This Formerly Undocumented Colombiana Is Making History By Running For New York’s Assembly District 39 Seat

She’s Running is a FIERCE series highlighting Latinas running for office in local, state and federal elections.

In 1992, Catalina Cruz boarded an airplane in Medellin, Colombia heading toward JFK in New York with a visa that was set to expire in six months. At 9 years old, she didn’t know it yet, but the bustling borough she and her single mom settled in, Queens, would one day feel just as much as home as the South American country she left. Seventeen years later, after living much of her life in the U.S. undocumented, she became a U.S. citizen — and this summer she joins a historic number of American women across the country running to represent their communities.

Cruz, who is vying for the vacant 39th Assembly District seat, which covers much of the Queens neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, is the first formerly undocumented woman to run for office in New York.

With endorsements from two of the most powerful Latinas in New York history, Melissa Mark-Viverito and Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who she previously worked for as a chief of staff, the 35-year-old attorney hopes to follow in their paths, pushing for increased safety, resources and opportunities for immigrants as well as the expansion of health care and educational services for LGBTQ communities.

We spoke with the candidate about her campaign, running for office as a formerly undocumented person at a time of heightened political xenophobia and why readers should listen to their Latina intuition (and vocal mamis!) when it comes to their public service dreams.

1. Why did you decide to run for New York’s Assembly District 39 seat?

For me, it was like the political stars aligned. After the election, I found myself trying to figure out what more I could do. After years advocating for my community as an attorney, I felt like I hadn’t done enough. I had done a lot, but I was not where I needed to be to create the impact that the new political climate called for. The first thing I did was start telling people that I grew up undocumented, which I hadn’t done before, and then I began to work as former New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland’s chief of staff before she decided to leave midyear and not run for re-election. When that happened, Assemblyman Francisco Moya decided to run to fill her seat, leaving an assembly member seat vacant. With no term limits in the state assembly, it’s a huge deal that it was vacant. My mentor immediately told me that I needed to go for the seat. He said, “you know our community, you know our issues, we need you to do this.” I had to think about it, so I had a conversation with my mom, and she told me, “did we do all this for you to decide to be mediocre now? Why are we even having this conversation?” So I decided to run. It made sense. It was the right political climate for a candidate like me, for the story and accomplishment like mine. What better way to combat anti-immigrant sentiments in Washington than having an accomplished Dreamer run for office?

2. I know that among your priorities are transportation (particularly with the MTA), health care, education, immigration and affordable housing and tenant protection. Why are these issues currently crucial to your district?

This is what we see is most needed. We need affordable housing because high prices are driving people out of their communities. We need to prioritize education because we have class sizes that are so big that they are not conducive to learning and kids are not prepared to go to college. Health care is expensive. We need a single-payer system that is more affordable for everyone. Transportation is terrible. There are conversations about raising prices, yet trains still can’t get us on time anywhere. These are things that everyday working New Yorkers, especially those in district 39, need.

3. In the past, you’ve stated, “I want to represent everybody: those who can and those who cannot vote, because I was once one of those people who were unable to vote…” How do you intend on doing that in the Assembly?

When you have a constituency like the one in the 39th district, who have been living there for decades and contributing to the economy, you see that folks are experiencing taxation without representation. I’ve been this person, so I understand the need to engage with them, those who can vote and those who can’t. I want to see a true sanctuary state. As a public servant, what I want to do is maintain the needs of the community, all the constituents, in everything I do

4. As a woman, as a Latina, as an immigrant and someone who was formerly undocumented, what do you think your identities can bring to the Assembly?

I think they bring grit, endurance and understanding of the real-life impact of the decisions made by legislators, what they mean on the ground to everyday people, and understanding of what it takes to negotiate in terms of my time as an attorney.

5. I don’t just want to focus on your identities, however. You are an attorney and the president of the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County and you have experience being a Chief of Staff for former Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and a Director of Governor Cuomo’s Exploited Workers Task Force and Counsel to the Immigration Committee at the New York City Council, among more. How do you think these experiences and the skills you’ve gained through them prepared you for elected office?

I think, without knowing, this is exactly the position I’ve been working for my entire career, from when I was doing community work, to working hand-in-hand with one of the most powerful Latinas in the city, to my background in negotiating policies. Every step was taking me to this place, where I get the opportunity to run and represent and fight for the interests of our community.

6. You’re a first-time candidate, and in speaking with several others, I’ve learned that many were inspired to run because of this current administration. Is this true for you?

A little bit. The first time I considered running was when I saw the impact of what a dedicated, honest and just badass elected official could be, and I got that from working with Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and Melissa Mark-Viverito. I got to see these two women in action, knowing their background and how hard it was to get there. It was an honor. I think I have been inspired more by them than the actual election, but the election did push me to reach my 5-to-10 year plan quicker.

7. It’s often said that the biggest and most effective change is done locally. What are you prepared to do or work on locally to combat the Trump agenda?

Let’s get the first Dreamer elected out of Queens, where he claims to be from, though his values aren’t Queens values. Our values is standing for immigrants. But one thing I want to do locally is to make sure that people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people and all the folks who are attacked on a daily basis by Washington feel empowered. By giving them education and resources or standing up for them, I want them to feel we have their back.

