Family members question Julia Salazar’s claims

State Senate candidate Julia Salazar
State Senate candidate Julia Salazar
David S Fox
State Senate Julia Salazar with Rep. Nydia Velázquez.

Family members question Julia Salazar’s claims

The state Senate candidate says she grew up in a ‘working-class immigrant family.’
August 30, 2018

State Senate candidate Julia Salazar has attracted significant, often fawning, media coverage, an army of enthusiastic volunteers, endorsements from politicians and activist organizations – and now withering scrutiny. A series of articles have dug into her childhood, religion and activist history, exposing facts that either contradict or provide relevant context to some of her biographical claims.

Based on interviews with her mother and brother, and Salazar herself, City & State has discovered additional, previously unreported, instances of Salazar falsely presenting her background and others that are, while not technically untrue, would strike many – including her brother – as misleading.

But the deeper one digs into the competing narratives of Salazar’s upbringing, the less it appears to be a simple matter of truth and lies or he-said-she-said. Salazar has told a few outright falsehoods, in particular claiming that her family immigrated from Colombia when, in reality, she, her brother and mother were born and raised in the United States and her father first came to United States as a teenager and was naturalized before Salazar was even born.

At the same time – especially regarding her claims about growing up working class in an economically stressed family, and her brother’s competing recollection of a solidly middle-class milieu – Salazar’s story is also a selective presentation of the truth. Biographies can be complicated and different people can draw wildly divergent pictures through the facts they use and the way that they interpret and deploy those facts. And Salazar has deployed her facts to gain maximum political advantage.

Salazar and her brother Alex, who is only two years older, have completely different interpretations of their shared upbringing. “My family immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia when I was a baby, and my mom ended up raising my brother and me as a single mom, without a college degree and from a working-class background,” Julia Salazar said in a July interview with Jacobin Magazine.

Alex Salazar characterizes their early years very differently. He remembers them being financially comfortable, living in a big house along a river in Jupiter, Florida. Each of the siblings had their own rooms. The six-figure income that their father, Luis Hernan Salazar, earned as a pilot meant that the family could afford to set aside college savings funds of about $6,000 for each child. “We were very much middle class. We had a house in Jupiter along the river, it was in a beautiful neighborhood,” Alex Salazar said in a telephone interview. “I feel very strongly about my family and I want to tell the truth.”

Alex Salazar directly contradicts Julia’s statement on the Chapo Trap House podcast that “My family immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia when I was a little kid.” Moreover, Alex disputes Julia’s recent backpedaling equivocations on Twitter and interviews that their parents “raised us between two different places,” and “Colombia is where my family was and where I was in the first years of my life.”

julia salazar childhood home photo credit Alex Salazar.jpg

Julia Salazar's early childhood house in Jupiter, Florida
Julia Salazar spent her early childhood in this house in Jupiter, Florida, in the mid-1990s until her parents divorced in 1998.
Alex Salazar

On the contrary, Alex says, they were raised entirely in Florida. He remembers a handful of brief trips to Colombia to visit family. The exact number of their trips is unclear, but the “back and forth” childhood between Colombia and South Florida that Julia Salazar describes is also rebutted by her mother, Christine Salazar. Alex and Christine Salazar also note, as Julia readily acknowledges, that their father first came to the country as a teenager.

The family also made family trips to Colombia, where Luis and Christine were married and Alex was baptized by an uncle who was a priest; Julia Salazar was baptized as a Catholic in the U.S., according to Christine.

Julia had said in a statement on Twitter that “I was raised by a single mom who didn’t have a college degree. My father didn’t graduate from high school,” but her father did attend a high school in Santa Barbara, California, according to Alex and Christine. (Julia did not dispute this when asked about it by City & State.) It’s unclear whether he ever graduated high school, though Christine said it’s possible he received his degree from a night school as an adult – if he did not graduate from Santa Barbara High School as a teen. A representative for the school could not confirm by publication time whether or not Luis had graduated from the school.

Nor is that the only questionable aspect that particular claim. Christine Salazar did, in fact, graduate from college. A representative of Florida Atlantic University confirmed that Christine Crane (Christine Salazar’s maiden name) received a B.A. degree in psychology in 1999.

Julia Salazar pointed out in response that she was 8 years old by that time and so her mother raised her without a college degree up to that point. Since her parents separated when she was six, that means there were two years that she lived only with her mother before Christine graduated from college.

While the Salazar parents divorced in the late 1990s – hence Julia’s claim of being raised by a single mother – Luis paid child support until an illness left him disabled and unable to work in his final years. The divorce inspired Christine to go back to school and begin a new career in the pharmaceutical industry.

