When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned the political world by taking out a longtime Democratic incumbent in the heart of the Bronx, one of her first phone calls that night was to tiny Maxwell, Texas.
“She told me ‘We did it,’” said Ernesto Nieto, recalling that night in the summer of 2018 when Ocasio-Cortez woke him up. “I was so proud of her.”
While a New Yorker through and through, Ocasio-Cortez had spent more than a decade growing a bond with Texas — particularly South Texas — that played a vital role in developing the confidence, analytical skills and infectious leadership style that turned her into one of the nation’s most dominant political personalities at 30 years of age.
“It’s a home away from home for me,” Ocasio-Cortez said in July during a conference call with San Antonio’s Julián Castro while talking about how important Texas has been to her.
Starting in 2005 as a teenager, Ocasio-Cortez participated in the National Hispanic Institute programs that Nieto and his wife Gloria de Leon created 41 years ago this summer. That program, now headquartered outside of San Marcos in Maxwell, was designed to help promising Latino students develop leadership skills and public policy knowledge to help them become lifelong leaders.
Its alumni include Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, U.S. Rep. Xochitl Liana Torres Small, D-New Mexico, and New York City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, along with an estimated 100,000 other Latinos.
But of all the students, Nieto saw something very special about Ocasio-Cortez, who was a sophomore in high school when she enrolled.
“She is unafraid of anyone,” Nieto said. “She was just as confident back then as she is now.”
That fearlessness will be on display for the world on Tuesday when Ocasio-Cortez will be a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention — a role that may have seemed impossible three years ago, when she launched an insurgent campaign against a 10-term incumbent Democrat who raised 12 times as much money as she did.
Much of the nation knows Ocasio-Cortez as the bartender-turned-Democratic-upstart who beat long odds with an unflinching progressive agenda and an equally strong delivery that made her an overnight star in the Democratic Party.
Nieto and de Leon see the influence of her father, an architect who was always pushing her with brain games and who saw the National Hispanic Institute as another step in her intellectual development.
High school students from Texas and beyond take part in the institute’s program, a sort of summer camp where they build a student government from the ground up. That means collaborating with each other, sorting out leadership roles and setting up networks of allies to promote policies to improve their community.
Ocasio-Cortez was tasked with building coalitions and galvanizing support in what could be intimidating circumstances with people she hardly knew. De Leon said Ocasio-Cortez stood out because she’d run for a leadership position and lose, but then try again and run for something else. She didn’t give up.
“We put her in a lot of command performance positions,” Nieto said. “We put her in a lot of positions that had her in the heat of potential criticism.”
Year after year, Ocasio-Cortez returned in many different capacities, taking on more leadership roles and responsibilities.
De Leon said Ocasio-Cortez learned how to ask the right questions and how to dig a little further to find common ground.
“She’s a really good listener,” Nieto said. “She had an intellectual capacity and verbal capacity to explain to people, especially younger people, complex concepts.”
Nieto said the program is about shattering the idea that being Hispanic is something to overcome, and showing the kids they are part of a global community in which they should have the confidence to make important changes through influencing public policy.
Ocasio-Cortez’s work as a student would lead to an internship with the NHI while she was studying at Boston University, a role that Ocasio-Cortez said put her on the road between San Antonio and McAllen regularly as part of outreach efforts with Latino families in South Texas. She was the group’s education director in 2017.
That connection to Texas has been a regular feature of her life.
‘Not afraid to fall’
In 2018, before winning her seat in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez was among those making trips to Texas to check on Tornillo, where a tent city had been created housing hundreds of immigrant children separated from their families who had crossed the border.
Her ties to Texas were evident earlier this year when Ocasio-Cortez started endorsing candidates in Congressional races in Texas. In the 28th Congressional District that runs from San Antonio to Laredo, Ocasio-Cortez endorsed then 26-year-old immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros against U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar in the Democratic primary.
“This South Texas district is quite close to my heart,” Ocasio-Cortez said of the race after endorsing Cisneros, who narrowly lost to Cuellar.
Now, Ocasio-Cortez is aligning herself more with Castro. Although she endorsed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the race for the White House, Ocasio-Cortez lauded Castro for bringing issues to the forefront of the presidential debate that had been overlooked by other candidates, such as his call to decriminalize illegal border crossings. Now she’s working with Castro’s political action committee People First Future, which she says is about “putting gas in the tank for changing our country.”
That relationship is a boon for Castro, who now has a chance to build a younger base of support among Ocasio-Cortez’s backers in Texas as he eyes his own political future.
But as Ocasio-Cortez’s star power has risen, so have her tussles with Texas Republicans who call her brand of politics a threat to our democracy.
U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz have had notable twitter spats with her. President Donald Trump just last month was in Midland warning about Ocasio-Cortez’s impact influencing Democrats to adopt The Green New Deal — a climate change program that Trump says will destroy the oil industry in Texas.
But if there is one thing NHI taught Ocasio-Cortez and other graduates, it is to how to process criticism and how to avoid discouragement, de Leon said. Part of the institute’s program is meant to build peer support systems for the students so they can rebound, and thrive.
In an article for the NHI alumni newsletter in 2017, Ocasio-Cortez talked about how the program helped teach community equity building skills that epitomized what her campaign tried to do. Instead of looking for outside experts to help organize, she said they learned how to build the skill within their community — a key tenet at the institute.
But also in a sign of her training, Ocasio-Cortez talked about how the program taught her to lead without being afraid of taking on tough odds or challenging conventional thinking.
“We’re always careful to be respectful, but we’re also unafraid,” she said. “To run an ‘unafraid’ campaign is actually pretty new. People are used to campaigns that are constantly focused-grouped and a sure thing. We’re not afraid to fall on our face sometimes and take a stand and have people respond and start a conversation.”