8. There has been a wave of women running for public office for the first time this year. What are your thoughts on this?

I think it’s a beautiful thing. Having worked at the city council, where representation is abysmal, and then seeing so many qualified women running for office and saying, “it’s our time, #ReclaimingOurTime,” it’s a sign we are no longer willing to stay quiet or take the back seat. We are raising our voices and claiming the level of representation that should have always been ours.

9. You are the first Dreamer to run for office in New York state and, if you win, you will be the third to ever take office in this country (after Wendy Carrillo of California and Ruben Kihuen of Nevada). What does that mean to you?

I had to pInch myself when I first realized how significant it was. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, who is also a Dreamer, a mom and constituent, and we realized this is much more than me winning a seat. Doing that in this time is showing the world the different face of what Dreamers are. Washington is trying to equate us with gang bangers, but we are a community of immigrants who love our country and are as American as anybody else. We are simply fighting for our families to be happy with us. It’s like a turning point for politics, where we are having our own moment in history.

10. Finally, as a first-time candidate, I think you can offer a lot to young Latinas who aspire to run for office. Do you have a message for Latinas with political dreams but perhaps see those as unfeasible?

Absolutely! When the time comes for you, check your gut and go with it. There’s something about Latina intuition that tells you this is the thing you will regret if you don’t do it. But in the meantime, prepare yourself. Connect with the right people, do work in your community, be the best neighbor you can be, talk to electives and get feedback. Learn how they got there, and save money — because it’s expensive. By the time you get to the point of running, you will be an informed possible candidate. When you’re asked or you just know, your gut will direct you.

Read: Meet Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, The Latina Congressional Candidate Who’s Ready For A Political Revolution

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The Spanish ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ Is Being Shared To Honor Hispanic Workers Fighting COVID-19

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The Spanish ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ Is Being Shared To Honor Hispanic Workers Fighting COVID-19

There’s no denying that the world looks a lot different now than it did in 1947. And while the list of all of the positive changes that the decades stretching between now and then have done for the world and minorities, a recent campaign is also highlighting the ways in which our current president could take some notes on certain values the United States held dear during this time. Particularly ones that had been pressed for by one of our former presidents.

As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” effort, he worked to promote positive and healthy relations between the United States in Latin American countries.

At the time Rooseveltaimed to ensure that the North, Central and South American countries avoided breaking under the influence of Axis countries during World War II. As part of this campaign, Roosevelt comissioned a Spanish and a Portuguese version of the U.S. national anthem. According to Time Magazine he also “recruited Hollywood to participate in this Good Neighbor Policy; Walt Disney went on goodwill tour of South America, hoping to find a new market for his films, and ended up producing two movies inspired by the trip: Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944). The Brazilian star Carmen Miranda also got a boost, and her role in The Gang’s All Here made her even more famous in the U.S. And alongside these cross-cultural exchanges, the U.S. government decided it needed an anthem that could reach Spanish speakers.”

According to NPR, Clotilde Arias, wrote wrote the translation at the end of World War II, was born in the small Peruvian city, Iquitos in 1901 and moved to New York City to become a composer when she was 22-years-old. Her version of the anthem is now part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Now in an effort to support Latino communities affected by the coronavirus, the non-profit We Are All Human Foundation’s Hispanic Star campaign commissioned the a remake of the song.

Hoping to raise awareness of its Hispanic Recovery Plan and efforts to help to connect Hispanic small businesses and workers with resources during the pandemic, the campaign brought the old recording from obscurity.

For the song, the 2019 winner of the singing competition La Voz,  Jeidimar Rijos, performed “El Pendón Estrellado.” Or, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

The song has already received quite a bit of comments and support on Youtube.

Hang in there, fam. We can only get through this together.

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Up Next: Meet Katalina, The Colombian Funny Girl-Turned-Pop Singer You Need To Know


Up Next: Meet Katalina, The Colombian Funny Girl-Turned-Pop Singer You Need To Know

Up Next is a FIERCE series highlighting rising Latina and Latin American women artists you might not know about but definitely should.

Katalina is used to the spotlight. For years, the colombiana has cultivated an audience of millions on Instagram with her hilarious short videos about relationships and womanhood. But now, the social media influencer-turned-singer is using her mic to explore these themes.

Debuting her first song, “Sacude,” a carefree pop-urban dance jam, last November, the Miami-living entertainer followed up this month with the heartbreaking ballad “Adios” featuring Cuban-American singer JenCarlos Canela, showing her musical versatility.

“With me, there will definitely be both. This is something I think I have been very clear about,” Katalina, 27, told FIERCE. “I feel that music is more free now and you do not have to limit yourself to only one genre. I like challenges and I dislike routine, so you can always expect a mix.”

We chatted with the rising star about her lifelong love of singing, transitioning from social media influencer to music artist, saying goodbye to loved ones and what to expect from the beauty in the months that follow.

