- Interview by
- Matthew Thomas
Ever since Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) emerged as a major force in New York politics, the group has been most successful in the city’s outer boroughs. Its adjacent strongholds in North Brooklyn and Western Queens are the binary star system around which much of the city’s left-wing politics have come to orbit. Neighborhoods like Astoria and Bed-Stuy routinely elect socialist candidates and are important sources of votes that can be marshaled on behalf of mainstream progressive candidates as well. As its power has burned brighter over the past five years, DSA’s influence has reached deeper into both boroughs — from Bay Ridge in South Brooklyn to Glen Oaks in East Queens — reaching the final frontiers controlled by the decaying county machines.
But socialist politics in New York City wasn’t always clustered on the western edge of Long Island. In 1919, five members of the Socialist Party won election to the state assembly; none of them were from Queens, and only two hailed from Brooklyn. One was from the Bronx, where DSA candidates have met a mixed reception in the modern era. The last two were from Manhattan: August Claessens, representing Harlem and Morningside Heights, and Louis Waldman, of the Lower East Side. Five years earlier, that neighborhood also chose the lawyer and union organizer Meyer London to represent them in Washington, one of only two people ever elected to Congress from the Socialist Party. The center of New York’s garment industry, the Lower East Side was a hotbed of labor militancy and radical politics.
Given this history, it’s notable that DSA never backed a candidate in Manhattan — until last month. In November, the group endorsed Illapa Sairitupac, a social worker from the Bowery and a longtime ecosocialist organizer, in his primary challenge to Brian Kavanagh, who represents Lower Manhattan and parts of North Brooklyn in the state senate. Though the field was already crowded, the dynamics of the race were upended recently when news broke that Yuh-Line Niou would not run for reelection in her overlapping state assembly district and would instead challenge Kavanagh herself. A darling of city progressives, Niou is certain to lock down major support from across New York’s left-of-center coalition and will make it difficult for another candidate to mount a credible challenge from the left.
Sairitupac has decided to drop his bid for state senate and will run for Niou’s open state assembly seat instead. NYC-DSA’s Citywide Leadership Committee approved the switch last weekend. The next day, Matt Thomas sat down with Sairitupac to discuss his campaign, the evolving dynamics of the race, and socialism’s return to Lower Manhattan for the first time in a hundred years.
Coming to America
Tell me a little bit about where you’re from and your family.
I was born in Mount Kisco, New York. Growing up, I moved around to different towns upstate, in Westchester and Dutchess counties. My parents are from Peru. They came here for better job opportunities, and once they got here as immigrants, they were, obviously, unfortunately, exploited. They would work jobs and not be paid what they were promised, and because they didn’t speak English, they didn’t know how to advocate for themselves. It was a terrible time for my family. But we made it through.
When my parents got here, my mom was cleaning houses in Westchester, and my dad was a busboy for years at a restaurant. Fortunately, they were able to put themselves through community college and then college too. Now my dad is a teacher, and my mom is a psychiatric nurse. They were able to make a life for themselves. And because my grandparents were around, they were able to watch the kids when my parents were at school or working, double and triple shifts. I feel very privileged that my family was able to do that, because many families aren’t.
Was there a big Peruvian or Hispanic community where you grew up?
No, I grew up in a bunch of different towns, but they were all really white. I definitely felt othered — I wasn’t crazy about that. Sometimes, I thought about if my parents had moved to New Jersey, for example, where there was a big Peruvian community, how it would have felt to be around a lot of other Peruvian or Latino kids. The towns I grew up in weren’t wealthy; they were very white working-class, very blue-collar. Socioeconomically, we were all very similar, but it was still hard to relate. We had some amazing neighbors, but when you’re growing up, you still feel different, and you don’t know why that is.
When did your grandparents come?
My parents came legally, but my grandparents didn’t. They came a few years after my parents came here. When my grandma crossed the border, she actually broke her arm, and when I met her as a kid for the first time, her arm was in a cast from that experience. They didn’t tell my mom they were going to cross the border that way. They just told her, “Oh yeah, we’re coming, we’re coming,” but not the way they were coming. She was shocked when she found out.
What was your family’s experience like in Peru?
