Gabriel Ocasio-Cortez Has His Hands Full

October 1, 2021
by Chris Roney
Photography by M. Cooper

Never does systemic inequality come quite into relief like it does in New York City, the world’s richest city in terms of private wealth. With a housing crisis of epic proportions underway, the city’s shelters might as well be a world away from the excess looming in high rises above our heads. Homelessness in New York City was already at levels unseen since the Great Depression before the pandemic hit, not to mention the profound destabilizing effect of COVID-19 on millions of us. The fight for decent housing and basic-most security for all is still very much alive. The work is unrelenting. Thankfully, so are its champions.

In June, almost 51,000 New Yorkers — 15,641 of them children — slept in shelters each night. Families with children are spending some 18 months on average in city shelters: a two-and-a-half-month uptick from the 2020 fiscal year, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. Gabriel Ocasio-Cortez, the younger brother of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, works in a city shelter. He uses his connections as a former real estate broker to source apartments for families experiencing homelessness.

Like AOC, Capitol Hill’s 31-year-old progressive powerhouse, he is dedicated. As a teen, his family too faced the risk of homelessness after his father’s death. At 15, he went to work to save his family home from foreclosure. So the work of getting families out of the system and into their own homes is intensely personal. He’s also a lot like what his late father thought a man ought to be, at least in his own words. “Being a ‘man’ in my father’s eyes was definitely centered around lots of thinking,” he said in one of our many conversations. “Being well-measured and often gauging.”

Considering what the shelter system will likely go up against in the coming months, New York’s housing crisis calls for all of the well-measured, gauging solutions we can muster.

At 28, GOC doesn’t have all the answers, nor does he purport to. (We would do well, he said, to be wary of the overly tidy, B-roll-in-a-campaign-ad solutions.) But the Queens native does the work. “People like to see things that go boom,” he said, laughing, “and are not necessarily interested in the fuse.”

Aside from his work at the shelter, he’s also an artist and advocate for the Deaf and hard of hearing. (At 15, he woke up from a nap and had lost half of his hearing.) In November, he founded Deaf Collective, a Deaf-centric art collective with the mission to showcase Deaf-slash-queer art and fund free and low-cost ASL lessons, grants, and scholarships for those in need. On the eve of his POPSUGAR photo shoot, he divulged that Deaf Collective is now an officially recognized charity in New York state, 501(c)3 pending.

It was one of the last hot Friday nights in Brooklyn, but we didn’t know it yet. We ate tacos; some of us drank lukewarm beer. The air tasted sweet. After his shoot at the storied Colony Studios in Greenpoint — where riots for workers’ rights took place in 1910, and Bella and Gigi Hadid once sat for portraits more recently — we sat down to talk about everything from housing and his early life to art, language, and the body itself.

POPSUGAR: You’re an artist with a degree in art therapy. How would you begin to describe what drew you to art as a healing modality?

Gabriel Ocasio-Cortez: When I approached the concept of college in high school, I did not care. I knew I’d have to take care of my family and stay local, so I stopped putting in effort in high school, as I knew I’d have to at least sacrifice my freshman year and go to a community college.

I took an Art 101 drawing class when I finally did become a freshman, and it was just to satisfy the creative, tinkering part of my mind. I ended up learning techniques very quickly and impressing myself.

What caught me was that when we finally had a self-portrait section of the course, I couldn’t help but draw myself with minutiae that hinted towards stress and/or age. At that time, my lovely Bulgarian art professor suggested it could be a nonverbal expression of my subconscious. Nothing had ever rang so true in my life.

PS: I think about the language of the body, and I think about how we talk with our hands as Latinos. There’s so much warmth in that: the gesturing, the filling the actual space between us with our hands. Reaching out for each other, grasping for what words alone can’t quite get across.

That relationship between the hands and language itself feels so compatible with signing in the Deaf community — with the artist’s hand and their art, even. Is that true in your experience?

GOC: In Latin culture, it’s all in the hands and eyes. I know I supplement my spoken words with my hands more often than I realize; it’s actually something I think helps piece together the elements of the conversation. Expression through movement is deeply primal, so it only makes sense that we evolved it as we progressed socially. The problem is that we haven’t valued it appropriately.

When I drew myself with such nuanced detail, hinting at an older age and higher stress, I looked at my hands and felt like they freed me and they betrayed me. I let myself go, and it felt great, but it felt reckless, and I had done this while standing and — unknowingly — scribbling with charcoal. It was the moment I actually understood I had scraped the surface of my engagement with nonverbal expression. It trails the concept that every gambler has a tell: a piece of truth that makes itself known through a movement.

Once I started in my art therapy program, I focused on subconscious projections placed in artworks by my clients. I grew a clinical skill for identifying meaning in physical movement before I truly appreciated the reality of my disability: an order of events I’m grateful for. Appreciating nonverbal dialogue before realizing I’d need it in the future in a much different capacity helped me become more optimistic as a person: something I needed after my collective experiences at that point.

I don’t think everything happens for a reason; I think that concept is dismissive and minimizing. But I do believe the order of these specific events, for me, were predetermined.

PS: What else has art revealed to you about your own subconscious?

