Jackie Cruz Makes Peace With Her Past and Rises Like a Phoenix to Create a New Diverse Era in Hollywood

Jackie Cruz is an actress, notably known for her role as Flaca on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, and a singer about to release her debut album. This story was told to Maria G. Valdez and edited for length and clarity.

I come from the Dominican Republic, and I moved to Hollywood with my mom to pursue my dream of being an artist when I was 15. It wasn't an easy journey. We were living off pesos in America, in a little studio apartment. Then I moved out of my house when I was 16, and I became this little rebellious girl who didn't want to listen to anybody, and just do her thing. I got into a terrible car accident, and then it felt like I had to start all over again.

How the Accident Changed Her Life

I was ashamed. I didn't want people to think I was victimizing myself, and I realized that that's silly. That's silly because I want people to know I am just like them and I've been down. At the most, I had a 10 percent chance of living. I was at the worst. I literally died and came back to life.

It was almost like being reborn again. I had my family bathing me, I couldn't even walk, or look at you straight. Everything in my face was crooked. Just coming from that place, I wanted to give up on my life, even after I survived. It was really selfish of me.

I want people to understand that you can really succeed if you persevere and do not put a time limit on your dream. I don't care what it is you have to do. I was waitressing for 10 years after my accident. So, there are no excuses. My best friend Melly, who's in a wheelchair, tells me, "God gave you legs. God gave you a voice. God gave you the strength. Use it. Use it." She inspires me, and that's what I'm trying to do. Just live every moment. This is the new me. I used to be quiet, but now I'm going to speak up. I'm not afraid.

Her Inspiration to Create Her Own Opportunities

This whole experience taught me at a very young age that I wasn't ready for Hollywood as a teenager. But Lord, am I ready now! I'm ready for everything. I'm ready for my music. I'm ready to star in big picture films. I'm ready to create, to direct, to produce, and to write. I didn't know I could do all these things, but it's because of my incredible role on Orange Is the New Black that made me believe that being a Latina woman, and being from the Dominican Republic, I could do all these things.


Instead of sitting and complaining about Hollywood not giving me the opportunity, I started to create my own.

Instead of sitting and complaining about Hollywood not giving me the opportunity, I started to create my own. I was inspired by the misrepresentation of the scope of my people. I'm tired of playing the same role. I think it's time for us to see more colorful Latinx on screen, and Orange can't be the only show. We need to grow.

It's really sad that I'm still auditioning for the same role right now. I'm probably ending up on the top-five list of almost everything I'm doing because I'm good at what I do, but I'm not getting it because of the way I look, because Hollywood is so fixated on the stereotype of what a woman is, or even what a Latina woman is, that they don't let us grow. We need to see the world. We need to see those unspoken stories that will inspire us and will make us believe.

There's just so much that we need to talk about, that hasn't been spoken about. And I'm just tired of seeing the same Latinx person on screen. We all look different, and that's what's been holding me. Maybe I have a lighter skin, but I have African features. I'm tired of just going out for this one thing, when I could be so many things.

Raising the Latinx Voice

I'm working on my activism with Carmen Perez. She's someone who inspired me to use my platform for the things that I believe in and to fight for our people. We're starting our first company called Ella.com, and we're going to start with a podcast. We're also going to do film and TV and use her work and my culture to influence the Latinx community and bring unity to us, because we feel like the Latinx voice isn't there yet. We act like we're there, but everybody's competing with each other. And I'm about to be the one honest artist out there, because I'm lucky enough to be able to share the real truth with what I do.

The Latinx voice isn't there yet. We act like we're there, but everybody's competing with each other.

That's what I think differentiates me from other actors right now that might be making it big. They can't really tell the truth, because they're afraid. They're afraid that those people with money are not going to give them the money. But guess what? I sold my first TV show. I can't talk about it yet, but it's a short-form series, and I got the money for it thanks to Geena Davis's help. I found the money, and they like my voice, what I'm saying, and I'm going to continue to use it. Maybe I don't have the millions of dollars to create the big picture film, but eventually I will get there. I have to start small first.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 22:  Jackie Cruz attends Jackie Cruz Performs During A Univision Happy Hour on March 22, 2018 in New York City.  (Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images)
Getty | Shareif Ziyadat

Finally Embracing Her Whole Self

I changed my name a lot of times in Hollywood — again, to fit in. I was Jacqueline Rose, Jacqueline this, or Jacqueline that, I was Italian . . . I didn't know how to fit in because of my look. And a lot of people don't know that my real last name is Chavez. So now, I'm finally coming out with my album at the end of September that's called Hija de Chavez, as a way to honor my roots and make peace with my past. "Hija de Chavez" is also the first song in my album. And then, every other song is dedicated to the women who inspired me and raised me.

My dad wasn't involved in my life. He was young when he had me, and when I finally met up with him, he had a whole new family. It wasn't the same. He was disappointed that I didn't finish college and kind of didn't believe that I was going to be what I am today.

I was working at Nordstrom at the time, and he said that he was disappointed in me. I said, "One day I'm going to make it, and I'm not going to use your name." I couldn't forget that conversation. So, I did change my name, and I did make it. But now I'm going back to my beginnings, because I understand that it wasn't his fault, and I want to acknowledge him in a way.