Photo by Alex Purifoy, Julia Salazar Campaign
United States / Julia Salazar

Julia Salazar and the American Fib

At just 27 years old, Julia Salazar is now the first-time state senator of New York’s 18th district. Salazar – a woman of color, a democratic socialist, and a rookie politician – defeated the incumbent (eight-term!) state senator Martin Dilan at the primaries in September, and then ran uncontested. News outlets loved her story of her struggle through adversity, with The Village Voice and New York Magazine comparing her to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who got a lot of press coverage after her New York election victory for being a young, fiercely liberal woman of color. Yet Salazar, it turns out, did not actually have the rags-to-riches story she portrayed. She had a middle-class upbringing, as opposed to the working-class one she described; her mother was college-educated, contrary to what Salazar said; and her supposedly lifelong socialist beliefs were actually a recent acquisition, after she ditched her previously conservative viewpoints.The fact that she was able to be so successful despite being so dishonest suggests that Americans today crave an American Dream story so much that they accept anything that comes their way. At the same time, many millennials may be Julia Salazars in smaller ways, as they have grown up in an era that so worships the rags-to-riches story that millennials feels the need to justify their privilege.

Salazar’s political views have flip-flopped enough to raise suspicions. Politically, Salazar, like many others who have followed in Bernie Sanders’s footsteps, identifies as a democratic socialist. But Salazar has neglected to mention the fact that she only became a registered Democrat a year ago, when she moved to Brooklyn. Salazar first registered to vote as a Republican in 2008, at eighteen years old. Then, in 2010, having moved to New York to attend Columbia University, Salazar registered instead as a member of the state Independence Party, only in 2017 finally becoming a registered Democrat. When questioned about these changes, however, Michael Kinnucan, her spokesperson, claimed that she had conservative views as a young adult because her family was conservative, and she changed her views after going to college. This argument does not explain why Salazar, today a proponent of the Reproductive Health Act, was not only a member of but was actually the president of Columbia Right to Life, a prominent anti-abortion activism group on campus. Moreover, Salazar did not even vote in New York until 2017. For someone running on a platform of grassroots organization and the power of young people in politics, her lack of political action in the simplest form–voting–is a red flag. Kinnucan says that Salazar chose not to vote because until 2016, she, “like a lot of young New Yorkers, […] didn’t see much on the table in terms of voting.” That statement still does not show how someone who was supposedly “engaged in activism against police brutality and anti-war efforts, and later helped advocate for the Right to Know Act” would choose not to vote in an election as crucial as the 2016 presidential election, but in 2018 decide to run for office. Salazar seems to have adopted a new set of political beliefs and ideologies in order to run for office in an extremely liberal district.

Salazar’s family history is even murkier. Is she a Colombian immigrant as she claimed? Apparently not, as she was actually born in South Florida to a New Jersey-born mother and a Colombian father who was a naturalized American citizen by the time of Salazar’s birth. Is she actually Jewish, as she has emphasized on the campaign trail? Well, yes, but she was a staunch Christian Zionist at least at the beginning of college, and it was only in 2012 that she, in her own words, “went through a conversion process with a Reform rabbi at [Columbia-Barnard] Hillel in 2012,” although she still did not “really bother to consider it a conversion because many people don’t respect Reform conversion.” Did she really have a working-class past? Was she raised by a single mom? Although her campaign website asserts that as early as age 14, she had to work “to make ends meet,” her own brother has spoken out saying that their family was comfortably middle-class and that their childhood home was “in a beautiful neighborhood.” Salazar’s mother said that she encouraged her daughter to work, so she that she would develop time management skills and a good work ethic. In response to her family’s claims, Salazar was forced to clarify that she actually needed money for everyday responsibilities, like gas money for her car. Similarly, although she has claimed to have been raised by a single mother, her parents, who separated when she was six, both helped raise her; there were actually only two years when Salazar solely lived with her mother. Salazar has fabricated her family history in a way that makes her upbringing appear grittier, responding to allegations that she was lying to change her image, by saying, “That’s not to say, woe is me at all.”.

As troubling as Salazar’s lies are for politics today, her untruths reveal a more fundamental obsession in the United States today with the fabled rags-to-riches story, a trope that is challenging and problematic. Visiting her campaign website, one immediately finds the following biography:

“Born in an immigrant family, Julia attended public schools, and began working at a local grocery store when she was 14 to help make ends meet. She supported herself through Columbia University as a nanny.”

There is no doubt that Salazar and her team believe that such a description is politically advantageous, as it would appeal to her Democratic-Socialist voter base’s craving for a so-called “woman of the people.” But as noted above, she did not work at age 14 to support her family, and her nanny work was a side job and not intended to help her pay for college. Political lies are not a new phenomenon, although these lies have become increasingly accepted by the American public. When President Obama lied to Americans, saying that “if they liked their health care plan they could keep it,” he was forced to apologize. Today, however, President Trump regularly lies and gets away with it with few repercussions besides Twitter users’ increasing anger.

In Salazar’s case, her website emphasizes the parts of her life that show a lack of privilege, ignoring the fact that she still grew up in a comfortably middle-class town, that she had a family that provided for her, that she had the privilege of attending an Ivy League university. Perhaps this attitude is a generational issue; many privileged millennials feel that if they do not come from disadvantaged backgrounds they have not earned their successes, and so begins an endless cycle of justifications and fibs so as not to seem too privileged. So if this is a generational problem, where does it come from? Maybe this need to overstate one’s struggles comes from being raised in an era where Bush claimed to be a simple Texan despite his patrician roots, while Obama wrote books about his disadvantaged background, describing his path from a mixed race, single-parent household to the country’s highest office. Or perhaps this millennial culture has come about as a result of a generation accustomed to college admissions essay prompts like “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” On the other hand, maybe this millennial culture doesn’t come from societal expectations, but instead from a perceived struggle. After all, no young adult, regardless of her privilege, feels as though her life has been easy or free of struggles, and so in the process of articulating the problems she has faced, she makes her upbringing appear harder than it was.

Regardless of what motivates millennials to stretch the truth about their pasts, such a culture is harmful: not only because it fosters chronic dishonesty, but also because it takes away from the stories of real struggle from those who grew up without many of the privileges that the Julia Salazars of the world take for granted. Since the days of Horatio Alger, Americans have been fixated with the concept of achieving the American Dream. Today, especially due to systemic problems that prevent many of the socioeconomically downtrodden from making this Dream a reality, it is especially impressive when people do accomplish the Dream. All in all, as long as Julia Salazar continues to change the narrative on her upbringing, even if she is doing it solely for political benefit, she makes it possible for others to lie the way she has. In doing so, she normalizes a culture that does not prioritize gratitude for the advantages that one has been given and that does not give enough credit to people who actually pull off the rare feat that is the American Dream.