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.