant, you expose yourself to a lot. With the internet as it stands, you open yourself up to a mountain of cyber harassment. It's not something that I wanted to do. I was a union organizer for a long time — to me, that was my politics. As an immigrant, as a Latina, having representation was so important to me. I wanted to make sure that we were sitting at the table.
What sort of union work were you focused on?
I worked for a union organizing mostly immigrant workers. Mainly office building cleaners. To me that was political work, because they are unseen people. About 90 percent of them were immigrant workers, people who came to the United States for a better life, or people that came from countries that were victims of US foreign policy. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the United States provided arms to the military governments of Central American countries. As a result, those countries were left with a lot of instability, and people had to flee to the US to find work. Often, people who are anti-immigration have no idea how hard immigration is on people. Especially people of color who don’t speak English. You cannot immediately blend in; you are instantly identified as “other.”
How many years did you work in unions?
Over 15 years.
What was the biggest thing you learned during that time?
That rich people don’t like to share their wealth. Corporations are always crying about money and cuts are always made on the backs of workers. There's not a lot of respect for workers in this country. In the United States they don't teach you a lot of labor history. People don't understand that the benefits they enjoy today are due to the labor movement. When you are on a picket line, you hear people making comments about workers. There is so much resentment towards them, and it’s such a class-based issue. You hear people all the time: "They're just a cleaner. They don't need to make $20 an hour. If they wanted to do better, they should have gone to college."
Did you find that working as a woman of color in unions was particularly difficult?
Many times I was mistaken as a worker. I often got the attitude of, "Who are you to tell me what to do?"
How did you decide that you wanted to get into government?
Because as progressive as New York is, there is still so much inequality here. If you walk into any office buildings, you hardly see people of color in any positions of power. Latinos are the second largest group in the state of New York. I believe there are only four Latinas on the city council right now, while we are 29.5 percent of the state population. You take a subway in New York, and you see people from all over the planet — but those people are not necessarily the ones in positions of power, which affects the kind of public policy that is out there. It affects our children, when they look at city hall and they don't see anyone like them. It affects our people’s self esteem.
So what was it like, running for the state senate?
Firstly, I think it's important to have a background in the community you are looking to represent. Unfortunately, there are no campaign reform laws in New York, so you have be able to raise a lot of money. This can be difficult for a lot of immigrants and people of color. Most of the time we come from a working-class community, so it becomes very difficult to compete with candidates that come from wealthier neighborhoods, and have more financial connections. I live in West Harlem. My base is Washington Heights. The average income of folks in Washington Heights is probably below $30,000, so it’s very difficult for them to give donations.
How long does that process take usually?
It can take years. You’re constantly fundraising.
You also mentioned cyber-bullying. How did that factor into your decision to run?
It’s always in my mind, but I ran for my son. I did it for my community. I did it for every immigrant that lives in New York. Every time we attend one of our district public schools, the reaction from Latinos is very powerful. The girls are like, "Wow! You were born in DR and you're a senator?" And I'm like, "Yeah, yeah!" So it changes the dynamics. My reasons for becoming a senator override those possible negatives.
How do you balance being a mother and a senator?
It’s tough, because the days are long. I always try to drive my son to school because sometimes I don't get to see him until eight o'clock at night. It's a personal sacrifice that you make. I know about that — I'm an only child, so I know what it was like when my mother worked three jobs and I hardly got to see her. I'm afraid that I'm missing out on my son growing up. But I do it because I think that we — immigrants, women — need to have a voice at the table. You need somebody to speak about our issues, not because it's cool or “progressive,” but because it's their experience. You can't talk to me about immigration just by reading about it in a book, because I'm an immigrant. I know what it's like to wait in line to get a green card. I know what it's like to have an undocumented family member scared that they’ll be deported. You can't talk to me about discrimination, because I'm a Latino of African descent. People hear my accent. There have been places in Albany where I'm speaking Spanish with my colleagues and people tell us to speak English. I know what it's like, because I have lived it.
What are your long-term goals working in government?
Hopefully, we can fix the rent laws in New York City. Right now, everybody knows that landlords discriminate against folks based on income and race. Anytime a black or brown person moves out, they are not replaced by somebody that looks like them. And it’s even hard for working-class folks of all colors to live in the city. If you're a firefighter, regardless of your race, you can hardly afford to live here. We need to make a conscious effort to take care of the people that stood in solidarity with New York City when nobody wanted to live here. That is one of the key issues I want to work on.
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
To seek, to strive and not to yield.
What does New York mean to you?
I love, love, love New York! It feels like home. I love the diversity. To me, New York is like a school for life. I can go to Queens and eat Pakistani food. I can go to Koreatown and eat Korean food. In a building, you could have 20 nationalities and 20 different experiences because there are people from 20 different places that live there. I don't think you find that anywhere else on the planet.
Learn more about Senator Alcantara here.