photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala

When Bernie Sanders spoke to 18,500 people in the South Bronx, the Democratic socialist was speaking directly to the people who stand to gain the most from his agenda. The candidate’s words were received with cheers and tears, as men and women who have been left out in the cold by waves of government policies that made them poorer and more politically disengaged listened carefully.

“I was so excited that he came to the Bronx,” Cristina Hernandez, 32 and born in the Bronx, said. “I think it says so much.” Over half the population of the historically poor borough are Latinos, and over 30 percent are non-Hispanic blacks.

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Cristina Hernandez

photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala

While countless New Yorkers are suffering financially — over half of New Yorkers recently polled said they were just getting by, if at all — the Bronx, with its relatively low, although increasing, housing costs sees the brunt of the suffering. Thirty-six percent of Bronxites polled said that in the last year they did not have enough money to purchase enough food for their families. While the borough has affluent pockets, like Norwood and City Island, nearly 40 percent of South Bronx residents subside below the poverty line.

If any New York City community has suffered the effects of mass incarceration and the loss of jobs wrought by globalization, the Bronx is it. And with the rest of New York City becoming increasingly unaffordable even to people with moderate incomes, gentrification is around the corner for the South Bronx. The New York Times recently called the area the “next frontier,” and as has occurred throughout the five boroughs, displacement is sure to follow.

“We’ve seen what gentrification does to our community,” high-profile Sanders supporter Rosario Dawson told the crowd to applause.

Dawson, whose Latina mother was born and raised in the South Bronx, was joined by Spike Lee, a film director and critic of gentrification, and René Pérez, a.k.a. Residente, a Puerto Rican musician and activist. While the demographics are changing, the Bronx has had a thriving, vibrant, artistic Puerto Rican community since at least the first half of the 20th century.

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Rosario Dawson

photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala

Hernandez, who is diversity manager at a Bronx health center, was wrapped in a Puerto Rican flag at the rally. “The fact that he had Residente from Calle 13 here was just telling that he clearly understands that Latinos have specific needs,” she said of Sanders.

Indeed, the presidential hopeful has a plan to allow Puerto Rico to negotiate the debt that is crippling its economy.
“For Bernie Sanders to be the candidate that sets a plan for Puerto Rico that’s realistic, that addresses the needs is moving for me as a Puerto Rican.”

“It will no longer be a country that invades, that provokes wars, that quiets people,” Residente said of the U.S. “It will no longer be a country that tortures or believes in colonies. Instead, the United States will be a country that strives for unity, equality, and peace.” The crowd loved it. “When Residente spoke, I was so moved I cried,” Hernandez recalled.

She wasn’t the only one moved to tears. Elijah Freeman, 26 and from Brooklyn, attended the rally with his significant other, Shereen Brissett, 36. Freeman, teary-eyed, cheered when Sanders spoke of the devastating effects the war on drugs, trigger-happy cops, and a criminal justice system in need of reform had wrought on the black community. “To think back — oh my God — a guy that supports blacks and gays in the '80s,” Freeman, wearing a “Polar Bears for Bernie” pin, said enthusiastically of Sanders. “He was always on the right side. He was always for what’s right. I have to support that.”

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Elijah Freeman and Shereen Brissett

photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala

“As far as the Black Lives Matter movement, I feel that he’s the only candidate that verbally spoke and said, ‘Yes, black lives matter,’” stated James Barnes, a 35-year-old musician from Staten Island. Barnes says he campaigns for Senator Sanders alongside the family of Eric Garner, the New York City man a policeman killed with an illegal chokehold. Garner’s crime? He was suspected of selling Newports in front of a bodega.

James Barnes

photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala

At least one white man present checked his privilege at the door of the rally. “I’m straight, I’m white, I’m cis, I’m male. I have all the privilege. I was born into it,” Bret Lehne, a union carpenter from Brooklyn, said. “I don’t want to tell people what to do, especially people of color. But look at his record,” the 27-year-old said of Sanders. He continued:

“Look at what he’s consistently said and fought for. He was in the civil rights movement. He’s been backing the same things even when they weren’t popular. He was for gay marriage back in the '60s, when it was a total no-go, hot-button issue. He’s going to stick up for people who are disenfranchised.”

Sanders, whose father came to the U.S. from Poland at 17 “without a nickel in his pocket,” told the crowd that he understands them. “I learned a little bit about what it means to grow up in a family that has no money. I also learned a little bit about the immigrant experience. Those lessons I will never forget.”

Sanders went to public schools in Brooklyn and touched on key points, like how he'd rather use public funds for education, housing, health care, and infrastructure in places like the South Bronx instead of for prisons and wars. He named the groups he plans to help — women, blacks, Latinos, the sick, the elderly, the impoverished, working folks, the LGBT community, the disappearing middle class — who were right there in front of him. He called his listeners his “brothers and sisters.”

“You are the heart and soul of this revolution!” The crowd went wild.

Bret Lehne

photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala