Film / Photography

Jackie Cruz on making space for Latinxs in Hollywood and beyond

Actor, musician, producer, record label owner, you name it, Jackie Cruz is a polymath for the ages.

When the Orange is The New Black star took on the role of outspoken inmate Marisol ‘Flaca’ Gonzales, Netflix as we know it today was just beginning. Hailed for its breaking of boundaries, in race and gender stereotypes, as well as its no-frills portrayal of the American prison system, Cruz and her character have been a vital part of the movement. “Orange is The New Black gave me hope”, Jackie Cruz told HUNGER when catching up on the last season and her new music: “It gave me the possibility; it gave me the door to Hollywood. ‘Flaca’ opened the door and Jackie Cruz is going to seal the deal.” And we can’t wait to watch her do it…

What are some of your earliest memories of falling in love with cinema and music? 

The first time I fell in love with music and cinema was when I watched The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston in the Dominican Republic. I tell this story all the time, but one time [my mom and I] went to see the movie and I was blown away by Whitney’s vocals and the big screen. I fell in love with it. My mom has always been a person that listens to all types of music including jazz. My uncle was a huge jazz saxophone player in the Dominican Republic and that’s what made me start music. So, you can say I fell in love with music and film through my family and watching The Bodyguard. I continued to go to the movies and realised that’s exactly what I wanted to do… entertain.

Did you have a musical and cinematic upbringing? What were the key influences and inspirations for you growing up?

So, my uncle was a saxophone player [Carlos Estrada] in the Dominican Republic. He is big over there, well known and I was this little girl at the jazz bar just staring at him, listening to his band. I was like the niece of the whole band, they all basically became like my uncles and it was cool to ask questions, to understand how powerful music is, and how it communicates with the world through sound. I got taught that at a very early age. Cinema was like my babysitter, my mum had me at a young age, so all my aunts were taking care of me. The TV was something I was in front of all the time because my mother was working all the time and my tias[my aunts] were doing something, so I was always in front of the screen imitating movies. Inappropriate movies [laughs]. I’ve got to say the key people to my upbringing were my tias and my godmother, Zitzy. Everyone taught me something different and made me the person who I am today – and the struggle was real. I struggled a lot with my insecurities: sometimes your Latin family make you feel that the way you look is most important, and I felt that was taken away from me at a young age after my near-death car accident. We all learned a big lesson: that beauty comes from within. It’s something we learned together through my pain and my mother’s pain after my car accident. I was inspired by my hard-working, strong, female-surrounded upbringing with Tia Madeline, Tia Lucia, Tia Millie and Tia Zitzy. But I can’t forget my Uncle Peter [Zitzy’s husband], he taught me that I need to make a difference in this world and make the best out of it while I’m here, to help as many people as I can. That’s why I use my platform, not just for myself but to bring up others and bring up our community.

What does the character of Flaca mean to you? Do you relate to her?

Well, personally I’m not that little girl that started seven years ago. I’ve grown to be this woman that I never thought I would be. I’m an activist, I’m a freedom fighter, I use my voice for the good. I want to direct, I want to produce, I want to write. I have been doing all of this already – I started my own production company, Unspoken Film and Orange is The New Black gave me hope. It gave me the possibility; it gave me the door to Hollywood. “Flaca” opened the door and Jackie Cruz is going to seal the deal. I’m so honoured to be a part of a show that was monumental, historical and one of a kind… OITNB was the beginning of something extreme, it was one of the first shows [created] for watching TV through Netflix. “Binge watching” and “streaming” – we were the beginning of streaming, which is nuts because now it’s taken over!

There’s a vibrant representation of the diversity of the Latin community in the show, and also a powerful look at what it means to be Dominican. How do you feel it’s impacted the view of Dominican culture and Latina women as a whole community?

