Jessica González-Rojas, the first Latina elected to represent a markedly diverse state Assembly district in Queens, laughed as she adjusted her earphones during a phone call.
She had just completed a slew of in-person, socially distanced meet and greets at her home office.
“I want to make sure you can hear me,” she said as she started an interview.
González-Rojas sees her voice as an important symbol for her district, which includes Jackson Heights, a community that is more than 67% Hispanic. She grew up in the neighborhood, where she now lives with her partner, Danny Rojas, and their son.
“When you have a young Latina, and she hands me a card, a note and flowers, it’s a reminder of why I ran,” she said. “I felt like I was centering a voice that hadn’t been heard, hadn’t been paid attention to in so long.”
The newly elected lawmaker begins work in the Albany legislature in January, representing the 34th Assembly District, which encompasses Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and parts of Woodside and Corona.
In June, González-Rojas, 44, defeated six-term incumbent Michael DenDekker in the Democratic primary. She sees her win over DenDekker, who was first elected to the Assembly in 2008, as a sign of the dwindling influence of the Queens Democratic machine. She then won more than 75 percent of the vote in the general election this month against Republican William Marquez.
Traditional politicians aren’t addressing vital issues, she said, with more Queens voters showing a preference for newcomers.
“It’s more than identity or identity politics. It’s making sure that there is someone who aligns with the values of the community and knows what it’s like to struggle, to be in need,” she said.
A Neighborhood Life
González-Rojas, born and raised in Queens, has lived in Jackson Heights since 1999.
A one-time New York State Democratic Committee member, she served as executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice for 13 years and has been an adjunct professor at New York University, where she taught on race, gender and reproductive rights., Rojas also has taught in the Latino and Latin American Studies Department at City College.
Her advocacy work began as president and founding board member of NICE, the nonprofit New Immigrant Community Empowerment that is dedicated to helping immigrant workers.
Coming from a working-class family, González-Rojas made her way from activism to politics. She said her parents— her father, an immigrant from Paraguay who is now an educator, and her mother, a native of Puerto Rico who is a retired hospital secretary—instilled in her a work ethic she is passing on to her 9-year-old boy.
In the days before the Nov. 3 election, City Councilman Daniel Dromm, a Democrat who has represented Jackson Heights and Elmhurst for 11 years, said during a rally for open streets along 34th Avenue that González-Rojas’ primary victory was “the beginning of a long struggle.”
González-Rojas ran a grassroots campaign until the spread of COVID-19 brought street-level, door-to-door canvassing to a stop, replacing it with online outreach.
Now, she wants to continue to be visible and accessible.
González-Rojas said one of her first priorities in office will be making access to coronavirus testing sites easier for people who do not have health insurance. She also is advocating for health care for all New Yorkers, a Green New Deal, full funding of public schools and cancelling rent amid the pandemic to stave off evictions.
All those measures require an influx of revenue, she said, that can be met by increased federal aid to the states. She believes the money can be raised by increasing taxes on the higher-income Americans.
“I’m working with leaders across the country to really push so that we are ensuring we will be able to tax the rich and bring in revenue that our communities need and deserve,” she said.
González-Rojas sees working alongside the community she mirrors and elevating the voices of the underserved as her mandate.
“The shift in energy is exciting. It’s compelling. We unapologetically ran on a progressive agenda and now we hope to see a more progressive, value-driven change,” she said.
González-Rojas said she continues to connect with her community by volunteering at events like the weekly LGBTQ+ led food pantry Love Wins, which holds a food-drive every Friday in Jackson Heights. Danny Rojas runs a non-profit that works with black and brown communities in technology.
At the open-streets rally on Oct. 24, she joined community members and elected officials in demanding that streets along 34th Avenue remain free of vehicle traffic.
Among those protesting was Maria Gomez, 38, who said she couldn’t remember the last time she believed those in power were listening. Gomez, who left Ecuador more than a decade ago, was glad to share this moment with her daughters, who are 9 and 15.
“We’re proud to be from Jackson Heights when we see women like Mrs. Rojas fighting for us. I feel like my daughters have a role model now,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Look, you can be Latina and be part of something important.’”