Alex Salazar would say that their financial status remained middle class and that Christine earned a good salary, but Julia says Christine went through stressful periods between jobs and worried enough about paying bills that she took a temporary job on weekends as a caterer. These are not mutually exclusive memories and Christine confirmed all of them.

Christine said that while her ex-husband made good money as a pilot and the couple was able to buy a home, there also were leaner times – like when he was laid off for a short period amidst turmoil in the airline industry. She received one year of alimony from Luis and he was able to reduce his child support payments when the kids were teenagers. When her ex-husband could not work anymore because of illness, his disability payments from Social Security would supplement Christine’s income, though Julia Salazar has suggested that this was the family’s primary source of income on Chapo Trap House and in the Jacobin interview.

But at no point did Christine receive financial assistance from her children to “to help make ends meet,” as Julia Salazar’s campaign website suggests, in reference to Julia’s job at a grocery store during high school. “My kids always worked, from the time they were 14. I encouraged that because I thought there was a lot of value in that in terms of learning and responsibility so that was the purpose behind them having part-time jobs. … not the light bill,” Christine Salazar said in a telephone interview. This is consistent with Alex’s recollection that Julia’s job was to earn her own spending money and never to help out with household expenses. “If they didn’t want to work they had to park the car and not drive it,” Christine said of the used Buick she bought for Alex and the used $4,000 Mitsubishi she bought for Julia. “By 18, she had to pay her own car insurance,” Christine said. This would seem like a fairly typical suburban middle-class story. (Julia Salazar pointed out that she didn’t get an allowance and so she had to have a job to have any spending money at all.)

Regarding Julia Salazar’s contention that the family lived partly in Colombia, Christine suggested, “maybe she was just referring to going there more than we went anywhere else … Julia really embraced the Colombian culture.” Christine stated that she never lived in Colombia, contrary to Julia’s tweet, “My mom lived in Colombia via my father.”

Aside from such apparent fabrications, however, are Salazar’s statements that are not ambiguous, such as a recent interview with Jewish Currents in which she said, “We didn’t all have permanent residence in the U.S.” Everyone in her family was a U.S. citizen because her father became a U.S. citizen sometime around 1984, according to her mother.

Asked in a telephone interview with City & State whether her past statements about being an immigrant or from immigrant parents were accurate, Julia Salazar said that she stood by the statements and that the confusion stems from the unrealistic expectation that all immigration stories will fit into the same tidy box. “I understand now why this would be confusing, but I mentioned before I felt that we had a home in Colombia,” she said in the interview.

But the bottom line is that Salazar is not – despite what she has said – “the daughter of immigrants” and her family did not immigrate to the U.S. when she was a baby nor when she was a little kid.

These mischaracterizations of her ties to Colombia follow recent revelations that until recent years she was a fervent pro-Zionist, anti-abortion Republican activist whose identity as a Jew of color is reportedly self-created. Whether she comes from a working-class family – as reported here, here, here and on her own campaign website – remains dependent on how one reads the facts of her upbringing.

If your parents are divorced and you live with your mother but see your father and he pays child support, is it accurate to say you had a single mother? If your father didn’t go to college but has a well-paying job, is your family working class? Middle class and working class are overlapping categories and Julia says her family moved between the two. That’s not uncommon, but does it make her depiction of her class background misleading? Is it fair to say, as she does, that working service-sector jobs from the time she was 14 while being a high-school and college student and going through rough patches in the family finances “are working-class experiences”? If “middle class with working-class experiences” is her background, is that in line with what she’s said?

Skeptics certainly have been given reason not to trust Salazar, but one wonders how many members of Congress could be similarly questioned on their own stories of humble origins if they were under the same microscope that she has been. Her claim of growing up working class is less misleading than Bill O’Reilly’s.

Certainly that’s how her supporters see it. Left-wing journalists and online personalities have rallied to her defense. Politicians who have endorsed her, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are sticking by her.

That’s not surprising. Salazar has drawn support because of a hunger in her district and among many young New Yorkers for more stridently progressive politics, particularly on economic issues. "The fact is Brooklyn voters recognize Julia will be a voice for tenants, not landlords, working families not Wall Street and an advocate for real progressive change in Albany,” Rep. Nydia Velázquez, who has endorsed Salazar, said in a statement. “It sounds like that's got some of the old guard worried and that's why you're seeing them peddle these attacks.”

Salazar is fortunate that many people don’t care about her fibs, but the question remains as to whether most voters will.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said that Julia Salazar's father had graduated from high school. City & State was unable to confirm whether he did or not. 

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.
Ben Adler
is City & State’s senior editor.