Flaca means the world to me because it was the first time I saw someone like me, someone that represented someone like me, on screen. A role model… I know that she’s in prison [but] I get to tell the story of a girl in prison. Seeing her as human, I fell in love with the person she was instead of what she did. We have music in common, we have ambition in common, we try to find something beautiful in a dark place, we try to find a light. Maybe for Flaca it was a YouTube channel, and for me, it’s protesting at the detention centre in El Paso. I feel that Flaca and OITNB have shaped me and opened my mind… And that’s what I want to do with my platform: open the minds of others and let them know that there is room for all of us. Never put a time limit on your dreams, there are so many people in this world – we can’t all make it at once, you have to work really hard and put your heart into it, be passionate about what you do. People say, “she’s already on Orange,” no there’s still a struggle and my music has been a big, big part of my life. After OITNB I debuted my album, “Hija De Chavez” and it felt like my whole life I had been waiting for that moment. Instead of me giving up because I felt obligated to focus on Flaca, I thought of the many dreams that I want to accomplish and I don’t think that we should limit ourselves. We’re not here for very long, so why not do exactly what it is you want to do – for you, for your family, and for generations to come.  There is a plan, of course, question it but don’t worry so much. That’s what I’ve learned throughout the years and I’m still trying to learn. Even with love, just do your work, do good, be good and it will come to you. Be you, just be you! There is no one like you. Why try to compare yourself to somebody else? You can’t be better than that person because they’re already that person, so just do you.

Flaca is a fan of the Smiths and Goth-like eyeliner — attributes which don’t fit into the stereotypical representations of Latina women that we see in American media. Do you think that representation in media should be about dismantling stereotypes as well as improving visibility?

We’re finally seeing ourselves. Yes, there is an incredible representation of diversity in OITNB and especially of the Latin community. There are eight of us! There’s usually just one Latin role in TV or film, and we’re all trying to get that one role but no, OITNB saw us, saw the world through us. It was a beautiful experience and we got to open the doors for our community and the visibility of our community. It feels incredible and my people are so proud, they are so excited for us and they want to help us succeed more, they want us to create more representation for them. I feel that’s all we need; representation and communication. There are so many different types of Latina’s that do represent the world in a way, we’re so mixed in cultures. But I think it’s time for us to see a Latinx in other roles, we’ve already seen the Latinx community in prison roles, being maids, always playing some sort of victim but I think it’s time for us to be seen as the American dream. It’s time for us [those in the entertainment industry] to see the Latinx people who have become something big in this country and represent something… I feel that we need more visibility because we have so many unspoken stories that need to be told. I’m ready, I’m here for it, and I’m even working on my own TV show right now. I’ve got an incredible director, Chris Murch, writing for it. I have some dope Latinx writers that I’m working with. I’m opening doors behind the scenes as well as in front. For myself too, I’m trying to live my dream – have my own TV show, star in my own movies, and let our people see that there’s hope and that we can be anything we truly want to be.

How would you describe your personal style? Who is your style icon?

My mom, she is dope. She had cool style when I was growing up… I used to see all my tia’s leather jackets, the eyeliner all that cool stuff… I remember saying “I can’t wait to get older, so I can go out with you mom.” She was just really cool, and I think that my personal style came from my family. Also, I love Cher and Edie Sedgwick. I love Edie’s hair she kind of inspired my haircut in a way. But definitely my mom, I have a lot of her vintage pieces and I wear them very often.

What changes would you like to make in the representation of Latinx people in popular culture? How do you feel your production company Unspoken Film impacts this?

I feel that it’s time for us to see a new representation of our community. A hero, someone making it work in this crazy life instead of the victim or the person with all the mistakes. We all make mistakes but let’s also see the people who are here living the dream, I know so many I can’t even count it out loud because I know so many stories. I’m going to tell those stories with and through my production company, Unspoken Film. People are finally listening and taking what I’m saying into consideration and helping me, whether it’s through their time, through their connection, or through their voice, so I got lucky. Thanks, OITNB for real, thanks to Jenji for creating some crazy characters that were lovable and very necessary.

US audiences tend to view Latinx demographics through a reductive lens — disregarding the different cultures and nationalities within this group, as well as the Black and Indigenous peoples who can identify as part of this group. With Unspoken Films do you hope to create a greater awareness of the diversity of what it means to be Latinx?

