The time between escaping the violence of Colombia and coming to Queens at age 9 to becoming a state assemblywoman was no smooth ride for Catalina Cruz, who last November became the first “Dreamer” in New York elected to public office.
“We had to go through lots of humiliation, lots of, ‘This is not your country. You don’t belong here,’” she told a room of students at Molloy College on Feb. 7. She delivered the talk to several dozen girls in the college’s Mentoring Latinas program, at which girls in the Uniondale and Mineola school districts pair up with Molloy mentors.
Molloy junior Debora Vargas, 20, a mentor in the program, said many of the high-schoolers come to the club seeking motivation. “We’re here to give them mentorship, give them advice and encourage them to believe that they can actually achieve their dreams and go to school and make their parents proud,” she said.
Christopher Malone, dean of Molloy’s School of Arts and Sciences, said Cruz is a personal friend, adding that she serves constituents in Jackson Heights, where he lives. He noted that her passion to serve people who need help fits with the Molloy mission, and asked her to speak.
“It’s not just sort of empty political words that politicians say because it sounds good,” he said of her plans to make change as an assemblywoman. “She believes this.”
Cruz, 36, discussed her journey from an undocumented immigrant living in Queens to working as a lawyer and becoming a public official last Election Day. Inspired by her mother, who worked long hours as a nanny, cleaned offices at night and sold tamales and empanadas at soccer fields on weekends, Cruz has committed her career to fighting for immigrants and workers.
A fan of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in high school, Cruz decided to study criminal justice and attended John Jay College in Manhattan while working two or three jobs at a time to pay her tuition. She later earned a Juris Doctorate from the City University of New York School of Law. She had gained citizenship by then, and wanted to help others seeking permanent residency in the United States.
An experienced attorney, she became a leader for tenant projects, immigration reform and workers’ rights. Prior to becoming the assemblywoman for the 39th District, which covers Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, she previously served as the director of the Governor’s Exploited Workers Task Force. She most recently served as the chief of staff to Julissa Ferreras, the New York City Council finance chairwoman.
“At a time when the rights of women, the rights of people of color, poor people, immigrants are under constant attack because of the administration that we have,” Cruz said, “the position and the ability to run for a seat opened up, and I thought to myself, this is it. This is what I get to do to help our community.”
Cruz has vowed to speak her mind, and calls herself a public servant, not a politician. Though she advocated for community members as a lawyer, she was limited how she could help certain undocumented workers, for example, by the laws in place.
“I got the experience I needed…and now I’m going to go use that to make sure that when we pass laws that can change those situations,” she said.
She spoke candidly, sometimes in Spanish, to the girls in attendance, who often silently watched in admiration, laughing as Cruz used humor to lighten the serious challenges Latinas and others face.
“Do not let the voices of others discourage you,” she told one girl, who asked for advice about pursuing law. “Ignore the haters.”
Melissa Joya, 20, a junior nursing major at Molloy, said, as a mentor, she was pleased to see the high-schoolers’ reaction to Cruz. “They were kind of stoic for the first couple of weeks,” Joya said, “but I think seeing the assemblywoman come in made them soften up and put their guard down and say, ‘Wow, this is where I could go.’”