On July 20, Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida reportedly accosted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol, calling the Congresswoman “disgusting” and “out of your freaking mind.” The Congressman then proceeded to call Ocasio-Cortez a “fucking bitch” in front of reporters. The following day, Rep. Yoho delivered a non-apology that attempted to excuse his behaviour because he has a wife and two daughters.
In response to his "apology," Ocasio-Cortez delivered a 10-minute-long speech on the House floor that shines as one of the most remarkable examples of political oratory in recent history. “This issue is not about one incident,” she said, pointing out that Rep. Yoho is not the only man in politics to have used dehumanising language against her (see: Donald Trump). “It is cultural. It is a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting of violence and violent language against women, and an entire structure of power that supports that.”
She added: “I do not need Representative Yoho to apologise to me. Clearly he does not want to. … But what I do have issue with is using women, our wives and daughters, as shields and excuses for poor behaviour.”
The speech was measured, thoughtful, and deliberate; a powerful stand against the brazen, casual misogyny of men like Yoho. But media commentators were quick to label it “fiery,” “disruptive,” and “emotional” — adjectives that are commonly lobbed at Latinx women to squeeze the power out of our voices. It is yet another dehumanising example of how Latinas are automatically stereotyped as overflowing with a flaming passion that runs through our veins.
The practice of pigeonholing Latinas as “fiery” is rooted in TV, film, and media that have for nearly a century filled the American imagination with images of improbably passionate, and even violent, Latinx characters. Lines like “I am not a hothead! I am Colombian! We get excited!” from Gloria in Modern Family and characters like Magda and Cassandra in the short-story collection This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz perpetuate the narrative that Latinas are easily angered and emotionally volatile.
This cultural narrative carries with it another insidious suggestion. Writer Judith Ortiz Cofer identified this as "the myth of the Latin woman" in her essay "I Just Met A Girl Named Maria," which recalls the title of the infamous West Side Story song. Ortiz Cofer describes a moment in her adolescence when a white boy leaned over to give her a kiss and she did not respond. "I thought you Latin girls were supposed to mature early," Ortiz-Cofer recalls the boy saying. "I was supposed to ripen, not just grow into womanhood like other girls," she writes.
It's not hard to see why this stereotype endangers the lives of millions of Latinas in the U.S. By 2050, the number of Latinas who have experienced some form of sexual violence during their lifetimes could reach 10.8 million. Statistics also suggest that Latinas are less likely to report sexual violence and seek help. During her speech, Ocasio-Cortez recalled being harassed working as a bartender and while walking down the streets of New York City. "I could not allow my nieces, I could not allow the little girls that I go home to, I could not allow victims of verbal abuse and worse to see that," she said. "To see that excuse and to see our Congress accept it as legitimate." In addition to abuse from politicians like Yoho, Ocasio-Cortez has been the subject of more sexualised memes than you can count.
Even as a Congresswoman, Ocasio-Cortez cannot escape the "myth of the Latin woman." As the youngest Congresswoman in history, she's led the fight against climate change and income inequality in her two short years in Congress. Yet she's treated as a "fire" that needs to be put out before it burns down the racist, classist structures that have long oppressed communities of colour.
Ocasio-Cortez is keenly aware of the narratives spun against women like her. It's why she turns them on their head, sporting gold hoops and red lipstick to be sworn into Congress, modelled after Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Wearing a bright-red blazer and her signature lipstick during her speech, she delivered a subversive take on the "fiery Latina" stereotype.
"Women like me aren't supposed to run for office," Ocasio-Cortez said back in 2018, when she introduced herself to the world. But she proved that statement wrong, and has remained exactly who she is: a proud daughter of Puerto Rican parents from the Bronx and Arecibo, refusing to shed her identity, ideology, or style to conform to the constraints of American politics. For that, she’s been labeled "embarrassing," "illiterate," "not talented," and, most recently, a "fucking bitch."
But with this speech, Ocasio-Cortez once again proved that women like her — Latinas who are forced to contend with demeaning stereotypes and labels — belong in Congress, and the time to stay quiet in the face of harassment and violence has come to an end.