It wasn't that long ago Catalina Cruz was an undocumented immigrant from Colombia living with her single mother in New York City.
She was 9 when, in 1992, she and her mother arrived in New York on tourist visas. They never went back. And with good reason.
"We fled Colombia because of the extreme violence and insecurity," said Cruz in a telephone interview.
At that time Colombia was riven with bloody civil war and a raging drug war between rival cartels fighting to see who would reign supreme and make billions of dollars feeding the insatiable appetite for cocaine of the U.S.
Life in the United States wasn't easy for the undocumented woman and her minor child, forced to live in the shadows because they lacked proper documents.
Cruz recalls those days.
"There were times," she said, "when we were about to be evicted from our apartment and all we had to eat was rice and eggs."
Somehow she and her mother persevered. Cruz excelled in school while her mom handed out restaurant fliers on busy street corners for $40 a day and took on domestic work. Cruz eventually received her bachelor's degree in forensic psychology from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and four years later, in 2009, received a J.D. from the City University of New York School of Law. She later married her high school sweetheart and gained her U.S. citizenship.
Just last month, Cruz achieved another remarkable goal. She became the first former Dreamer ever elected to the New York state assembly and the third in the nation. (The other two are Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada and Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York, both elected to Congress in 2016.) Think about it. Once undocumented, now in Congress.
The term Dreamer refers to young people who immigrated to the U.S. as children but do not have legal status.
Cruz, a Democrat, said her election was not an easy feat because, when she first announced her candidacy, she did not have the support of any political party or machine.
"All I had was my community's love," she said. As an attorney, she became an activist for immigrants who were subjected to discrimination and taken advantage of. Cruz knew about this first hand, as her own mother had been a victim of wage theft from an employer.
By winning 87 percent of the vote, her election has drawn notice, praise and hope right here in Kern County.
"That's great!" said Lorena Lara of Bakersfield. A Dreamer herself, Lara admits she was confused when she heard that an immigrant with a story like her own had been elected. "I didn't know it was possible," said Lara. "I hope her story inspires many other undocumented young people."
How did Cruz do it?
"Being that she, herself, has been through many challenges due to her immigration status it appears that she was able to use these experiences to authentically communicate with the voters of the district," said Ivy Cargile, an assistant professor of Political Science at CSU Bakersfield. "She used her activist roots wisely and it appears that she was able to organize and mobilize voters to get them to the voting booths on election day."
Mobilize. That's the key word. Cruz says she plans on working to bring a better quality of life to her community by obtaining much needed resources long denied. One of her goals is to provide affordable housing and protect low income residents from being gouged by high rents.
Speaking with her, I wondered where she gets her drive to want to do so much for others? "I get it from God and from my mother," said the 35-year-old. "I always knew God had an important plan for me to help my community, but I didn't know in what form or when."
There are roughly 4,900 Dreamers in Kern County, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Is there a Catalina Cruz waiting to emerge from Arvin? Delano? Bakersfield?
"I think so, but it would will require a lot of hard work. It will require a lot of strategy, resources, and people power," said CSUB professor Cargile. "Not easy at all, but definitely doable."
What does Cruz have to say to Dreamers who face an uncertain future, especially under the current administration?
"I tell them not to give up, though things may look grim. There are those like me who will fight for the original Dreamers, who are our parents. They dreamed of a better life for us and sacrificed everything to bring us here."