My parents were the first generation to grow up in Lima, and before them, all of my family lived in the mountains, in Apurímac on my mom’s side and Colcabamba on my dad’s side. These are Andean regions, and everyone before them lived there. They were speaking Quechua, a native language. My parents were pretty much the first generation to really be taught Spanish, because my grandparents didn’t want them speaking Quechua, which was considered an old language, not one of opportunity. They thought Spanish opened doors.
I really wish I spoke Quechua. Even when my grandparents were dying, I was writing down words in Quechua that they taught me so I could remember, because I was afraid they’d be lost. I mean, we were colonized. Hundreds of years later, there was still a colonized mentality of preferring European languages. Even now, I speak mostly English, and while I do speak Spanish, I have to always practice it. I don’t want to lose it. But I think it’s sad that my connection to indigenous culture is lessened because of that.
You said that when your parents got here they were “obviously, unfortunately exploited.” Did they think that sort of thing was obvious or inevitable? Did you think that, watching them experience those challenges?
Under capitalism, that’s just what’s expected, so it’s not surprising. But it is terrible. They were very trusting and somewhat naive, so when it first happened to them, they were very upset and angry. My mom later told me that she just decided to suck it up and take it. She just kept telling herself, “This is temporary. One day this will not be my reality.” She took it because she had no other choice. They didn’t challenge the system because they were afraid to, and because they had no bargaining power. That’s something we as socialists must always fight for, no matter how small we feel.
Welcome to New York
What brought you to New York?
Opportunities, jobs, my friends were moving here — it just felt overdue. I’ve always loved New York City and always wanted to end up here. In college, I would come here for summer internships, but it wasn’t until after I graduated in the early 2010s that I thought, “Ok, I’m really gonna do it this time.”
What was your first job here?
I walked dogs for a small company. I was super exploited, making like $10 for a half-hour walk. They made me work as a contractor instead of an employee, even though I was totally an employee. I did that for almost two years. I don’t know how I survived that. I was on food stamps for a while. It was very humbling.
And it further radicalized me. I thought, “There are so many people just like me who are going through this. I hate this system, I want it to change.” But I didn’t know how to change it yet. I wasn’t an organizer yet. I was suffering, but I didn’t know how to find people to work with to overcome it.
What brought you to socialism?
Bernie [Sanders] running in 2016. I really wish I had come to socialism sooner — that made me realize, “Oh, these are really concrete, easy-to-understand issues: taxing the rich, Medicare for All. I get this.” And it was him, too. He’s such a lovable figure, and it really opened me up in a lot of ways.
How did you feel when he lost in 2016?
I was heartbroken. I knew that he wasn’t given a fair primary, and I think that in some ways Bernie was too much of a nice guy about it. He really should have called it out more. The whole thing made me angry.
What was your reaction to Donald Trump winning in 2016?
I wasn’t surprised, actually. The minute Bernie didn’t get the nomination, I was very concerned, because I knew this could happen. I remember all my friends being really upset, but that’s what happens when you have Trump visiting towns in places that Hillary [Clinton] wasn’t bothering to visit. He was speaking to something in people who hadn’t been spoken to in a long time in our country. And I hated that, but there is power in it. So, I wasn’t surprised when he won.
Is that what inspired you to get involved in organizing?
I was feeling this pull to give, but I didn’t know what it meant. I would go to kitchen shelters and volunteer there: the Bowery Mission, God’s Love We Deliver. That would sate me temporarily, but I’d still want something more. I was looking for a home.
So, I tried out different orgs, showed up to different meetings. The Release Aging People in Prison campaign was one of the first places I went, and I’m still involved. I was phonebanking for them just yesterday. But when I found DSA, everything just made more sense. My first meeting was a branch meeting in Lower Manhattan. [DSA member] Gustavo Gordillo was there and gave this presentation about power, and I was sold. I was like, “Ok, this is my political home.”
What was it about it that sold you? Do you remember what the lesson on power was?
It was the power of visual messaging and visual media. He played a clip of this black family being interviewed who’d been affected by utility shutoffs. They were just asking, “Why are we expendable?” It was so infuriating to see. The very next day, I went to a meeting for the NYC-DSA Ecosocialist Working Group, and I never left.
Faith and Good Works
So, you started off as a dog walker, but now you’re a social worker. How did that happen?
