Samelys Lopez: The Puerto Rican Who Wants to Take the Country’s Most Leftist Seat

Samelys AOC BELatina Latinx
Samelys López. Photo: Corey Torpie Photography via López for the People

What the country saw during the midterm elections of 2018 seems to be only an opening of what will come in the next district elections, where the progressive wing has found new momentum to change the way politics are done in the United States.

After historic victories like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar, there are now dozens of candidates who have seen the tangible possibility of making the system finally work by and for the people.

Among them is Samelys Lopez, a 40-year-old candidate running for Congress in the South Bronx’s 15th District, whose story seems to anticipate a victory in the best AOC style.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the South Bronx by a Dominican mother, Samelys knows firsthand the inequalities and obstacles faced by the children of immigrants, people of color, and especially in the Bronx, who are often confined to violence, insecurity, and scarcity.

Samelys came with her mother to Williamsburg as a baby, and grew up in the homeless shelter system, where she learned to “Dodge the bullies, and to sit quietly in the back of the sweatshop where she did her homework,” she told The Guardian.

It was the only way her mother could work and care for her at the same time.

Despite attending underfunded Bronx schools in University Heights, Samelys managed to earn a degree from Barnard College at Columbia University, and was subsequently selected for a competitive scholarship from the National Association of Elected Officials (NALEO), through which she gained professional experience in the office of Congressman Jose E. Serrano.

As she explains in her campaign platform, Samelys enrolled at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service and graduated with a Master’s degree in Urban Planning with a focus on Housing and Community Development.

Between her personal experience and her professional training Samelys became aware of the deep racial disparities in the field of urban planning, so she joined forces with her former colleagues to co-found Velo City, a youth cycling initiative that recruited young people from the South Bronx and Brownsville to “diffuse the professions” of the built environment.

“I wanted to be part of the creative process of building affordable housing, learning about the development process, learning about housing finance. I wanted to be able to say: ‘OK, we need housing — now how do we build it?'” she told The Guardian.

The goal of the now-activist was to blur the lines that separate communities of color in New York, the lines that prevent them from the economic development and growth they deserve.

“The built environment influences your perception of the world and how you see yourself in it. When you see certain things around you, you internalize them — I did when I was growing up. You see cracked bottles and wonder: does this mean I’m not worth it? Am I not deserving of being in this world?” she says.

Some of Samelys’ volunteer roles include serving on the transition team of New York City public defender Jumaane Williams and on the Bronx Community Board 7 as president of long-term planning. Samelys is currently an activist in the statewide Housing Justice for All coalition that was instrumental in securing possibly the most historic pro-tenant rent reform New York State has ever seen.

Samelys is the co-founder of the NYC Local Democrats, which supports grassroots candidates for the County Committee and other elected officials. She is also an active member and co-founder of Bronx Progressives, a local chapter of the New York Progressive Action Network, and Our Revolution. Bronx Progressives grew out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign to promote Bernie Sanders’ ideals in the Bronx. Through Bronx Progressives, Samelys has played a role in building an independent, community-led grassroots political movement in the Bronx.

Her new goal is to take over the post of representative of the 15th district, considered one of the most leftist districts in the country, and which Hillary Clinton won with 94 percent of the vote in 2016. To do so, not only did she have to give up her own health insurance to run, but she will also have to face nine contenders.

“There are a lot of formerly elected officials running in this race that have taken positions for things like rezoning, that have pushed jail-building, that have a habit of taking lobbyist money and real estate developer money and a history of putting those interests first, before the people,” she added in her interview with The Guardian.

“What is [their] experience rooted in? Is it rooted in getting you to your career destination? Or was it rooted in transformational justice that is [guided by] your lived experiences and that of your community?”

Her campaign pledges not to accept corporate money from Political Action Committees, to fight for housing as a human right, for universal health care for all, and to support the Green New Deal.