GOC: I can’t overstate how important creating art has been to my personal awareness, self-awareness, and growth. I think it almost scared me to be able to see how much of yourself you don’t realize is going on.

I think that when we unknowingly pass that value along, we’re not realizing that we are leading future family members into positions of anxiety. We aren’t teaching our family members, and our kids, and our grandkids what it feels like to have leisure time to reflect and be “off.” So when you condition someone to be constantly “on,” that’s never going to give them the ability to turn their mind off. That’s one hope [of mine] for the Latino community: just trying to instill more OK-ness with just existing, and not having to justify your existence by performing an action.

PS: That energy feels very manifest in the way that you describe your style as an artist, actually: the staccato of lots of quick movements. But that commentary tracks; that ability to recharge is something I know I struggle with, along with so many other first-gen Latinos our age.

I think of all the poor, working-class people — Black and Latino especially — who are so mentally and physically exhausted trying to meet their basic-most needs, like housing, that they don’t have the luxury of being “off” ever, really. Working to get families housed, you have a real ability to give people some peace of mind.

PS: What does your day-to-day work at the shelter look like?

GOC: I have about a two-hour commute per leg. I use my real estate connections to source apartments for families with government subsidies, typically afflicted by mental illness and/or severe domestic violence. I spend hours some days building bonds with families to try to get them to see that an opportunity — an apartment — truly is worth the emotional risk of subconsciously getting your hopes up. I spend hours other days searching for legal loopholes to get my families funds needed to relocate out of state and be with family during times of need. I spend some days consoling single parents who caught an ACS [Administration For Children’s Services] case even though they’re doing their best. Every single day is trying, but every single day is worth it.

PS: What moments make it gratifying to you?

GOC: It’s calling someone who has been failed by the system to let them know I found a way to get them an apartment and a way to pay for it. It’s seeing a mother’s face of realization when the movers arrive, that they actually found a home. Holding a baby while they dance in their new apartment. Absolutely nothing beats that. Nothing beats knowing that I was the one who directly made that happen. It shrinks all of my issues into the dust, and I am humbled daily.

PS: I get the sense you have an especially well-rounded understanding of housing: working to find housing for families in New York City today, but doing it as a former real estate broker, and having studied local realty law at 15 years old to protect your family home from foreclosure in the wake of your father’s death.

GOC: My mom and my dad were raised in separate but still very substandard housing. My dad grew up in the South Bronx in less-than-ideal conditions, and unfortunately, that was considered the norm at that time. My mom grew up facing extreme poverty in Puerto Rico. And they’re different, but of course, it still goes back to the fact that these were children who had no control of their environments, that were living in substandard housing.

Once they had my sister, we were still in the Bronx. And then when I came along and my sister was out of preschool, I believe, they decided to just pool everything that they could together as a family, with help from extended family. They bought the smallest house that they could find in the most northern part of Westchester, and they put us there because they wanted to have a fighting shot to not repeat what they had gone through.

We were constantly raised, every day, being back in the Bronx with our family — I mean, it’s still, you know, integral to who we are. But when you grow up having such a constant daily comparison, you just naturally, constantly think to yourself: Why? What is the difference between myself and my cousin? Why do we live so differently? And as you get older, you start to realize the way resources are allocated, the way school districts are set up, the way zip codes are set up, the way districting goes.

But to get back to your question, the reality is that when you’re raised with a constant comparison, you’re able to really act on it, I think, in a supremely more profound way as an adult.

PS: When asked in our pre-interview how you would envision a brighter future for our homeless in the US, you said it ultimately comes down to subsidized housing. I’m wondering, what steps need to be taken to make housing subsidies on a federal level a reality, and how might AOC’s stance re: housing be a factor there policy-wise?

GOC: Right, so when it comes to her policies, I think the tone she’s taking is correct: housing is a human right. We see that in New York because everybody is eligible for shelter. If you go to New York City, you will be able to find emergency housing for those that are homeless. But it just comes down to expanding it at the federal level. The actual way of chasing that, I can’t tell you the best way, but my first idea would be simply looking at the national Section 8 program and seeing why in some states it’s limited in terms of enrollment and why in some states the numbers are the way they are.

I know that in New York state, it was limited for an extremely long time, and right now it is still limited. Sometimes it’s just for people who are able to connect with the right district attorney and the right district attorney’s office after experiencing domestic violence. It’s very unclear, and it’s still maze-like. Housing really needs to become part of the public conversation in order to gain true momentum on the national level.

PS: I get the sense that housing isn’t a particularly sexy issue, really, compared to others on the campaign trail.

GOC: [laughs] That’s reality, you know? That’s reality for the homeless. “Solving homelessness” is something that people really like to smile about and high-five over, over generic stock video. Faux celebration. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of people who are truly invested in it.

PS: It’s Queer History Month after all, so let’s close on a gay note. You came out in 2018; I know you firmly believe that your queerness makes you a better person and amplifies the selflessness in you. How so?

GOC: As I became more integrated into the queer community, I felt more eyes on me, and I used that pressure to hold myself to a higher standard. I see the attention and care our people give to one another as sacred, and something I actively want to be a part of. I just do not believe I’d be as loving to others if I wasn’t gay.


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