Tuesday evening, an estimated 400 students filled the Tate Grand Hall to hear Jackie Cruz, known as Flaca Gonzales on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, talk for the University of Georgia’s Latino Heritage Month about her life and the adversity she went through in order to become an actress and singer.
Originally from the Dominican Republic, Cruz moved to Hollywood with her supportive mother when she was a teenager ready with the goal in mind of becoming a singer. Even from that age, she experienced prejudice from others.
Speaking about a former theater teacher she said, “I worked so hard and wanted it so bad. . . she had her favorites.”
The true struggles began in the form of a friend. Caught up in the glitzy and glamourous side of Hollywood through “Becky,” Cruz moved out from her mother’s place and started to understand the harsh realities of life when “Becky” ran out of money and the two ended up living from couch to couch and even in a car at some points.
“I let her take control of me, over a car,” Cruz said.
It was a car that lead her to her next major struggle, a car accident to be more specific. Cruz ended up in a 72-hour coma with so many things gone wrong, such as a collapsed lung, that doctors did not expect her to live.
Despite the miracle of her survival, she was unrecognizable. Going deeper and deeper into depression, it was a small encounter with a fellow patient, a paralyzed yet joyful little girl, that helped Cruz put things into perspective and move forward with her life.
“She made me believe I could be more than what I was,” Cruz said.
After a year of recovering in the Dominican Republic, Cruz went back to Hollywood to continue pursuing her dreams. When a false music opportunity rose up in Miami, she traveled across the country and ended up losing $10,000.
Despite all the bad fortune, she moved up north to New York when a different, far more legitimate, music opportunity came up. It was then that she also took up acting again, landing one and two-liner roles in shows such as The Shield.
It was also in New York that she had one audition that catapulted her to where she is now. Channeling a feisty Latina woman she remembered from the club she was working at at the time and going in, as requested, without makeup, Cruz got the part of Flaca Gonzales in Orange is the New Black.
Cruz had nothing but praise to give for the show, talking about how it is a pioneer for equality in an industry that has been dominated by only a certain type of actor/actress for so long.
“All these array of colors, all these women. . . and not the stereotypical beauty,” she said.
The show is far from done being more inclusive. During the question and answer session, someone made a comment about how there has not been a Latino cop yet, and she said, “You haven’t seen the latest season yet.”
Speaking of what’s to come, though the official date has not been released yet, Cruz will come out with a new EP this coming year. Attendees got a taste of her style with an impromptu cover of Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Goin’ Down.”
Other questions included future plans, funniest moment on set, and her experience overall, but one question in particular stood out. Cruz mentioned in her talk about growing up in a Christian household, so one attendee asked how her faith has changed through the years.
“It hasn’t changed at all. Without God, I wouldn’t have made it through the accident. With vanity, I wanted to kill myself. It really helped to have someone to talk to. . . Jesus loves everyone, even if you kiss girls,” Cruz said.
Overall, Cruz wants people to leave with the message that you should never stop chasing your dreams, despite the hardships you have gone through or where you come from.
We may be in October now, but Latino Heritage Month is not over yet. There are still many events coming up until October 15, including a movie screening of Selena, Noche Latina: Celebramos, and an open mic night at The Intersection.