I was freelance editing videos for a while here and there. I was feeling called to be of service, but I didn’t know how. I went to seminary briefly at Union Theological Seminary. I thought maybe later, I could find somewhere to be a reverend, somewhere I could be an openly queer reverend. I eventually decided that wasn’t for me, but I still wanted to be of service.
After some reflection, I thought to myself, “Why don’t you be a social worker?” I love people — that’s what informs my organizing. I want to help people, fight for them, advocate with them. So, I applied to social work school. It was a really life-changing experience.
Not a lot of people in DSA have gone to seminary. Can you talk about the role of faith in your own life and in your organizing?
I’m a proud Christian. I did a unit of chaplaincy at Bellevue Hospital, which was really radicalizing for me. Going to the prison floor, going to the emergency room, seeing the people there — it really bolstered my commitment to the movement. Believing in a higher power only further radicalizes me as an organizer, because it makes me want to fight for this world that is such a wonderful, holy thing. It’s a masterpiece.
As a Christian, I believe that we’re all one. I believe in the unity and the harmony of people. I believe that we’re all bound to each other, and we have a duty to uplift and to fight together. It gives me hope because in this world, under capitalism, we’re made to forget that we’re all connected. We’re indoctrinated to believe that it’s every man for himself, pull yourself up by your bootstraps — all those lies that cause division and disharmony.
I think one reason why Jesus was a strong leader was that while he was constantly blasting the powers that be, he was also very gentle and very kind. He was fiery — he would call out hypocrites like the Pharisees. He pushed the money changers out of the temple. He was antiestablishment — and they killed him for it. But he also welcomed comrades into his circle. He gave everyone a chance. They would work together, they would organize together — he made leaders out of people.
He’s the perfect symbol of a strong, thoughtful leader who’s also tender and patient and attentive to people’s needs. For me and other radical Christians, I think that really informs a lot of the way we navigate this world.
What’s it like being a social worker?
It’s a lot, emotionally. You have to constantly monitor your clients. Some are stable, some are not. Hopefully, you know when they’re not stable, if they’re having suicidal ideation. You have to constantly check in with their meds. Sometimes clients will flake and not show up for three or four sessions, and then I have to discharge them. We have a waiting list of people who want mental health care, but then the client will come back after I’ve been calling and texting for days without a response. So, it can be frustrating.
There’s also so many different personalities. My youngest client is fourteen and my oldest client is eighty. The majority live in Lower Manhattan, so I get to work with my neighbors every day. I really love that aspect — that I’m actively helping my community in a distinct way. It’s really gratifying and a huge honor.
Class Struggles Past and Future
So, you live in the Bowery, right? Tell me about the Bowery.
The Bowery is ever changing. It’s a mixture of artists and immigrants and workers and capitalists. The rock and roll scene . . . CBGB used to be here. If you look at a map of New York City, you can see it’s the heart of Lower Manhattan, right in the middle of everything. I’ve been here just about nine years now, and it’s changed a lot even in that time.
I live in a Chinese building; the majority of my neighbors are Chinese, mostly delivery workers. It’s funny, I’ve seen some of their kids grow up. I remember them when they were babies, and now they’re, like, old. It’s really humbling and beautiful. It actually feels like a community. Everyone knows each other.
The building is pretty dilapidated. There have been times when the stairs collapsed. The landlord’s a slumlord, and they really don’t lift a finger unless we call excessively and beg them to do the bare minimum. I live here because I can’t afford anywhere else. I’ve been in the same apartment for all nine years. I think eventually I’ll be able to save enough money to move out of this apartment, which is something that other working-class folks can’t do. I feel privileged, because now that I’m a social worker, I finally make a living wage and I’m saving money, so I do see a way out of here one day — maybe next year. But I know other folks who stay in these kinds of apartments for years and years, supporting the kids, supporting the family, and that’s just how it is.
You mentioned the fact that you have capitalists living right alongside workers in Lower Manhattan. What does it feel like on a day-to-day basis, seeing this glittering wealth in such close proximity to desperate poverty?
It’s terrible. They see us, they see these folks suffering, and they don’t even think about communicating with us. They only think about coming over and taking over this space. There’s no acknowledgement. They just come over, and they’re like, “This is ours now.” There’s no understanding or interest in getting to know these families who have lived here for generations. To them, we’re just another anonymous group of people they want to displace. It dehumanizes us.
