As an attorney for the Goddard Riverside SRO Law Project, many of Catalina Cruz’s first clients came from the same communities as the workers who clean the office buildings that house high-powered law firms. Or who work at the coffee shops and delis at street level.
They also shared a lot in common with people from her own community.
Cruz, the president of the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County, represented low-income New Yorkers facing eviction from their rent-stabilized apartments. Her experience as an undocumented immigrant growing up in Queens informed her work and helped her connect with her early clients.
The first thing is honesty — not overpromising — because that’s how you build trust,” she said. “In an immigrant community, we never trusted lawyers, because we always thought lawyer over-promised and under-delivered.”
Eight years after leaving Goddard Riverside and beginning a career in government, Cruz was elected LLAQC president. She is also running for the Democratic nomination to represent Assembly District 39, which includes Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst.
In her role with the LLAQC and in various state government positions, Cruz has advocated for attorneys and government officials to embody the same level of respect, honesty and transparency toward clients and constituents.
That respect is evident in an attorney’s level of communication, punctuality and even appearance, she said.
“How I would dress to go to court is important because it make clients feel that they are important enough for me to dress a certain way,” Cruz said. “A client who is very poor wants to feel like their attorney is putting their best face forward.”
“It’s also about showing up to court on time and not leaving your client waiting because you have 20 other things do,” she continued. “They have 20 other things to do, too.”
Cruz was born in Colombia and immigrated to Queens with her mother when she was 9. She became a U.S. citizen in 2009, graduated from CUNY Law and began working for Goddard Riverside.
Since transitioning to the public sector, Cruz has held a number of vital positions, including roles in the state’s Civil Rights Bureau and as counsel in the Department of Labor’s division of immigrant affairs. She also spearheaded Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Exploited Workers Task Force, where she specifically focused on improving conditions and ensuring fair wages for nail salon workers. After that role, she took over as chief of staff for City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland.
Cruz said she first connected with the LLAQC when she was a student at CUNY Law School in Long Island City. While there, she began working with Street Law en Español, a program that leads Know Your Rights workshops and provides other legal services for Queens immigrants.
During the program she worked closely with attorney Alexander Rosado and Hon. Carmen Velazquez — then a lawyer — who encouraged her to join the bar association.
As president, Cruz has worked to ensure more people of color are entering law school, securing jobs at law firms and in government and getting elected to judgeships.
“I continue to champion getting more people of color on the bench,” she said, noting that two former LLAQC presidents — Karina Alomar and Lourdes Ventura — are on the ballot this year. “We are mentoring young women and young men to go to get into and get through law school and become attorneys.”
Her effort to increase the number of Latinos who enter the legal field reflects the mission of the bar association she leads.
The LLAQC was founded in 1997 and, according to its mission statement, aim to “advance the opportunities that exist for Latino lawyers, judges, law professors and law students.”
Providing opportunities for more law students and young people considering careers in law has been a major focus of her work with the LLAQC, she said.
“I mentor this young Muslim woman at New York Law School. She’s a DACA recipient,” she told Vice’s Broadly. “I get to help to change the world for her, because she’s in the place I was in. My grandmother taught me: you may be the first, but it is your responsibility to make sure that you’re not the last.”
Cruz said her own mentors, beginning with her mother and grandmother, played a major role in her career trajectory, by encouraging her to attend law school and pursue a series of prominent positions working on behalf of immigrants and marginalized communities.
She said immigration attorney Mercedes Cano inspired her to attend CUNY Law. And Elizabeth de Leon Bhargava, the New York State Deputy Secretary for Labor, demonstrated the value of government transparency.
Ultimately, Cruz said, more attorneys and elected officials need to advocate for people of color to enter law.
“A couple things need to be done,” she said. “We need more people in elected offices who are friendly to the idea of hiring people of color or who are people of color.”
“We need to really be supporting people who show skills, leadership and interest,” she continued. “We need more people of color to be lawyers period.”