What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Hoop Earrings Mean to Latina Women Like Me
Like many Latina women, I got my ears pierced when I was a baby—my mother took me to the pediatrician to have it done less than a month after I was born. (According to her, there were many other new moms and infants in line at the doctor’s office to do the same.) She says I cried through the night afterward, but she kept the earrings in because, as Puerto Ricans say, Antes muerta que sencilla. Better dead than plain.
I’ve worn earrings ever since—mostly hoops, the cheapest pair my mom could find at the mall still made from real gold. And I had to be careful with them: One time, after I lost mine, my mom tightened a butterfly back so hard on my new earrings that we needed tweezers to take them off. But I loved these hoops. They were a rite of passage, one that Latina mothers offered their daughters as a symbol of their womanhood. I was raised to always be accessorized, no matter the occasion.
To me, my hoops were an heirloom, until I learned I’d have to set them aside to be taken seriously in certain circles. When I decided to take my ballet dancing seriously, I ditched the hoops for a pair of stud earrings (or dormilonas, as we call them back home)—the former represented a heritage of salsa and more rowdy dancing, which had no place in professional ballet. I stopped dancing when I was 17, but I kept the feeling that, if I wanted to be perceived as polished, my accessories needed to be more delicate.
My mother embraced hoop earrings for all occasions. But there are Latinx folks that are a little bit more careful, even conservative, about hoops because of the stereotypes people assign to what we wear. “My parents wouldn’t ever let me wear them because they felt it would put me into a box, being that I’m Latina and my family is from the Bronx,” says writer Thatiana Díaz, 26. “I know that my mom had a fear of being put into a box and not being taken seriously as an immigrant.”
Briana Mendez, 25, who now works in brand partnerships, had that happen to her growing up in the suburbs in Florida. “I'll never forget getting made fun of in middle school for wearing hoop earrings that were gifted to me—I was called names and felt extremely belittled,” she says. “After that day, I stopped wearing my hoops and opted for pearl studs to fit in with the more preppy girls from my neighborhood.”
I rediscovered hoops when I moved to New York. I wanted to keep Puerto Rico close to me, so I decided to embrace those cultural touchstones: the nameplate necklaces, red lipstick, Puerto Rican flag paraphernalia, and yes, hoop earrings. I kept coming back to the pair my mother handed to me as a child because they reminded me of her unapologetic femininity. They made me feel more like a woman—a Latina woman.
But I still felt like there were certain places I couldn't wear them, or couldn't be accepted wearing them. So when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bronx-born Puerto Rican Democrat from New York, was sworn into Congress wearing a white pantsuit, a red lip, and big gold hoops, it wasn’t just a good look—it was a radical act.
In true AOC fashion, the outfit was a collection of references, honoring the women who paved the path for her to take her oath on Capitol Hill. “Lip and hoops were inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral-colored nail polish to her confirmation hearings to avoid scrutiny. She kept her red,” she tweeted. “Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman.”
I saw myself in her that day: Throughout my professional career, I’ve stepped into spaces of privilege where I felt I wasn’t meant to belong—but instead of pushing aside my heritage to fit in, I insisted on wearing it boldly. Like Ocasio-Cortez, I feel it's good to remind people (and all of Congress) when there's a Latina in the House. I wasn't the only person who, on that swearing-in day in January, felt she had more in common with a congresswoman than I'd felt in a lifetime. “To see a Latina woman like myself—making history and headlines, and being celebrated—own her whole look, her whole identity, gave me joy,” says Victoria Leandra, 22, a producer and writer.
For Latinas in positions of power, something as simple as wearing hoop earrings can feel like a small rebellion against the status quo. Among the corporate-gray suits and nude manicures, they announce our presence, loud and proud.
And people are cheering for her to continue wearing her signature earrings. “Seeing AOC proudly wear hoops in Congress made me realize that...I should embrace what I love to accessorize myself with and never feel ashamed of it,” says Mendez. “Hoops should be destigmatized as unprofessional.”
Ocasio-Cortez is a reminder to celebrate who we are and what we can achieve, that Latina women do have a place in the boardroom, the court bench, and even Congress. She proved to me and other Latina women that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice identity for the sake of professional success.
Says Díaz, “I plan to wear my hoops for interviews, meetings, and any professional setting to make the statement: I’m a Latina, I’m from New York City, and I’m dressing like a congresswoman.”
Frances Solá-Santiago is a writer and video producer from Puerto Rico based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @frances_sola.