We were dressed up, with ruffles on our socks and bows in our hair, and my mom was shuffling us into a fancy hotel that had invited military families to their New Year’s Eve party. My two younger sisters and I gaped at our surroundings, gibbering in Spanglish, in awe of the nicest place we’d ever been. My mamá, a Puerto Rican-Mexican woman in her early 20s, grabbed one of us and hissed in that mom voice that lets you know it isn’t a suggestion, “Mija, act like you’ve been here before!”
Her admonition didn’t come from a bad place. “Act like you’ve been here before” was a protection tactic and an assimilation tool. It was a practice from our Latino side of trying to fit in as Americans to build a better life.
Earlier this week I scrolled through my Instagram feed and watched Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a Boricua like me with her lips painted red, her hair long and loose, and the youngest woman to be elected to the House of Representatives — discovering the “secret” tunnels under the Capitol during new member orientation on the Hill.
I watched her call other women members-elect of color — Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib — her #Squad, compare the Hill Rotunda to Hogwarts, and share other moments of excitement and pride at the incredible privilege of being new to Congress.
As I watched her use the communal laundry before her first day of orientation, which she jokingly called “freshman orientation,” I realized how long I’d been acting. And how these newly elected Congress members, the youngest and most diverse ever, were giving me permission to stop.
Eight years ago, at age 20, I was a college intern at the State Department in Washington, DC. Through a series of odd jobs, babysitting, and scholarships, I scrimped together enough to afford the unpaid gig. I remember walking into my first day ready to wow — I had on my best polka-dot church dress, a new Steve Madden purse from Marshall’s, and a bedazzled Blackberry. And I did what my padres had taught me — put my head down and worked hard, fetching coffee, volunteering to take notes in meetings, writing drafts of memos, making friends with the Spanish-speaking secretaries and custodial staff, and trying to ensure my colleagues saw me as someone who adds value.
A few weeks in, one of the staffers I’d been working closely with, a young-ish white man, pulled me aside to give me some feedback. He praised me on the quality of my writing, thanked me for the long hours. Then he said, with what seemed like genuinely good intentions, that if I wanted to get ahead, I had to think about how my whole package “came across.” That if I wanted to be taken seriously, I couldn’t be or dress like “a personality.” He phrased it in terms of maturity and decorum, but I got that sinking feeling, the one many women of color are familiar with, that he meant something else.
I swapped out the patterned dresses for ill-fitting suits foraged on sale at the Nordstrom Rack on L Street. Stopped wearing red lipstick or the nameplate necklace Abuela gifted me for my quinceañiera, the only piece of real gold jewelry I owned. When people talked about going home for the holidays, I told them I was going to Florida, allowing them to assume it was a luxury vacation instead of eight or 10 of us crammed into a few bedrooms, my cousins sleeping on air mattresses at the foot of my bed. I nodded as people talked about “rowing crew” or finals clubs and googled the phrases later.
I could often get away with pretending — with fair skin and blue eyes, I “pass” as white, and my last name is Kissinger, a name that evokes power in Washington circles (there is no relation). But I could still feel myself recentering. In the darker moments, I told myself I wasn’t changing or hiding my identity, I was maturing. These were the markings of a professional woman in politics, and I was checking the boxes.
After graduating and working on President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, I was in disbelief when they immediately hired me as a junior staffer in the Obama White House. I had a tiny desk in the West Wing and worked tirelessly on issues I cared deeply about. I had incredible bosses, many of them fierce women of color, who I believe would have supported and valued my authentic self. But I still kept up the act. It seemed to have worked thus far.
In 2018, this inspiring freshman class of women is redefining what it means to thrive in Washington. They’re not trying to pass as something they’re not or to act like they’ve been here before. And by sharing their experiences, in real and honest ways on social media, these women, many of whom represent historic firsts, are opening doors to help ensure they aren’t the last.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is taking us along as she cooks mac and cheese and talks about politics, as she geeks out wandering the halls of Congress, an institution that feels far away to so many Americans. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim women elected to the House, are posting pictures together and bonding. Ayanna Pressley’s video of her sobbing after finding out she won her primary election went viral. Sharice Davids is gushing over meeting heroes like Rep. John Lewis.
And by taking us along, through Instagram stories admitting they had to look up words like “franking privilege” — meaning the privilege to send mail without a postage stamp — during a briefing, to captioning group pictures with #PeopleLikeUs, they’re showing that we don’t have to change ourselves for these institutions. It’s time the institutions changed.
I’m sure sharing this journey so publicly isn’t always easy. As they detail more of their stories, they’re opening themselves up to the unfair criticisms that crippled me — that they’re either too poor or in debt to serve, or conversely dressed too nicely to actually be poor, making their life stories somehow fake. Only four days into orientation, a journalist posted a creep shot of Ocasio-Cortez’s back, calling her a “girl” and inferring that her clothes were too nice for someone who says she’s struggling.
This came after Fox News spent weeks mocking her inability to afford rent in DC until her salary kicks in — a reality that is all too real to me, a former unpaid intern unable to ask my parents for money.
But these are real, authentic women of color dressing and talking like themselves, owning what they represent, and peeling back the curtain. Allowing us to finally see ourselves, our complexities and our differences, in our leaders.
A few weeks ago, I moved back to DC. And after unpacking, I took a huge box of those old, stuffy suits that never fit me in the first place to Goodwill. And in large part, it’s because these women, in their bravery and openness, have helped me decide that I’m done acting like we belong in these institutions. We do belong, just as we are.
Alexa Kissinger is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School and a law clerk at the Public Defender’s Service in DC. She formerly worked as a staff assistant to Valerie Jarrett in the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, and as a regional field director on President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.