Is that what made you want to run for office?
My ecosocialist comrades saw me as a potential candidate and broached it with me over a year ago. At first, I was like:
No, you’re crazy. I’m a social worker. I have no interest in being a part of this political system in this way. I’m just happy to be a rank-and-file organizer, happy to be a foot soldier — that’s very gratifying for me.
But every so often, they would check in with me and ask again. Eventually, I decided that I would regret not trying. I thought, “Well, I’m thirty-four now, I don’t want to be forty years old wishing I had tried to be a part of this movement, to score a big win for our movement, with people whom I’ve organized with for years. This is a rare opportunity.” So, I said, “Ok, let’s do this.”
This is also NYC-DSA’s first Manhattan race, so it’s a huge honor, because as you know, Lower Manhattan has been the historic bastion of socialism in New York City, from our Jewish Marxist comrades who came over here from Europe and settled on the Lower East Side, to our Puerto Rican diaspora who made it the loisaida. This is a part of our story. It’s what informs who we are as a movement. To win this here will be a huge honor.
What’s the agenda that you’re running on?
As an ecosocialist, I know the climate crisis is already at our doors. This district got hit hard during Hurricane Sandy, especially the New York City Housing Authority buildings along the East River. If you walk into [Governor Alfred E.] Smith Houses, you’ll see there’s a line of black mold above your head. That’s from the water line nine years ago. So, my first priority in office will be passing the New York State Build Public Renewables Act and the New York Utility Democracy Act, which will get New York off of fossil fuel infrastructure and into renewable energy.
The superexploitation of workers is also a huge problem in this district, whether it’s in the restaurant industry or in home health care. A dim sum parlor in Chinatown, Joy Luck Palace, was ordered in 2019 to pay nineteen former employees nearly $1 million in stolen wages, because they hadn’t been paid minimum wage or overtime. But none of the employees have received any money from the court judgment. Unfortunately, this kind of situation happens all the time. Wage theft is rampant in our district. So, I’ll be fighting for the SWEAT (Securing Wages Earned Against Theft) Bill, which would put a lien on the personal assets of criminal bosses, preventing business owners from simply shifting their assets around to avoid paying back the wages they stole from their employees.
The other socialist priorities will also be at the top of my Albany wish list: good cause, which would protect tenants from eviction and exorbitant rent increases, and the New York Health Act, which would be like Medicare for All at the state level. When these bills pass, the lives of millions of working-class New Yorkers will be massively and materially transformed for the better.
Earlier you mentioned the sense of otherness you felt growing up, all the barriers you experienced vis-à-vis your language and culture. You also just mentioned all the disparate cultures that exist in Lower Manhattan, and how there can be a lot of disunity. How can we overcome that kind of division?
I feel so much solidarity with so many people down here. For me, it’s the idea of intimacy, the idea of fighting together against the capitalist class. Yes, Lower Manhattan is full of different people and communities, but ultimately, we have the same enemies: the bosses and the billionaires. What gives me hope is knowing that we’re all working together to reclaim what’s ours. It’s a sacred thing, fighting for justice alongside others, knowing that we might not win every fight but understanding that we’re on the right side of history.
I also love the idea that so many future leaders are being molded by our movements here. I had people who really influenced me as I grew into an organizer, and I hope I’m able to pass the baton on to some other nineteen- or twenty-year-old that’s just joining the movement now, that I get to play some small part in helping them become leaders too. That’s a huge responsibility for us as socialists, as leftists, as organizers. We’re building this unbroken chain of people, helping each other, generation after generation, and that’s the way it should be.
When you originally announced your campaign, you were challenging an incumbent in Senate District Twenty-Six. Now, you’re running for an open seat in the overlapping Assembly District Sixty-Five. Why the pivot?
Brian Kavanagh needs to go down, and with Yuh-Line Niou in the race, we now have a strong progressive poised to make that happen. But we need to make sure that Yuh-Line’s newly vacant seat is filled by a dedicated socialist who will fight for the working class of the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Much of my organizing has been in these areas; they’re the last working-class neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan. I’m thrilled to now have the chance to campaign in and represent the overlapping assembly district, where these two neighborhoods and their working-class communities are the heart and soul of the district. It’s an exciting opportunity to build working-class power.