The South Bronx 'Saved' Samelys López's Life. Now She's Running To Represent It In Congress

'We need to flip the script and give the Bronx its due'

Samelys López wants the residents of New York’s 15th congressional district to vote for her. But she hopes people in the community ask the right questions as they decide their vote — and not base their decision solely on the fact that she’s another Latina progressive from the Bronx.

“What I look for is your conviction,” she told MTV News. “What has your record been? What has been your progression? Where did you stand on the issue? Have you stood with the working class all the time? Have you stood with our labor movement all the time? Or have you been selling us out by accepting money from certain entities that are imposing oppression on our communities?”

Questions like that are shaping the 40-year-old’s campaign for NY-15. A community organizer, she has plenty of competition for the seat, including city council members Ritchie Torres and Ruben Diaz, Sr., the latter of whom once boasted that he was Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s “opposite.” But López, who once interned for the district’s outgoing congressman, José E. Serrano, believes her neighbors in the South Bronx deserve a representative who is willing to learn from them at every step of the way — and one who isn’t taking money from corporate donors and real estate developers, many of whom have visions for the Bronx that would negatively impact the working-class people who live there.

“The kind of representative that this district needs is someone that's going to be able to unite different communities, because this is one of the most diverse congressional districts in the entire country,” she told MTV News, adding that 97 percent of people living in the district are people of color. “It's like a microcosm of the world, and this district deserves somebody who's going to work on building a multi-racial, working class coalition that's going to center the things that we need, which is a lack of housing, rampant homelessness, universal childcare, universal healthcare for all, and a Green New Deal that is informed by the front-line communities that have always borne the brunt of environmental injustice.”

López, who has earned endorsements from grassroots movements like the Sister Diaspora for Liberation and Courage to Change, the political action committee helmed by Rep. Ocasio Cortez, talked to MTV News about representing a community that she feels has been consistently devalued by people who take its votes for granted and why she’s working to engage potential constituents who aren’t citizens, even though, and especially because they won’t be able to vote in the New York primary, which has been moved to June 23, in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

MTV News: What made you want to run for Congress?

Samelys López: I almost didn't run. People in the community and the progressive movement space told me to consider this possibility, because I've been involved in the trenches and organizing on the ground for a while now. They were like, "Well, there's a bunch of corporate Democrats running. We need a grassroots movement candidate to represent the needs of the community, and that has the courage to ally themselves with the leftist base in New York City and in the Bronx."

I come from the homeless shelter system, and my mom was a domestic violence survivor. She worked at sweatshops to make ends meet when she first moved to New York City. That basically exposed me to a lot of things at an early age. Income inequality, lack of good working conditions, worker exploitation... And just watching my mom be verbally, physically exploited was definitely something that motivated me to always fight for the underdog, to organize, to center the working class in everything that I've ever done in my life.

MTV News: What did you want to be when you grew up?

López: My mom always wanted to be a lawyer, actually. When I was little, I was leaning towards being an astronaut, because I was really into Star Trek. But I never really thought about going into politics.

When I was growing up, I never saw people like me, that looked like me, on TV. I just saw white people, and white men. So I was like, "Oh, this is not for me. This doesn't make any sense." But then as I went on and I got exposed to my community and the leaders and the movement space, I was like, "Wait a minute. There's a lot here. Maybe it can be a possibility." But I never thought that I would do this, growing up.

MTV News: What kind of misconceptions do you think other people, even in New York, get wrong about the district that you're fighting for?

López: For one thing, our votes are definitely taken for granted, because we are the bluest county in the entire country. Sometimes that creates a feeling that, "Well, maybe I don't have to work hard to earn these votes. I’ll continue taking real estate development donations to finance my campaign and it's going to be fine." But people in the community are educated, and they understand that there's a link between taking certain kinds of donations and corruption.

The district is also continuously described as the poorest congressional district in the country. And while it's true that we have a set of economic challenges, I think that we need to also recognize that this is the most resilient borough in the entire. Landlords burned their own buildings in the South Bronx for the insurance money, and racist housing policies redlined Black and brown communities to prevent banks from lending to us, that caused a lot of disinvestment. It was people on the front lines that stayed the course and reinvested in their neighborhoods. It's those people that made the Bronx what it is today. The South Bronx gave my family a second opportunity at life, coming out of the shelter system. I owe everything that I am to the Bronx. It saved my life.

MTV News: What did you learn from growing up in that community, and in that movement?

López: We should never forget our history, and the movement that we're standing top of. If it hadn't been for that strength, that love and compassion that our elders in the community showed by staying in the community and fighting for it, I wouldn't be here today. When you grow up with a little bit, you're forced to be really creative with the resources that you have, and the Bronx is accustomed to that. A lot of front-line community activists here have been fighting for housing justice, for environmental justice [for decades].

I think that the country and the world need to be looking at the existing movements in the community, to see how those solutions can be implemented nationally and globally to address things like the climate crisis and the lack of affordable housing. There's a lot of creativity, and we need to flip the script and give the Bronx its due. We need to honor our revolutionary, resilient legacy.

MTV News: This year stop and frisk came to the forefront of the presidential race. While the regularity of it occurring in New York has gone down, it is still enforceable due to a Supreme Court ruling. If elected, how would you work to eradicate that?

López: We need to divert from continuing to invest in the prison-industrial complex and make sure that we divert that funding into domestic social programs that make a difference in people's lives.

