The Unapologetic Leftist: Boris Santos

Boris Santos

By Dallas G

Coming to DSA and Socialism was not a difficult journey for Boris Santos, the 29-year-old with the megawatt smile now running for New York State’s 54th Legislative Assembly District in Brooklyn. All it took was an off-the-charts teacher, a curandero, a disabled child, and gentrification at its ugliest. What brought him to DSA was “their theory of change and this ability to do, to act on what you want to see in the world, that attracts me. The base is so active, and DSA believes in teaching!”

But all of this took time — not a lot, because things have happened quickly in Boris Santos’s young life. As Santos, whose mother hails from El Salvador and whose father is Dominican, tells it, he was radicalized and grew into Socialism and politics from “hanging out on stoops, making friends, and smoking weed” — going seriously south — as a teen-ager in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

 “We lived in Los Sures, the southern part of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In the ’Nineties, it had a huge population of Latinos, mostly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republico. I grew up in that population mix. Over time, we’ve seen 30 percent of the Williamsburg Latino community displaced.”

What would change him and provide an unlikely redemption was a visionary Spanish teacher and a hard-working mother’s equally visionary belief in the spirit world. But that comes later in this story. For Santos, it has been a unique mix of experience, observation, and the desire to make this a better world for the people he grew up with that set him on his ambitious path. He has moved like lightning since he found his way, and DSA has been integral to that.

In 2004-2008, Santos was attending a vocational high school, Transit Tech, with notions of becoming an electrical engineer. However, “I had become indifferent to my education. I hit my nadir in high school, in the sense that I was cutting classes and making friends with people who did not appeal to my mother.”

The seeds of his Socialism were initially planted and nurtured through the lived experience of watching his once vibrant community ripped apart by real estate operators. Like Jabari Brisport, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other young progressives, for the teen-aged Boris Santos, his anger grew exponentially with the displacement of neighbors and especially for him, the corner bodegas.

These tiny stores provide cookies and soft drinks — a draw for any kid — but they also function as an informal community hot spot, a local version of the plaza central, where friends touch base to chat, exchange gossip, or flirt as they wait for food or hit the ATM for ten dollar bills, not the unaffordable twenties that spew out in middle class neighborhoods. Unlike his more famous cohorts who could name what they were seeing as neoliberalism — and, because he was younger — the anger Santos felt was inchoate and dangerous for his own development.

“Being in the streets and hanging out on the stoops, as I witnessed the bodegueros moving out, I was building a rage against what was happening in the city. I was seeing the fabric of my community being torn apart by predatory capitalism. Street people see it actually happening.”

At the same time, Santos was also seeing the power of networking. “The business of the street is politics, he says. “Success comes from knowing more and more people, and power, from forming a network. I saw that.” Santos was living the basic dynamics of politics. He understood intuitively that relationships mean influence and that translates to power. Socialism 101: Change could come through the very people who were now at the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

By late in his junior year, it was clear that Santos might not graduate. His mother, fearful for her son, took him for a visit to El Salvador. There, a curandero gave him a spiritual cleansing, told him he was smart and to get his act together. It worked. On his return to Transit Tech, Santos doubled-down, taking classes at night and on Saturdays.

And then a second stroke of luck: Santos had signed up for Spanish classes to meet the language requirement. His teacher said, ‘You don’t need to learn Spanish, you need to read these books.’ Whereupon he introduced Santos to Thomas Hobbes, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was a stunning revelation. “I had never known about the theoretical world, the theory behind what happens. I had only known the real. From then on, I read everything: philosophy, politics, history, political philosophy! There was another world behind what I saw.” Education from now on was his cornerstone: “I always knew education would build my brain. The angels were siding with me!”

He rebounded. Inspired by Obama’s election, he obtained a degree in politics at American University and eventually joined Teach for America, which is where he experienced his “Socialist awakening.” His first gig, teaching special ed. students at the Wave Prep in Far Rockaway, Queens, came during Bernie’s 2016 run for president.  A young Salvadoran, Eliel Gómez, entered his classes. His disabilities were severe enough to require visible cues to teach the boy.

In a flash, Santos realized that he was “creating a language” to teach and that a similar process of “giving language” to people occurs in a democracy as in teaching. “Everyone is in a different learning place,” he says. “We ourselves create the conditions for democracy. My job is to illuminate the issues, but our power to create change is built in unison. In that way, you, the leader, are accountable, but so are the citizens. I believe we have to have systems of accountability to make democracy work.”

The transformation he was seeking would require more than a curriculum change, he realized. Still in search of some way to make things better, he joined the New King’s Democrats, working for Antonio Reynoso, a community organizer who ran for the City Council seat for the 34th District and took a surprise win in 2013.

Santos continued to become ever more active in politics. He joined the Democratic Socialists in early 2017 and worked with firebrand tenants’ rights advocate and declared Socialist Julia Salazar, who of course went on to a brilliant upset victory against the incumbent, Martin Malavé Dilan for the New York State Senate’s 18th District.

Santos served as her chief of staff until he left that position in May to announce his bid for Brooklyn’s 54th Assembly district in the 2020 elections. The 54th is an elbow-shaped island with a gnarly history of corrupt dynastic politics. The district overlaps parts of Salazar’s NYS senate district, and it includes sections of Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Cypress Hills, Brownsville, and East New York. The district’s been highly contested since at least 2011, if not before, according to the New York Times. Real estate development is the fulcrum: the source of the money, the land grabs, and the community disruptions. Those are, naturally, the very issues Santos is going after.

This is bold. Santos will be running against the incumbent, Erik Dilan, son of ex-NYS Senator Martin Malavé Dilan, who lost to Salazar in that breathtaking upset a little over a year ago —so there’s bad blood. The family and its backers will fight hard to regain their sinecure. Santos is young in politics and without the standard financial or industry resources common to big picture politics, and he’s not only taking on the Dilan dynasty, but bucking the express displeasure of Joe Strasberg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA) — “these people need to understand . . .” — and other big realtors in NYC’s $657bn real estate development market.

Even more stunning than his audacity in going straight for the throat of the real estate industry is that Santos won the endorsement of the NYC-DSA at the end of September, along with three other Socialist candidates: Jabari Brisport, Marcela Mitaynes, and Phara Souffrant Forrest, all running for seats in the New York State legislature.

Boris Santos is a remarkably open soul for a New York politician, and this may well be his year, despite the formidable forces already arrayed against him. He has the DSA, but he has also retained that innocent brilliance that the curandero found in him.

Santos calls himself “an unapologetic Leftist.” When asked why, he laughs and says, “We have an unapologetic racist in the White House, why can’t we on the left be unapologetic, too?”

It’s hard to argue with the man.

About Rebecca Capua 117 Articles
Red Letter spotlights editor, former MWG OC