Alissa Vierra didn’t expect her 26-year-old husband to die, and certainly wasn’t expecting him to die from the flu, leaving her a widow to their young daughter. Devastated by her loss, she spent months trying to cope with depression while still raising her daughter and attending classes. It wasn’t until a professor reached out and inspired her to put her heart into something, anything, that could help to change the system she felt slighted her husband Vincent. That’s what led her to Iowa. She worked as a volunteer at events supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders across Iowa and knocked door-to-door to convince locals why they needed to back the presidential contender who pledged to push Medicare-for-All. Two months later, as the entire world talks about access to health care and the growing number of deaths linked to COVID-19, the policies championed by Vierra’s candidate are more relevant than ever. His campaign, however, is over, which makes her story even more complicated.
For all her life, she was just “Little Alissa.” “Little Alissa” who constantly faced homelessness. “Little Alissa” who survived gang rape at 15. But at18, she was finally leaving that girl behind as the first person in her family to attend college. And that year, she met the love of her life, Vincent Michael D’Andrea, at a punk rock concert not long after she emerged from a large moshpit.
He had a 1950s pompadour hairstyle, and was wearing a black leather jacket and creepers.
“I was like, that guy’s really cute,” Vierra said. When she noticed he was helping her friend, she thought, “And oh! He’s really nice too! That’s weird.”
A few months later, the two were so inseparable that D’Andrea had to make up a story to sneak away to get her an engagement ring. She couldn’t understand why he hadn’t invited her along to play ball with his buddies like he usually did. But once he revealed the ring, her confusion melted away as the dream of forever with D’Andrea became a reality.
January 20, 2018
When the couple’s daughter, Kylie, was five and not quite old enough to form lasting memories of her father, D’Andrea went into a medically induced coma after a 3-day hospitalization. He died from a complication with the flu.
“I feel so bad that I got to have him and she didn’t,” Vierra said.
Through the pouring rain, past the tall statues illuminated by fluorescent flood lights, Vierra walked a familiar path to the Dominican Hospital emergency room – the same place where she had given birth to Kylie. When she made her way into the room where her husband laid in a coma, she noticed the way the sheet seemed to suffocate him. Vierra wasn’t prepared to let go and store that ghoulish image of him in her memory, but she did, and it remains.
“There is a whole other plane of pain – in my opinion – for those who you have met as strangers and have chosen to be your family,” Vierra said.
For Vierra what immediately followed her husband’s death was a list: Hospital bills she couldn’t afford, cancellation of her LSAT exam, a drop in her 4.0 GPA to nearly failing grades in every class, and the new title of widowed single mother.
Weighted down by depression, Alissa had a difficult time maintaining hope. It wasn’t until a professor reached out and challenged her to make a commitment for herself that things started to improve. “I pledge to engage and work with policies and politicians to improve educational awareness and access. I will campaign with leaders whose ideas embody multiculturalism, multigenerational and equitable action and reform.” This pledge led her to the Sanders campaign.
January 9, 2020
Jumping up and down, flailing her arms in the air, Vierra, now 28, commanded everyone’s attention at a Bernie Breakfast for Iowans interested in the senator’s candidacy. The caucuses were less than one month away. When Sanders gave his audience the opportunity to share their stories, she rose in the crowd of approximately 400 to say, “Had we been able to elect Bernie Sanders in 2016, my 26-year-old – at the time – husband would still be here with me raising my kid.”
After that, you could hear a pin drop on the carpet.
Captivated by the Sanders promise of Medicare-for-All, free public college and the Green New Deal, “Little Alissa,” had become part of the largest grassroots political campaign coalition in American history. She had helped start the UCSC Slugs for Bernie 2020 club and joined other social movements for better equity on campus. Then she fundraised for her ticket to Iowa to knock doors. Sanders had changed the way she understood her potential, and this was her first opportunity to meet him in person.
While Sanders didn’t respond directly, it was clear Vierra’s story had struck a nerve with attendees in the room. A reporter approached her to learn more.
