“She looks like soon we’ll find a porn video [starring her].”
These are some of the things people said about Alexandra Lúgaro when she announced she was running as an independent candidate for governor of Puerto Rico.
But in the 18 months since then, she has proven she is much more than a pretty face.
No woman before her has ever attempted to run for the highest office on the island without the backing of a political party. But when Lúgaro, 35, introduced herself in a March 2015 video, she broke all the rules: She took controversial positions such as legalizing marijuana and same-sex marriage, didn’t announce her position on Puerto Rico’s political status, statehood, or independence, and said that the island’s debt was unpayable — months before Gov. Alejandro García Padilla did.
A woman is underestimated because of her physical appearance. But I [think] that through my candidacy, I’m opening doors for other women.
“You can’t call yourself a Christian and vote for this candidate,” read a December 2015 post by the non-affiliated religious group PR For The Family, in which the group condemned Lúgaro's platform.
But, perhaps because she doesn’t fit the mold of a typical island politician, Lúgaro has cultivated a substantial following. Her social media presence includes almost 500,000 followers across platforms — more than any other candidate on the island. Even though millennials have historically been apathetic towards elections, polls found that millennials comprise 61% of Lúgaro's supporters.
“There was a breaking point where I found myself criticizing the government while watching TV in my house, so I decided to do something, and run to be part of the island’s decision-making process,” she told Refinery29.
In a moment where the island is going through a deep economic crisis, the parties are still using millions in public funds [to finance their campaigns.] I also wanted to prove that you could do more with less.
“I realized it wasn’t possible to do anything else for [the island’s] education from the private sector, because to change its course, you would have to be part of the country’s decision-making process,” she said. “At the same time, working as a defense attorney, I saw so many injustices being committed in the justice system that I made the decision to run for office.”
Women in Puerto Rico currently represent only 12% of all elected officials, despite being 54% of the island’s population. If elected, Lúgaro would be the second woman and the youngest person to hold the office since 1948, when Puerto Ricans were first able to elect a governor.
“A woman is underestimated because of her physical appearance. But I [think] that through my candidacy, I’m opening doors for other women,” she said.
"That’s the product of a society that is machista and patriarchal. And it’s not only in politics, it’s the media as well. Some [reporters] would ask me, ‘And why did you want to be governor and not a model?,’ ‘Do you use swimsuits?’, ‘What was the last time you cried?’ And I reply to those reporters, ‘Do you ask the same to the male candidates who come here?'’’ she said.
Sexist expectations aren’t the only obstacles Lúgaro has faced.
Last year, to avoid any potential conflicts of interest, she said she quit her job at America Aponte & Associates because of the contracts the company had with the education department. She has lived off her savings since, and that, combined with her decision not to use the electoral fund and to crowdfund her campaign instead, means that "the economic challenge has been the main one."
There was a breaking point where I found myself criticizing the government while watching TV in my house, so I decided to do something and run to be part of the island’s decision-making process.
Lúgaro positions herself in much the same way Sen. Bernie Sanders did: Her candidacy is bigger than herself.
“For 64 years, Puerto Ricans have voted for the person that represents their [preferred] political status, for the candidate of their party — without evaluating their platforms or capacity,” she said. “Now we have people from those political structures supporting this campaign. We have a movement.”
Lúgaro's savvy use of social media is born of frustration with the ways in which politicians remain at a distance from their constituents: by spending money on posters that are quickly forgotten or limiting face-to-face interactions. Lúgaro receives hundreds of messages daily — many of them from people who have historically voted for the two established parties or from people who registered for the first time in order to vote for her. She also enjoys meeting voters, and has given talks in over 50 colleges.
“For me this candidacy is not about the ‘firsts’ — not about being the first independent candidate, possibly the second female, and the youngest governor in history,” she said. “What is disruptive about this campaign is that it has defied the old political models; it has proved that people don’t trust in the traditional models.”
She added, “If I don’t win, I want to help Puerto Rico from whenever I am — from the private sector, from the government, from the international sphere. I just want to help build back my country.”