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About Catalina Cruz
Cruz grew up undocumented in Queens and obtained legal status in 2009 after marrying her American high-school sweetheart and receiving pro bono help with her citizenship application.
Raised by a single mother, Cruz came to the United States from Colombia in 1992, when she was 9. During the family’s first few years in New York, her mother handed out restaurant fliers for $40 a day on the corner of 82nd and Roosevelt Ave. The family lived in the shadows; even the man who is now Cruz’s husband didn’t know the full story of her immigration status at first. “For a long time, we were hiding who we were,” she says. Cruz has lived or worked in Queens neighborhoods in or near District 39 for her entire adult life.
Cruz got her start in New York politics by interning for Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was then New York’s attorney general. A graduate of CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice and CUNY Law School, Cruz has used her legal education to help her fellow immigrants: She served on former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s immigration committee, where she helped write legislation to keep ICE out of Rikers.
Before running for office, she was chief of staff to Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the former chair of the New York City Council’s finance committee and the first woman, first person of color, and youngest person to hold that position. Cruz decided to run for office after Ferreras-Copeland’s 2017 resignation led to an open Assembly seat. “It was not a road I was expecting,” she told The Cut, “but these seats rarely open, so I kind of did a gut check.” At her mother’s urging, she threw her hat into the ring.
Confident, open, and warm, with a winning smile—“I’m a hugger,” she says, when I go in for a handshake—Cruz is a natural in Cruz has also made an impression on a number of her constituents. Karen Wellington, a 63-year-old African-American woman who has lived in Cruz’s district since 2003, described Cruz as “very involved” in the community. Wellington, a retired New York City public high school teacher, listed housing, health care, and immigration as the district’s top concerns. Seniors, she said, are especially easy targets for unscrupulous landlords.
Cruz makes sure to connect the big issues in her district—immigration, affordable housing, fixing the dysfunctional buses and subways, and increasing access to education and health care—to her own experiences. “I’m a renter myself,” she says, “so I understand that fear, that every time your lease is renewed…if my landlord wants to charge [higher] rent, he could.” She describes the Metropolitan Transit Authority as “a massive system that’s too big to function and constantly fails us…. In our community, we have a lot of hourly workers whose jobs depend on getting to work on time, and this is not occurring.”
She says she’d like to see a statewide single-payer health-care system. Cruz is also a staunch advocate of women’s reproductive freedom and believes it’s critical to support health-care organizations that women rely on, such as Planned Parenthood, because “I remember when I was undocumented, having to access places like Planned Parenthood so I could actually get care because I couldn’t get it anywhere else.”
Notably—and despite the fact that the incumbent, Ari Espinal, was essentially installed by her former boss, Francisco Moya, in a special election after Moya was elected to the New York City Council—Cruz does not see herself as an insurgent candidate. “The first thought in my head…it’s always, ‘I’m running for our community, I’m running for change for our people,’ not, ‘I’m going to go and destroy the machine,” she says.
She may not want to smash the machine, but she does seem to want to make it better and stronger, especially when it comes to her highest priority: protecting immigrants.
“The beauty about going through the immigration process is that you learn what it’s like not to have a voice,” said Veronica Piedra Leon. “You understand that those who do have the voice are the ones that need to be in power, to cast a vote and to make a difference, based on our experiences. Piedra Leon is trying to teach her 7-year-old niece, who was born in the United States, “the value of voting and showing up and supporting candidates like Catalina, who understands what we have gone through.” Doing so makes her feel as if she is “a part of the process, even if I cannot vote.”
It’s a sentiment Cruz often invokes. At the end of the day, she tells me, “I may be the first, but I have a responsibility to make sure that I’m not the last, to open doors for young women, to open doors for undocumented folks to have a voice.”
Raina LipsitzRaina Lipsitz has written about gender, politics, and pop culture for a variety of publications, including Al Jazeera America, Jewish Currents, and the online editions of The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour.