Actor. Musician. Activist. How Jackie Cruz creates her own path (in and out of the spotlight).
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Alicia Menendez: Hey there, welcome to Latina to Latina. I’m Alicia Menendez, your host and contributing editor at Bustle. Each episode, I’ll be talking to Latinas on the rise. We’re going to talk about how they got to where they are, how the way they grew up made them who they are, and, you know, get inspired to be our best selves.
Clip (Jackie Cruz): I’m Latina, but I’m also all different types of things. Hollywood is so specific when it comes to Latino, and that needs to change.
Menendez: This episode, I’ll be talking to Jackie Cruz, one of the breakout stars of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. For six seasons, she’s brought Flaca Gonzales to life, but she’s also been fighting for causes like DACA and recording her first album. Somehow, in the midst of all of that, Jackie made time to talk with me about her music, her sexuality, and those Fiercely Latina gatherings you’ve seen on Instagram.
Let’s talk a little bit about Orange is the New Black.
Jackie Cruz: Yeah.
Menendez: Can you believe it’s the sixth season?
Cruz: No, man. I get tingles. I remember the moment I got the role. I was in a bad relationship at the time. Really bad. And he was like, “You were never happy like that with me.” I was like, “What? This is my dream. You know this.”
So, starting Orange was hard for me because of my bad relationship. But, I had to cut that out. And, you know, the moment I cut that person out of my life, everything started to fall in place. It is so crazy.
And that was the hardest thing for me. The hardest thing I ever had to do. But, it made me strong. In my music, you’ll hear it. There’s a song about it.
Menendez: How much did getting the show play into being ready to break up?
Cruz: I was hoping that there was, our relationship was gonna grow from that. I was finally happy. I was working in a club, season one and two, as a bottle service waitress. People would recognize me, right? Let's say at 1 Oak, I worked at 1 Oak, I worked at Lavo. I'm still very good friends with Noah Tepperberg.
And I was so freaking happy, because people were recognizing me for my work, and I was in a place where I really didn't want to be. And it was so funny, because I asked for season two premiere day off, which before I got hired I asked for that, and then I got an email from the manager, "I need to know what's more important to you: your Broadway show, or your job?" And I’m like, "I'm gonna go with the Broadway show, but it's on Netflix."
But yeah, so, I still go into 1 Oak. They treat me incredible. I get my own table.
Menendez: Was it at that point then, is it that you make enough money? Or that you just feel confident enough in the show that you say I no longer need-
Cruz: Actually, I got fired on all of them. So, this is the thing. I got fired. I got fired. It wasn't enough money yet, first season, second season, third season. No, no, no. Not the money. Trust me. I needed the money.
After season three, I felt like they started realizing that I was a part of the actual crew, and they started to pay us. But at the beginning, it was very, one line, two line.
Menendez: It's funky, because that's not your experience as the viewer. I mean that in a few ways. I mean, I felt your presence.
Menendez: And it felt like you were a big part of that cast in those first few seasons. And, also, it seemed like you were a celebrity, and you were living large. It's blowing my mind to think of you doing waitressing while you were doing it.
Cruz: Oh, yeah, I would actually go to work with my waitressing outfit after, because it was 6 a.m. Then Kate Mulgrew was like, "Where did you come from?" 'Cause I'm wearing fishnet stockings, holes in them. My eyes are bleeding black. And then I'm like, "I came from the club." And it's like, "What do you do?" And I'm like, "Oh. I waitress." She's like, "Oh. Mm-hmm. Okay."
Menendez: And so, at what point does that stop?
Cruz: They made me series regular in season four, and then I could support myself. And it's not like we're living large. People need to know that some of us are like Cinderella. We return the dress at midnight. We borrow these diamonds, and I'm freaking scared to lose them. I try not to drink in case one of these diamonds fall off, or else you have to pay for it.
Menendez: You know, the last time I saw you is almost exactly two years ago, we had a dynamic conversation, because you are a dynamic person. But I feel like something has shifted for you in the last two years where you were involved in activism and causes before, but that is to the tenth degree right now.
Menendez: And more comfortable talking about it and putting it out there. What has changed?
Cruz: Yeah. I mean, I've been--I think when you first share your opinion to the public, you knowing 'cause you're a journalist, it's scary, because people don't agree with you, and it was scary to talk about what I believed in and people not agreeing with me and being the trolls online. And I'm like, "Oh my God. They think I'm terrible” because of my opinion.
The President was a reality star. Why is his opinion more important than mine? So, I started to share it, and not care what people thought. And Carmen Perez is my mentor, and as you can see, she's a very powerful woman-
Menendez: And the Women's March-
Menendez: How most people know her.
Cruz: She’s trained me to be--not care anymore--and just fight for what you believe in. She's such a powerful person. She'll walk into a room, and everybody will notice her, just her energy is so incredible. I just feel like she's just helped me become myself when it comes to activism and understanding that I want to change a lot what's happening in the world. And that you can't do it alone.
Since I have a platform, I put my messages out there, bring awareness to the things that I believe are true and need to be changed. If you don’t like it, you can unfollow me, but I don't care anymore.
Menendez: Tell me about the process of that change, like does it start with just putting stuff out there and running away? Does it start with putting stuff out there and bracing yourself for feedback? How do you get to a place where it is okay that people are going to disagree with you?
Cruz: I just started not to really try--I try not to read the comments too much, but I do read the comments, because people do support me, and I want them to know “I saw you.” And I also want people to understand that I’m just a person like you, and my voice is as strong as yours, just maybe I have a little more people following me.
I mean, we’re getting all that right now with the children in that high school. Emma Gonzalez. She stood up for what she believed in, because she felt that pain, and you felt it when you heard her words and her tears come out, and look how powerful her voice was. And it’s giving a voice to the kids in high school right now. They know that they’re not alone.
Menendez: Some of the things I've seen you posting about. Let's start with DACA. Why is that important to you?
Cruz: Well, I'm a Dreamer. I think we are all Dreamers. I moved here. Well, my mother had me in Queens, right? But then I moved to the Dominican Republic, and I was raised in a third world country. I was raised in America and in the Dominican Republic, so I've seen it all. I've seen very poor poor, and I've seen very rich rich. I started very poor poor, so I understand, I'm just like you.
Menendez: What's “very poor poor”? What does that mean to you?
Cruz: To me, it’s not having opportunity. Not having the better education. When I moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States, my grades were down, because my education wasn't up to par for the States, because the Dominican Republic. I went to a private school, thank God, because my mother, she had the resources to help me go to an American school in the DR, which that doesn't happen very often.
But, regardless, education was not very high. I had to work really hard, because I moved here during high school. So what I mean is I was surrounded by el campo, the village. I saw... I didn't live in el campo, but I lived in a little apartment with my mom. But, I got across the street, there was a tin house. So, I grew up seeing this, I grew up walking down the street and seeing little girls my age ask for money.
Maybe that's what made me who I am today and why I want to fight so hard for DACA, because I feel like not everybody gets that opportunity, and maybe the parents brought the children here to get that opportunity that we don't have in our countries.
Then, when I posted something about the Dream Act, I was getting really mean comments about it.
Menendez: Like what? What do people say?
Cruz: The fears that they have. That the Dreamers are taking benefits and that immigrants are criminals, right?
Let me just give you a fact. DACA recipients are not eligible for federal benefits, even with the billions they pay Social Security. Payroll taxes will not even allow them to get anything. And, second, undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit a crime than native born. It's a proven fact. It's crazy. It's crazy to me.
I mean, I just feel so connected, because I'm one of them. I'm one of them. I was lucky enough to be born here, but what is that? I was just born here. How am I different than them? I still had a dream. It was still hard for me, too. I feel like they deserve it as much as any of us. They're actually helping our country. I don’t understand.
Menendez: As you become more of a public person, and as your star continues to rise, do you find that you get more or less of those opportunities to really, really connect with someone?
Cruz: Maybe more, because I'm more comfortable in the room now.
Last year, I went to the Vanity Fair Oscar Party and I didn't have a drink. I didn't do anything. I was just happy to be there, surrounded by these stars that you grew up, I don't know, like Salma Hayek, I was like, "Salma. I'm breathing your air.”
I looked at Salma, and I was like--can I say the F-word?--"Fuck it. I'm going in." And I went in, and it was the best three minutes of my life. I said, "Salma, I don't think anybody gives you enough credit. You've opened so many doors for us Latinas. I just want to tell you that I'm up and coming, and I play this small role in this big show, and thanks to you, I feel like I can do it."
She's like, "Fuck them." That's what she said. "Don't listen to them." She's like, "You can do anything you want. What show are you on?" I said, "This show," and I said, "I play Flaca." And she said, "You know. I don't watch your show, but I'm gonna watch it now." Right? And I said, "Oh my God. That means everything." She's like, "Because of you, right?" And I was like, "Okay. Oh my God."
So guess what I did? The next day, I sent her flowers, and I sent her a note saying, "I know that we didn't spend much time together, but it was amazing. Thank you so much for being so nice to me." Because not everybody is.
And she talked to me, and it was just beautiful. And guess what she did? She posted it on her Instagram with a picture of me, and said, "I'm really happy for the future of Latinas" or something. She said something beautiful. And I was just dying that Salma Hayek acknowledged me and knows who I am and will maybe watch the show because I'm in it.
Menendez: Fame is so strange, because in our office, people are running around being like, "Jackie Cruz is coming. Jackie Cruz. Man the doors. Jackie Cruz is coming."
Cruz: Oh geez.
Menendez: It's weird to imagine a scenario where you are not the most famous person in the room.
Cruz: Oh. Every room I'm in. But, it's great, because you know what? I say, I like to be the weakest link in my crew. 'Cause that's how you learn. You learn from people around you.
I mean... Sebastian Sdaigui is a director that directs music videos for Def Jam. He directed my first video for Selena that I did, I don't know, three or four years ago. He's been killing it right now in Def Jam, and he's like, "Jackie," 'cause he's been listening to me that I want to direct, he's like, "Do you wanna come be my apprentice at this video shoot I'm doing? It's for an artist for Def Jam." I said, "Hell yeah."
So I canceled everything, I was going to L.A, I canceled everything. I went in, and I was the second A.D. I was the casting director. I was the babysitter of the actress. I was everything. I was like, "Is that who we are? It's terrible."
No, but it's you know. I'm like, it's okay. But he saw that I went in there as a student, and he respected that. Not knowing that I was gonna get this, but he lent me those cameras, that are incredible cameras with Star Wars lenses, to shoot my music video last Sunday, because I was... I mean, he, I guess doesn't know me that well, because that's just who I am. I want to learn. He just saw a different side of me. He was like, "I'm really proud that, I don’t know, that you really want to do this. And I'm so looking forward to your growth, because I think you can do it."
And when I was shadowing him, I was like, "I think I could do this."
Cruz: Yeah. I love it. I love it. I have visions now, and I write them down, and I want to help direct most of my music videos for my music, because my music and film are very much intertwined, because it's what's happening in the world for me. And I've been waiting my whole life to create an album, so it's my first album.
I was gonna do an EP, then someone was like, "Why don't you just do an album?" I was like, "Okay."
Menendez: Can you explain the difference for someone who doesn't know?
Cruz: An EP is just something small, three or four songs of a nine song album. It's just a small part of an album.
Menendez: You basically said "I want to do a 5K," and someone's like, "Just run a marathon."
Menendez: Why go small?
Cruz: Yeah. Exactly. I was like, "You know want? You right." I've been so lucky. I went to the Latin GRAMMYs with Billboard. I got to go behind the scenes and interview all these dope, like Diplo, producers--Bad Bunny. All these dope producers, and I'm like, "I'm gonna work with you one day." And they're looking at me like, "Uh-huh." But they will. Trust me. I'm putting it out there.
And they don't know I sing, so if I have to put the music out there myself, sometimes you have to. You know Hollywood or whatever, they're not really visual. They don't really have imagination, believe it or not, so you have to put it in front of their face so they can see it.
Cruz: Same with me being--I'm Latina, but I'm also all different types of things. Instead of me just being in a box, like "Oh. She's Latina. That's all she is." No, no, no. I'm creating film. I'm writing my own film, because you know what? I've been auditioning. I've been this close to getting it, and I don't get it because of the way I look. Because I don't look Mexican. I don't look Dominican. I don't look Puerto Rican. I don't look this. 'Cause they don't know what I look like, because Hollywood is so specific when it comes to Latino, and that needs to change.
That's why I started Unspoken Productions. It's not for me anymore. I'm opening doors for people like me, for the underrepresented person.
Menendez: When you talk about Latinas and being a part of Hollywood and sort of the challenges of diversifying, I have spied you in almost all of those Fiercely Latina, #fiercelylatina gatherings, which is, my understanding, is put together by Gina Rodriguez, Eva Longoria. What's it like when you are in a room with literally everyone who the industry would look at and say, "That's her competition"?
Cruz: I mean, listen. When I walked into that room, 'cause I went to one of them, I walked into one of the gatherings, and, again, we're surrounded by people who want to help you and people who are working in the industry, and it's cool.
But, I'll be honest with you. When I walked in the room, I was sticking out like a sore thumb. Me and this other girl with an afro. And I got her number, because I was in a room where almost everyone looked the same.
Menendez: So let's just break that down.
Cruz: This is the first time I've talked about this.
Menendez: Yeah. No, no, no. But let's talk about it. There's been critique online about the fact that, even when we talk about Latinas in Hollywood, it's largely, and let me be real also, it's also Latinas that look like me.
Menendez: It's white Latinas, and so, there's a question of "Are you actually putting full diversity out there or are you only putting one representation of what a Latina can look like?" So, tell me, what was that experience?
Cruz: Well this is the thing, it’s just LA, it's a certain type. It's different. That's why, look, I quit acting for six years. And I moved to New York. I moved to California when I was 15. And I got into my bad car accident when I was 17. I quit acting. I focused on music. Music brought me to New York. I didn't want to act, because what was I? I was a gangster's girlfriend. I was a victim who was raped, and these were the characters that I was going out for.
And yeah, maybe I did two roles, but everything else, "You don't look the role. You don't look the type."
That's the problem, I think, with Hollywood. I think that it doesn't really matter, it shouldn't really matter, what you look like, in a way. Even if you're playing a Spanish person, okay, and if you are Spanish, that's great. But, I really think that the talent should be the number one key, right? If you're going in for Latino, you say you're Latina, you go in for the role. We all look different. You go to my country, there is a blonde and blue eyed baby and there's also a dark, dark-skinned, dark-haired baby. There's all kinds. My mother's dark.
Menendez: So what, then, is the experience like in that room with all those other women?
Cruz: I'm gonna be honest with you. Everybody's angry. Everybody's angry at something. Some people were thankful to be in the room, thanking our host. It was just a really contradicting room. Everybody in the community, I feel, has an issue. And you know Gloria Kellett?
Cruz: Calderón Kellett. She's incredible. She's my friend, and she just did History of Them, another show. And yeah, it is with a Cuban. And yeah, I auditioned.
Menendez: Which is her experience.
Cruz: Yeah. Which is her experience. I'm telling you, when I'm doing my own thing, I'm gonna put my people up, because that's my experience. So, if you have a problem, I think that instead of talking about it and complaining, do something about it, because that's what I'm doing. Regardless, I’m always working on my show. I’m not just an actress there. I’m watching what people do, I’m asking questions, and that’s what you have to do. I’m trying to learn every little thing about the industry. I just feel like we should have a gathering in New York, so we see the difference in communities in LA and in New York and the diversity in New York that is not in LA.
Menendez: I also would love to see you do it across industries, because I think part of it is it's helpful for Latinas in media and entertainment to know one another, but what's actually the most powerful is for Latinas across industries to have those relationships, and to get better about that thing where it's like you have someone's cell number, not so that you can text them with annoying stuff, but so that when it really comes down to it, and you need someone, you need to be able to get in front of them, that you have that relationship.
Menendez: And I think cross-pollinating is the way to do that.
Cruz: Yeah, I agree.
Menendez: If I just hang out with other lady journalists, that actually only takes me so far.
Cruz: It's so true. It's so true. You have to cross-
Menendez: This is how I invited myself to Jackie Cruz's apartment for a social event.
Cruz: Absolutely, and I think it's really interesting to get even business women who are in there, all types of women, all types of even men. I agree. I think that men need to help us, too.
I feel like it's just the Latino community, that they're not supporting each other, because there's only one seat at the table, and some people are a little selfish to share or open up another chair, because they think, "It's so hard to get here, maybe it's my only chance."
Menendez: You wanna talk about MeToo?
Cruz: Yeah. I feel like the MeToo movement was incredible, because it brought awareness to what's happening in the world really. It's not just in Hollywood obviously. It happens in every... in any workplace really. Any kind of workplace. I used to be a bottle service waitress. I mean, it happens everywhere.
I just feel, we feel, like we should layer into the MeToo movement because of maybe women who are incarcerated felt excluded. Women out of prison felt excluded. Maybe we want to add a layer to the MeToo movement to include every single person who this happened to. And it's okay to talk about it. And you're not alone.
Menendez: So, what is your access point for this conversation? What is your experience of it?
Cruz: I feel like women who are incarcerated don't really have a voice, and since I'm working in a show about prison, I've become really involved in the Women's Prison Association and meeting the women after they're in prison and even within prison. Prison, it’s like slavery. And I'm gonna be honest with you, it's terrible what's going on in there. They don't really feel like they have a voice.
If I have to scream it, I will. For them.
Menendez: I think for a lot of women, in light of this conversation, we're now looking back on things that we dismissed or decided to bury or decided not to tell anyone because we didn't feel we could. But now we're revisiting and we're saying, "That really was inappropriate. That really did make me so deeply uncomfortable.” Or “That did change the trajectory of my career." Do you have moments like that now?
Cruz: Oh yeah. I have a few moments like that. When I first moved to Miami, it was because a man told me he worked with Selena. Not Gomez. I love you, Selena Gomez, but I'm talking about Quintanilla. He worked with Selena Quintanilla, and he liked the tone of my voice, and he said, "I would like to work with you, but I work in Miami." He won all these GRAMMYs. He said that he needed $10,000 and that he would help me make my music and videos and all this stuff.
I moved. It was not what he said, and he stole my money, and he made me feel uncomfortable a lot of times. I was in a car alone with him. We would listen to music. It was just uncomfortable situations.
Then, he stole my money, and he said, “No one's gonna listen to you. You're nobody. You're nothing. You're this, you're that.” He made me feel very... it was fucked up. And never in my life has a man made me feel so small. I don't even want to mention his name, because I feel like the universe will take care of that for me, or God, whatever you believe in.
So yeah, there's a lot to talk about, 'cause I feel like the MeToo movement, it was not just a gender. It's not just all women. What about the women of color? I don't know. I just feel like it's harder for us to speak up.
Cruz: People don't take us that serious, maybe? It's harder to speak up, because maybe we haven't made it that big yet, and people think that we're just talking.
Menendez: And I think there's also a fear of becoming a problem woman. "Oh, she's so difficult. She's always complaining. She's always got a problem. Blah, blah, blah."
Cruz: And before I'm there, I can't be complaining about what's happening when I'm not even there yet, you know what I mean? I don't know how to explain that.
Menendez: I know exactly what you mean, to come and speak out about your truth is scary. Period. Just to put yourself out there. I think to talk about times where you have been taken advantage of, women are trying to reclaim that as a way of reclaiming power, but it can make you feel really vulnerable in the short term.
And I think there's also a concern among people who don't feel like they've, like you're saying, reached their destination, that it can be a detour, that it can become the thing you're known for.
Do you learn to trust people again?
Cruz: It was hard, because I’ve been in a relationship now for three years, and he had to work really hard to get my trust. Still has to work hard. I learned a person who doesn’t let you be yourself, that’s the person you don’t want to be with. At all. If you have to walk on eggshells, if you have to watch what you say, if you have to be careful of what you dream, definitely walk away right away. ASAP. Because, honestly, the person I’m with now, I have wings. I can go anywhere I want, not worry about a darn thing. Trust is the number one key.
And I'm also bisexual, and he's okay if I like girls. I play around.
Menendez: Was that a part of your agreement upfront, that you could play around? Was that a midway-through conversation?
Cruz: It was a recent conversation, because I have a girl crush. But he always knew. I never really talked about it with any of my boyfriends. This is the first time that I felt comfortable in my own skin to tell him, "I'm attracted to women. I love you, but I am also attracted to women." And he's okay with that.
Menendez: And he's okay with-
Cruz: If something happens, or something. I'm not trying to have threesomes or anything. I told him that very clear. "If it's anything, it's just me and her. You? Bye." And he's like, "Okay. Can I draw you at least?" He's an artist. I don't know, we'll see. The future, we'll see.
Menendez: But just the fact you felt comfortable having that conversation.
Cruz: Yeah, I'm telling you. It's a first time I can be myself, and it feels so good. My family is probably not gonna be very happy with me, again, because a Latino family, they put you in a box, too. I really cut everyone almost out of my life.
My dad recently, we had a huge fight, because my legal name is Jacqueline Chavez, and I go by Jackie Cruz. I've changed my name 10 times throughout my career to fit in, and Cruz stuck. It's a part of deep in the family. But, Chavez I never really liked. And so I have a song, which is my single, and it's called Y Llave Chavez. And I let him hear it, and it's kind of not really that nice about him, and he was like, "Oh. A really nice song." I'm like, "You were not really listening. You're not listening."
Then we got into a fight recently, and he's like, "Once you changed your name, I realized that I'm not important to you." And he's not understanding. He's not understanding me. He thinks that I'm not making time for him, because I don't want to. It's not that. It's because I'm busy. This is my moment, and I'm just working so hard.
Some of my family, they don't get that. Especially my dad, who was never in my life, is giving me a hard time? I'm like, "No. I didn't give you a hard time. I gave you so many chances. Why aren't you giving me a chance?"
So, I'm opening up with my album. I'm talking about my dad. I'm talking about when a guy grabbed my ass at the GRAMMYs, went underneath my dress and cupped my ass, and no one did anything, and I screamed at him, and I was surrounded by people in Vegas. No one did anything. They said, "He's not worth it." And he walked away. He was a drunk, white, male businessman. And it was the GRAMMYs, and I was looking like an artist. You have no right to touch me.
So, I wrote a song called Make Me Change, which is you can't make me change, and I just did the music video. It's kind of, I had a day where I go into the studio, and the photographer's making me take off things. And I'm annoyed, and it's just kind of, I break down, and then I have someone in the end calm me down.
And it's Maddie Brewer. She's in, I don't know if you know who she is. She's in Handmaid's Tale and she played Trisha. She's featured in my video, and it's the most beautiful thing you'll ever see.
Menendez: She's in Handmaid's Tale. She's the one that has the eye-
Cruz: With the eye.
Cruz: She gets me, and we're working not only, she's also a singer. So whenever I have concerts or whatever, I always ask her to come in and sing with us, because she has a beautiful voice. Then, I have a band called the Family Portrait, and that's just something I do for fun.
Menendez: In what time?
Cruz: I know. But, yeah, I have a lot of music coming in, and it’s fun, because I get to produce. I’ve been slowly but surely almost getting big roles. This is the first time I can say I’m proud of who I am and who I’ve become and what I want to do in the future.
Thank you so much for having me, ‘cause we could talk all day.
Menendez: That’s it for now, but we want to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com.
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Latina to Latina is produced by Lantigua Williams & Co., mixed by Oluwakemi Aladesuyi with assistance from Anna Parsons. Our executive editor is Emily Anne Epstein, our editorial supervisor is Rosanne Salvatore. And we’ve got to give a special thank you to Jenny Hollander.
Menendez, Alicia, host. “How Orange Is The New Black’s Jackie Cruz Gets it Done.” Latina to Latina, Lantigua Williams & Co., April 10, 2018. LatinaToLatina.com.