I want to show the world that we’re all different, and not to be afraid to give us a chance to explore our identities and cultural backgrounds on-screen. Let us speak our language and to let us live it, let us be it, let us be proud of it. Let us show it and let us not be afraid to show it.  When I first moved to LA, I was 15 and I never said I was Dominican because no one knew where it was, they didn’t understand why I spoke Spanish, they didn’t understand why I had curly hair or why I had brown skin. They didn’t understand why I had a thick nose and thick lips: it was weird to them that I looked different! I was made to feel ashamed of background and myself.  We never had our representation in the role models we saw in magazines or on TV. I wasn’t proud of who I was: I changed my name many times to fit into Hollywood, I was Italian, I was Greek, I was Persian! So many last names to find myself, to feel like ‘okay this is who I am.’ Jackie Cruz was a name that I chose, it’s deep in the family – I think it’s originally Del a Cruz – but it was a name that people knew; it was a name that was short; it was a name that matched with me; it was a name that inspired me. It was a beautiful connection I had to the name and something I chose for myself. I changed my name a lot to fit into Hollywood and I didn’t use my father’s name, which is why I named my album Hija De Chavez, which means “Daughter of Chavez.” The industry has made some changes, but there’s still a lot of work left to do.

How was the experience of self-producing and releasing your album with Unspoken Records?

My label is now called Dulce Records it’s not called Unspoken anymore. I wanted to separate the two [my production company and my music label] and I didn’t want it to be Unspoken Words because everyone has their own experiences, and this will be my experience. My experience is sweet and it’s my own, so I changed it to Dulce Records. I got to put the music that I want in there and I’m in control of everything, I own my masters. Yes, it’s hard doing this all on my own and finding the people who want to work with you but it’s also amazing because the people who want to work with you are there because they believe in you, not just because they’re getting paid. I got to make it with the people that I care about, love and want to see grow. I want to show the world their talent, so it was dope. I worked with Andre Harris who has worked with Whitney Houston, Justin Bieber, Usher… Everyone that’s made millions of hits and won Grammy’s, so I’m honoured that he opened the door to my voice. I was shy when I started working with Andre and then I got to meet another producer and writer, Feefa and Bravo, who are up-and-coming. It was cool to work with people who believed in your project and understood what you wanted to do, took the time to listen to you and what you wanted. Making Hija De Chavez was very organic: it was a very quick production because it was so natural. It was with me my whole life, but it took two years to write, sit down and think about what I wanted to do. I’ve been writing my album my whole life, so it was ideas that I’ve had for years but it was dope to have people understand exactly what I wanted to do. Self-producing was probably one of the best experiences in my life and writing your feelings is very therapeutic. Now I do it every day.

What made you want to take the route of creating platforms for yours and Latina women’s work rather than pursuing pre-existing platforms for your work?

I realised that there are not as many opportunities, and we’re all fighting for the same role… Instead of us fighting for the same role why not create more opportunities? Work together, try to build together, and create a bigger platform for all of us to share!

What are five albums you couldn’t live without? 

Sade; Lovers Rock. Fiona Apple; Extraordinary Machine. Celia Cruz, and of course Lauryn Hill; The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Tracy Chapman; Cross Roads and New Beginning. Then of course Whitney Houston… Elvis Costello, such a mixture of things. Oh and Selena!

What’s next for you?

I’m now a reoccurring guest star on a new show called Good Girls. I’m so excited to be a part of this show because it’s another women empowerment show about badass mothers who can do it all. Music, maybe a tour is out there for me. I’m working on my new album now. I work on music every day. I audition every day. I’m working on my new TV show with a Latino up and coming director, starring myself and Melly Moreno – who is a friend that I met in a hospital 15 years ago. She’s incredible, I dedicated my song ‘Melly 16’ to her and we have an amazing story to share. So, it’s music, television and hopefully a few movies coming out in 2020.

28 October 2019