Alumna Catalina Cruz ’05 becomes a New York State Assemblywoman.
By Andrea Dawn Clark
When nine-year-old Catalina Cruz first emigrated to New York City from Colombia, one of her favorite things to do was to play in the snow. “There was something about how peaceful it felt when it snowed,” says Cruz. “I had a very hectic childhood between my mom working so much and how hard things were at home because of our immigration status.” Growing up in Queens, Cruz witnessed her mother being treated poorly because she didn’t speak English and was undocumented. Her mother’s wages were stolen, landlords mistreated her, and lawyers gave her false information under the guise that they could help her secure citizenship. “I saw all of that happening to her and felt the pain of that experience. Really, it’s the story of every immigrant parent, regardless of what country they come from,” says Cruz.
Around the time that Cruz started applying for college, she pinned her hopes on acquiring a Forensic Psychology degree at John Jay and a future career in law enforcement. “I wanted to become a cop, the next Olivia Benson,” she says with a laugh. At John Jay, Cruz thrived because of the school’s strong sense of community. When the towers went down on September 11 she was in class and suddenly there was an announcement for members of law enforcement and first responders to report for duty. “There was this feeling of support between total strangers and friends. Everyone was saying, ‘Don’t worry, I got you. You’ll be okay,’” says Cruz. “That’s the most vivid memory of my time at John Jay, the camaraderie during September 11.”
Cruz was grateful to obtain immigration status in 2009 through her husband at the time.“Getting a work permit was a pivotal point in my life. I could officially work at a meaningful job that paid more than minimum wage,” says Cruz. “It allowed me to help my family out more.” Long after she became a citizen, there was an unforgettable moment in Cruz’s life where she really understood the power of the the American dream. “Voting for the first time is when I truly felt like I was part of the bigger American story. The first time I actually got to vote was to help reelect Barack Obama.”
While at John Jay, Cruz switched career goals and decided to become an attorney. The reason? An attorney had represented her, pro-bono, to become a permanent resident, and eventually a citizen. “That’s when I realized the power that someone who practices law with love, passion and the desire to help, can have on people’s lives,” says Cruz. After graduating from CUNY School of Law, Cruz fought for immigrant, tenant, and workers’ rights in the Cuomo administration and in the office of City Councilmember Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, whose resignation helped open the Assembly seat that Cruz would run for in 2018.
Winning the New York State District 39 Assembly seat, Cruz joined a wave of women, especially women of color, who also took office at the state and national level. “As amazing as it is to have allies who understand your struggles, it is a completely different thing to have an elected official that has lived through it,” says Cruz. “Our voices carry a different weight in legislative conversations because of our life experiences.”
John Jay still holds a special place in Cruz’s heart because she knows how it changed her life. “If it wasn’t for John Jay, I probably wouldn’t be alive,” says Cruz. “I lived in a community where teenagers died all the time, whether it was because of gang violence or drugs. I could have easily been a statistic if it wasn’t for John Jay.” Now, as an Assemblywoman, Cruz hopes to combat overcrowding in schools, offer driver licenses for all, institute rent reform, and “if one day the seven train ran on time, that would be amazing, too.”