As Catalina Cruz strides into a coffee shop just off the main drag of Jackson Heights, she sports the easy smile of a local. After saying hi to the teenagers at the next table, she sits down opposite me, open and present. With her hands on the table, I notice her French manicure—a professional beigey pink—and compliment: “Your nails are gorgeous.” She waves a hand, pointing over her shoulder, “I always go to Fuchsia Nails on 37th, because I know they pay their workers.”
She should know. In 2015, Cruz was the director of the Exploited Worker Task Force under New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, which grew out of another task force she had created to protect workers in the nail salon industry. The initiative reached 80,000 workers and employers, and assessed $4 million in stolen wages, including those of the women who clip, scrub, and polish her own fingernails.
Cruz has street cred in Queens as a woman who gets things done. She most recently served as chief of staff for Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, a Queens politician who oversaw the city’s $82 billion budget as the chair of the Committee on Finance and championed the Menstrual Equity program, providing free sanitary products in New York City public schools in 2017. In 2014 and 2015, while working for a New York City Councilman, Cruz oversaw and implemented the Unaccompanied Minors Initiative to prevent immigrant minors from being deported; and with the Mayor’s office, she implemented the rollout of IDNYC, a municipal identification program that benefits New York City immigrants who may not have a driver’s license or social security number.
Now, Cruz is running for State Assembly in New York’s 39th district—which includes Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona—as a Democrat. If she wins the primary this September and the general election in November, she will become an advocate for undocumented people there.
“For me, there are many types of Dreamers, and each of our experiences are valid, painful, yet full of hope,” says Cruz when I ask how she defines Dreamer. “There are the Dreamers like me, brought here as kids and were undocumented during the era of the first DREAM Act, which was introduced in 2001. There are the Dreamers who have DACA and now have status because they have permanent residency or are even citizens. And there are the Dreamers who are still undocumented. What we all have in common is that our parents brought us here as kids and this country has become our home; we went to school here, work and invest here, made a life here, but many are still not as lucky as me to have status.”
Cruz, now 35, arrived in the US at nine years old with her single mother, Rosa Agudelo, from Medellín, Colombia, in 1992. “My mom was in the medical field back in Colombia—she was a nurse’s assistant,” says Cruz. “She came here, like many immigrants, to be a domestic worker. My mom gave out flyers on Roosevelt Ave for $40 a day. My mom sold tamales; my mom sold empanadas at the park to be able to put a roof over my head.”
When Cruz and her mother were undocumented, it was “the little things” that added up she says, “like when my grandmother died, we couldn't go [back to Colombia to] bury her.”
Cruz was 22 when she received her Green Card in 2005. “I sobbed uncontrollably because I knew at that moment my entire life, my mother's life, our lives were about to change in ways that I couldn't conceive,” she recalls.
Still, she didn’t yet consider herself someone who could affect political change. “When I was in that state of mind where I was undocumented, the idea that I could one day become a lawyer?” she laughs. “I think, at most, I was thinking, I'm going to graduate college and get a job off the books.” And she definitely didn’t anticipate running for office.
Slowly, though, that self-perception expanded. And after a career of supporting politicians, Cruz realized she had hit a wall in the existing system and wanted to be the one to dictate the policies herself. She could see people in the community she grew up in being hurt by Trump’s immigration policies; particularly, his decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) in September 2017, which rendered undocumented minors who had formerly been protected vulnerable to deportation.
Although Cruz was already a permanent resident when DACA was launched by Obama in 2012, she says she understands the struggles that minors brought to the US by immigrant parents are experiencing today, and hopes to become a voice for undocumented people in public office. She calls the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA a “cheap political ploy, endangering the lives of millions of Dreamers and their families” and “a slap in the face to immigrants who have worked hard, contributed to our economy, and [just want to] remain with their families in the only country they call home.”
If elected, Cruz intends to advocate for working families and support immigrant communities. Her other priorities include reliable bus and subway service, healthcare, smaller class sizes in public schools, strengthening policies that integrate immigrants, and affordable housing. “Not only am I going to be the political figure that can help get that change, but I am one of you,” says Cruz. “I now get to be the voice of those kids who are still living in the shadows.”
One of Cruz’s primary goals is to end overcrowding in public schools, and build new schools in the district: “They are learning in trailers!” She graduated from John Bowne High School in Flushing, Queens, then attended CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice and CUNY Law School, an experience that she says proved instrumental to her success. “They gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to get an education, to get the skills, and to meet the people that would later make me the woman that I am today, the professional that I am today, the lawyer that I am today,” she says. “It was through that process that I fell in love with the idea of advocacy at a bigger level.”
But that’s only one of many reasons why Cruz is entering politics. She recalls looking to her mother for advice when she was making the difficult to decision to run. “She looked at me and she said, ‘Do you think that I did all I did to bring you to this country for you to be mediocre?’ I just stared at her. ‘I don't care whether you win or you lose,’ she said. ‘Of course, I want you to win, but you can't be mediocre. You have to try your hardest. You have to do what you need to do because that's what you're here to do.’”
Cruz’s face shines when she speaks about mentorship and future generations. “I mentor this young Muslim woman at New York Law School. She's a DACA recipient,” she says. “I get to help to change the world for her, because she's in the place I was in. My grandmother taught me: you may be the first, but it is your responsibility to make sure that you're not the last.”
Correction: This story originally incorrectly defined “Dreamer,” an unofficial term commonly used to refer to a person who might have been provided protections by the never-passed DREAM Act, as “someone who was brought to the US as an undocumented minor.” Two sections of the original story contained errors about the ethnic identities and citizenship of New York State Assembly members and politicians on state and national levels, which we have excised. We have updated the story to clarify, and we regret the error.