At the onset of the pandemic, Queens was one of the areas most ravaged by coronavirus. Specifically, the northern part of the county ––which is mostly Hispanic–– became known as "the epicenter of the epicenter,” with 1 in 25 residentes infected.
For Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, who is currently running for the New York Assembly in the one of the hardest hit districts in the state, the crisis presented a unique challenge.
"When it was very clear that the coronavirus was something serious, we were the first campaign to stop petitioning" says Gonzalez-Rojas. "We used the network we created for our campaign to support and help those in need.”
Gonzalez-Rojas, who’s worked as an activist for many years, placed her focus on providing her community with the essentials: food, supplies, personal protective equipment. At the same time, she and her team made sure that people had access to resources like their unemployment checks and SNAP.
"We are still doing it, the need is still huge," says Gonzalez-Rojas.
The 34th Assembly District, which Gonzalez-Rojas seeks to represent, contains some of the neighborhoods with the highest infection rates: Corona, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Woodside. Its residents are also an especially vulnerable group: more than half are Hispanic immigrants, the group most affected by the virus in New York City, both healthwise and economically.
"It was heartbreaking to see," says Gonzalez-Rojas. "These are people who are falling through the cracks in a system that doesn't serve us."
According to González-Rojas, the pandemic showed how vulnerable the undocumented community is. Many of them, dubbed “essential workers,” did not have the luxury of not going to work during the peak of the crisis, yet they did not receive the necessary relief from the state. Although Gonzalez-Rojas is struggling to meet many of the needs facing her community right now - worker protections, rent freezes, justice for immigrants - she firmly believes that the most urgent is health care.
"The coronavirus reinforced the fact that health care for all is absolutely one of the highest priorities of our communities," says González-Rojas. "At that moment it became clear that someone's health should not be tied to their work. Health is a human right and should be universal.”
The issue of health care for all has certainly been gaining traction in recent years, thanks in no small part to the efforts of loud progressive voices like Bernie Sanders and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district also covers parts of northern Queens.
It could be said that González-Rojas' progressive platform is in essence a continuation of the progressive movement that has been brewing in the country in the past few years, particularly in Queens, with figures like Ocasio-Cortez, Jessica Ramos and Tiffany Cabán becoming spokespersons for the new progressive wave. Recently, Gonzalez-Rojas won the endorsement of Cabán, whose campaign for the Queens District Attorney's office gained national attention but failed to deliver at the polls. However, González-Rojas believes her impact will endure.
"I don't think she lost," says the candidate. "What Tiffany did was fire up a discourse, a narrative that radically changed the way we think about what's possible.”
Indeed, many of the issues that Cabán pushed for, such ending cash bail, decriminalizing sex work and especially restorative justice, seem particularly relevant at this moment when a large part of the country is demanding radical changes to the criminal justice system and police departments nationwide.
Cabán recently stated in a tweet that González-Rojas is the only candidate in the race "whose criminal legal reform platform most fully embodies the principles & values" that she and her team fought for in her campaign.
Because of her work as an activist in Queens, which spans more than two decades, Gonzalez-Rojas believes her vision is firmly aligned with her community’s values.
"I believe that those who are closest to the problems are closest to the solution," says the candidate, who has lived and worked in the district for over 25 years. González-Rojas says her job as a legislator would bring community groups and activists to the table, to inform the laws that affect their day-to-day lives. "That's what it means to change the dynamic at the table, because when you're sitting there, the conversation changes."
Gonzalez-Rojas is one of four candidates seeking to fill Assemblyman Michael DenDekker's seat, along with civic leader and former prosecutor Nuala O'Doherty-Naranjo, taxi driver and labor organizer Joy Chowdhury and Angel Cruz. DenDekker has run unopposed for five of the six terms he has served.