FIERCE: Most people who are familiar with Katalina know you as a social media influencer with hilarious videos, but last year you took the leap into music. Why?

Katalina: I have always liked to sing. I come from a very musical and talented family, but we always practiced it as a hobby. A year ago, I gave myself the opportunity to develop it professionally with my manager, Kito Sunshine, and I am totally grateful and in love with this. Music is what I love the most — it frees me.

FIERCE: Was this shift from social media influencer to singer strategic? Did you know you always wanted to sing and saw social media as an avenue to build your popularity and get you there or was this an unexpected but welcomed outcome?

Katalina: Since I was a little girl, I have known that I liked to sing and play the piano. From 9 to 11 years old, I sang in the choir of a church when I lived in Colombia, and for me it was something magical, so I’ve always known it. As far as social media, I entered by accident, but from the first day, I enjoyed the opportunity to reach so many people and show them my musical side as well. It was not a strategy. I did not upload many videos singing, but people motivated me more and more to try to develop music professionally, so I gave myself the opportunity, and, well, here we are.

FIERCE: But you’re not just a pretty girl with a following who is trying to use her fame to dabble in something she has no business doing. You are talented! Still, several social media influencers have attempted to break into music, some like Cardi B and Jenn Morel finding success, but others not so much, oftentimes not because they lack talent but rather because they’re not taken as seriously. What has this transition been like for you?

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Katalina: It is a bit difficult for people to see social influencers in another facet that they are not used to, but, in my case, I always showed them that musical side, so it was not totally a surprise. The same people asked me and the reception was very special. I hope to reach many people with my music.

FIERCE: As you stated, you have been passionate about singing and playing the piano since you were a child. What sort of music did you grow up listening to and how do you think it’s influenced your Latin pop sound today?

Katalina: I grew up listening to a lot of pop and ballads. My mom always listened to this music, so she did influence me a lot. I remember locking myself in my room and practicing these songs all the time. I still do this.

FIERCE: Colombian music is having a major global moment right now. What do you think you bring to the game that’s different and helps you stand out among the rest?

Katalina: Together with my work team we are creating our own seal. Our sounds are different and the vocal arrangements are unique to what we want to project. We are focused on the urban wave but keeping my romantic side.

FIERCE: I can see that for sure! You recently released “Adios,” a ballad featuring Cuban-American artist Jencarlos Canela about saying goodbye to an ex-love with the hope of returning to each other again in the end. This is very relatable because a lot of times during breakups there’s this hope that time away will bring you two back together. Sometimes it’s because the couple really is good for each other, but other times it’s just a matter of costumbre. How do you, Katalina, decipher between the two?

Katalina: Saying goodbye is always going to be difficult, either out of love or habit. I think that if you are with someone just out of habit and not because you love him, it is better to say goodbye definitely. “Adios,” to me, has another meaning. Beyond the circumstances for which you have had to say goodbye to your ex-partner, it is the goodbye that makes your heart hurt. It’s the memories of the shared moments that make you miss a person and want to have them again, that’s “Adios.”.

FIERCE: In the music video, the song took on new meaning. It wasn’t just about an ex but about losing someone you love to death and never being able to be with them again. Why did you all want to dedicate this song and video to those who lost their partners?

Katalina: These are very common situations in all of our lives. The message also has to do with those who have lost a loved one, not just their partner. In my case, I recently lost my grandmother suddenly, who was a mother to me, and, for this reason, I, and many others, can identify with this video.

FIERCE: I’m so sorry to hear that! And I think you’re right. The video really extends to loss outside of romantic relationships. We are in an era of collaborations, especially for Latin music, and in this song, your and Jencarlos’ voices blend very beautifully. Tell me, who are some of your other dream collaborations?

Katalina: I’ve always believed you find strength in unity, so working in a team, to me, is a very wise decision. I have a long list, but I’d want to start with artists like Natti Natasha, Karol G, Becky G, Ivy Queen, Cardi B — these are strong women and great examples of what it means to be an empowering woman. Also, J Balvin, Daddy Yankee and others. They are artists with careers worthy of admiration.

FIERCE: I know you’ve been working on a lot of music for this year. What can you tell us is in store for Katalina in 2019?

Katalina: There are incredible songs written by international composers. I will also have my debut as a songwriter in a song that I think people will really identify with.

FIERCE: Can we expect more ballads like “Adios” or more dance songs like “Sacude” or a mix of genres?

Katalina: With me, there will definitely be both. This is something I think I have been very clear about. I feel that music is more free now and you do not have to limit yourself to only one genre. I like challenges and I dislike routine, so you can always expect a mix.

FIERCE: You are so young, at the start of your career, what do you hope people can say about Katalina in 10 to 15 years?

Katalina: My dream is to become an icon in music worldwide. I would love for people to say that I inspired them to fulfill their dreams, that I helped empower other women, that my life has been a great example of triumph. In 10 to 15 years, with the help of God, I will leave my mark throughout the planet.

Watch Katalina’s latest single, “Adios,” below:

Read: Up Next: Meet Victoria La Mala, The Mexican Badass Empowering Women With Urban-Banda Jams

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