Right now, at least in this congressional district, poverty is being criminalized. If you don't have enough money for a MetroCard and you're jumping a turnstile because you need to get to work, you're ticketed, or you're getting a summons. If you're selling churros in the subway, the police confiscate your belongings and prevent you from making a living. It’s a different standard for people of color and those living in low-income communities. Transportation should also be free, but that's another conversation.

I look up to Tiffany Cabán, who ran an amazing district attorney race in Queens. She’s been doing a lot of the work on the ground in terms of transforming the conversation around criminal justice, nationally. The people that have been hurt by our criminal justice system always need to be centered when we re-envision this. When you keep investing in prisons, you're going to fill it with people, and typically Black and brown bodies are the ones that are going to go into those prisons, because historically our communities are targeted more than other communities.

And at the federal level, something that I support fully is the commission that's being set up to study reparations and the impact of slavery on the development of this country. Slavery, combined with capitalism, has led to a lot of the injustices in America. One of the things that the 13th Amendment says is that, if you're in prison, you can be used for free labor. That's not right. I think that if we tackle that, we can address a lot of issues as it relates to race, and we can reduce the mass incarceration crisis in our communities.

MTV News: Congress is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, but that is changing, little by little. How do you feel to be part of that push to finally make Congress actually representative of the country at large?

López: I feel so honored and inspired. You have people like AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and other young women of color that are coming up locally. Whether they're running for a county committee, district leader, even outside of traditional politics. Everybody is getting involved, and everybody has something so special to offer. There's a lot of creativity to harness. But I think for that to flourish, you also need to create the right political conditions for that movement to also be translated into electoral power.

Most of the people in the United States, in the Bronx and beyond, they're not millionaires. They're not billionaires. Most people are making $30,000 or $40,000 a year. We have to basically re-envision our government and politics in a way that centers the needs of the working class. It's at every level of government that we need to create that change, so that we can make sure that our government captures the demographics of the communities that we're serving in.

But identity politics can be tricky, too. Sometimes, just because somebody looks like you or talks like you, doesn't mean that they're doing right by you. My thing is, Who have you been fighting for? If you're connected to the movement space, if you're willing to be accountable to this community-led movement on the ground, and if you've been doing that the whole time, and on top of that you happen to be a woman or you happen to be an LGBTQIA+ member of the community? Yeah, let's go with you, let's rally around you and let's support you. But we got to see where you stand on the issues.

MTV News: Social media has really helped amplify the work people have been putting in for years. How do you view social media’s role in your campaign, and as a tool for movements at large?

 López: I don't think that social media should ever replace actual organizing. I think that it should always be used to amplify what's already going. There's a lot of armchair activists that think, with a couple of Facebook clicks or Twitter retweets, that you're organizing. But I think that the organizing happens in the community, on the ground, with people.

But social media is great in terms of getting our message out, and in terms of getting connected to other spaces that can bring in more resources. So in our campaign, we've been using social media to amplify what we've been doing on the ground. And we're really excited to have gotten the Courage to Change PAC endorsement. What that's done for us is given us more fundraising opportunities, more volunteers are signing up to the campaign now, and it's given us, generally, more visibility.

We also have a young woman of color from the Bronx who's helping us with our social media strategy and giving us some good tips. She helps us stay connected to the youth on the ground and figure out ways that we can engage them, and learn from them. Because at the end of the day, we're fighting for the youth. We should be talking to middle school kids, high school kids, early college-age kids, to find out what they're going through and how we can organize around the issues that matter to them, because we're fighting for their current reality and their future.

MTV News: If you’re elected, you would be younger than the average age of the average congressperson, which is 57.8 years old. What would you want people to remember about the fact that Congress is getting younger?

Samelys López: It sounds kind of corny, but it's the People's House, so we need to make sure that Congress is reflecting the communities that we're serving. And we need to be intentional about reaching out to communities that have been left out of the conversation, to make sure that they have a space to get involved. When you focus policy on direct, lived experiences, and the most marginalized experiences, everybody in society benefits.

MTV News: How do you see your space, as a potential congressperson, to advocate for the people who can’t vote, but still pay taxes, and still live here?

López: Sometimes people don't want to take my flyer, because, "Oh, I'm not a citizen yet, I can't get involved, I can't vote." And I tell them, "Even though you're not a citizen yet, and you can't vote, you're still a part of this community and you still have needs, and we need to have representatives that are also going to represent you, because you make this community as well. Everybody needs to be represented." And that’s why the census rollout is troubling to me, because everyone needs to be counted.

Everybody needs to be a part of this conversation, whether you're a citizen or not, whether you're a voter or not. Obviously, we want to encourage citizens to vote, but if you're not, you have a space in our campaign, and we want to learn from you. We want to build with you and fight alongside you and for you.

MTV News: Given that March is Women’s History Month, who are the women who have inspired you?

López: Obviously, my mom. Watching her struggle, seeing her survive the situations that she ended up in... It's incredibly inspirational to me. She stayed in situations that were violent and dangerous because she just didn't have the resources to make ends meet. Poverty is destroying people's lives and making them stay in situations that are dangerous and violent.

I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for her. She only had a third-grade level of education from the Dominican Republic, but she is the wisest person that I know. She is the embodiment of the American Dream for me. There are so many people like my mom, and a lot of unseen, unsung heroes in the community who we need to honor. She’s just one of them.

This interview has been edited for length.

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