During that conversation, you wouldn’t know that this smiling ear-to-ear college girl, wearing a red bandana, a Unidos Con Bernie shirt and a thin cheetah sweater in the Midwest in early January also was a woman in anguish, facing eviction from her on-campus housing in Santa Cruz. No, this woman was vibrant, feisty, and fighting for a cause.
Vierra said at the time she was excited to share her full story and gave out her official ‘Student for Bernie’ business card to keep in contact once she returned to California.
Vierra’s time in Iowa was filled with memories to last a lifetime. On her first day door knocking, she felt defeated after having a difficult time talking to people in affluent communities. She was determined to find somewhere with a community to which she could feel connected.
Her best friend, Loreana Williams, who also served as a volunteer for Sanders, described what Vierra was able to accomplish in Iowa.
She found a trailer park in Waukee – 16 miles west of Des Moines in a former coal mining stronghold – where many residents had eviction notes on their doors and were fighting to keep up with a rise in rental fees. People there had not yet been contacted by the Sanders campaign and Vierra was able to gain support in the area, Williams said.
Williams recalls going back to Waukee later that week to deliver stickers, pins and signs requested by locals. For both Vierra and Williams, Iowa sparked a motivation to return to California and work just as hard to reach niche communities in need of progressive reform.
SANTA CRUZ, Calif.
When they returned from Iowa, Vierra and Williams worked harder than ever for their on-campus UCSC Slugs for Bernie club. They went door-to-door seeking Sanders supporters, set up phone banking on campus and tabled to educate others. California’s critical primary — which Sanders was expected to win — was approaching quickly.
SANTA CRUZ, Calif.
March 12, 2020
In a modest 2-bedroom house in UCSC’s family housing area, Vierra now lives with her daughter, boyfriend Pete and his son Mason. The house seemed swallowed by things. A half-eaten bagel left out from Kylie’s breakfast sat next to a hair brush and a single roll of toilet paper in front of the living room TV. In Kylie and Mason’s room, a set of bunk beds stood engulfed in stuffed animals. There was a distinct smell of marijuana behind the door of the master bedroom.
Peeking behind her mother’s legs, a timid little girl with one green and one brown eye hid from the reporters’ large camera invading her home. It only took about 10 minutes of kicking the soccer ball back and forth for her to show off her talents for the camera. Just like her mom, Kylie proudly flaunted her Sanders support with her T-shirts and notebook filled with “Bernie” artwork.
The political world had changed since Vierra was in Iowa, and former Vice President Joe Biden had ascended on a path to win the Democratic Party nomination, now leading with more delegates than Sanders. She was less than thrilled about it, saying, “Biden is no better than Trump.”
Sitting in a house decorated with Sanders signs, buttons and stickers, Vierra refused to give up hope. She looked at the election as something bigger than Sanders. “This is about getting people aware of the need for social change,” Vierra said. Despite the numbers working against Sanders, she believed that the movement behind him was strong enough to win the fight.
Not long after this interview, stay-at-home orders swept the nation as the global pandemic worsened.
Politics in the age of coronavirus have transitioned Vierra’s activism to social media.
While heartbroken at Sanders' choice to drop out, Vierra still maintains hope for the future in that “Bernie is an ideology.” For her, that is an ideology of people fighting for strangers, making an effort to care for the planet and changing the way class is viewed in the United States.
She spends a lot of her time updating her nearly 9,000 Twitter followers on an allegation that Biden sexually assaulted a Senate staffer in the 1990s. Vierra is unwilling to back Biden even though he is poised to formally claim the nomination and has Sanders’ endorsement. (She also shares about her own financial and mental health struggles.)
Vierra’s commitment to Sanders is deeply personal. And now, many families are experiencing the same thing she went through: the sudden death of a loved one due to the lack of accessible testing and the high cost of good medical care.
Even Sanders says it all points back to healthcare.
For Vierra, her husband’s death wasn’t just the fact that he couldn’t afford Tamiflu, the medicine that could have saved his life. He was a worker in the construction industry – where most do not have paid sick leave. She views it as inexplicably linked to socioeconomic status and class.
“You can’t talk about one without talking about the other.”