By Frances Montevilla (Bolivian-American)
A 19-year-old from Central New Jersey, Cady de la Cruz is a second-year student at the University of Virginia (UVA). They are an undeclared major interested in pursuing a minor in Indigenous studies. This summer, they are interning for the First American Art Magazine through UVA’s Mellon Indigenous Arts Program. Guided by their own experiences and identities, Cady is a bold and thoughtful individual with the power to transform spaces within UVA, FAAM, and more.
FM: Tell me a bit about your childhood, where you grew up, and how that has influenced and still influences your work.
CDLC: I grew up in New Jersey in a pretty white town with my dad, an immigrant from Peru, and my mom, who is third-generation Polish-American. Both of my parents are from New Jersey, and I grew up here my whole life and didn’t leave until college when I went to Virginia Living in New Jersey, especially in a town like mine, I tried a lot to blend in with the Italian-American community here during my early years of school. My town is also wealthy so that was a whole other layer of it. Then I went to a tiny Catholic school in Trenton, where there was a lot more diversity.
As I explored New Jersey and after I left, I realized how much diversity is here. New Jersey is the crossroads of so many people of every diaspora: Peruvian, Polish, Islamic, African — it’s like everyone’s here. I’m grateful to have grown up in a place like that, and it inspired me — my heritage, of being mixed, coming from such drastically different cultures, and growing up where so many different cultures are in one place. It made me really, really interested in culture and what it’s like to live in a multicultural society.
I was a huge history nerd in high school, especially in world history. It is what made me feel inspired to care about my academics and to study. That class was the first place where I felt like a huge nerd because I was just so excited to learn about the world and the cultures from everywhere and where everyone comes from.
FM: I was also a huge history nerd in high school! It’s much more interesting and enriching to learn about the history that’s not in the US since the public education system has failed to include sufficient Black and Native American history in its curriculum. You’ve expressed interest in activism in our past interactions. Are there any experiences that helped clarify your interests in activism and social justice work?
CDLC: In high school, I was super devoted to an organization based on civic activism and bipartisanship. It was basically a debate club that was more politically oriented and included more activism. That’s where I started to get interested in being the change and using my voice. Coming from an all-girls Catholic school, it wasn’t an environment where people felt empowered to use their voice. Bringing that to my high school felt important to me. For that reason, feminism is probably where it started. My mom’s a huge feminist, I have two sisters that I grew up with, and I went to an all-girls school. That just became a big part of who I am and something I wanted to speak on a lot more. I widened my perspective that feminism became a lot more intersectional.
My politics became more idealistic, less bipartisan, and more focused on what can be done outside of the system. My activism is now much more about how I live my life, taking up space as a queer woman, as mixed race, as well as amplifying other voices. I’m less the activist who’s at the front with a megaphone and more someone who that’s focused on social justice in the way I live. But I also love to support other grassroots movements and using my voice on social media and through student organizing at UVA.
I’ve also done other stuff in high school like lead walkouts and read protest poems. We had a poem competition, called Poetry Out Loud, where I read “Say Grace” by Emily Jungmin Yoon. This poem about a Korean woman is a statement towards Christianity and the harm that it’s done in separating people from their Indigenous spirituality and Indigenous roots. When I read it in front of my whole school, it was crazy to watch the faces of people like my principal and the faculty. People were more appalled than I thought they would be, but that’s just an example of what I mean by the way I live. I like to take up space in that way.
FINDING COMMUNITY AT UVA
FM: I love that you realized your power in high school — to project your voice onto others and leave them shocked. That’s the whole point of activism: to create a reaction from people to make them more aware of issues. Now, how do you build personal relationships with individuals within UVA? How do you envision expanding your circles?
CDLC: It was hard being out-of-state, first-gen, and not feeling like I fit in at UVA. At first, the fall semester was lonely, but I slowly got into things where I met people who aligned with my interests, like you, Frances. The best move that connected me with people was LLI, the Latine Leadership Initiative, where I was introduced to a lot of the first years who I wanted to get to know since arriving at UVA. It also pushed me to pursue my interests at UVA, specifically with the research project which you and I worked on.
We both wanted to do the same thing, and I had seen you on an Indigenous Latine student panel before. I was also on the path of reconnecting with my ancestral culture and interested in advocating for Indigenous issues. We started emailing professors, students, and anyone we could think of that might be interested in Indigenous issues. Eventually, we found our way to a working group called Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS). We started attending Zoom meetings with all of their faculty, students, and staff interested in advocating for Indigenous issues, Indigenous studies, and addressing the legacies of harm. This group works on some of the biggest matters at UVA, such as taking down the George Rogers Clark statue, recontextualizing the Thomas Jefferson statue, and working on the American art in the Fralin Art Museum.
These are some of the best relationships I’ve made at UVA, within LLI and the NAIS group, which actually led me to this [FAAM] internship. Asking if people need help and signing up for things has helped me professionally to find the people who align with my interests.
VOLUNTEERING, ACTIVISM & MENTORSHIP
FM: Participating in LLI and joining NAIS were the best decisions we both made that finally brought us together and opened up doors to new opportunities, relationships, and experiences. Outside of this internship, what other projects and activities are you currently involved in?
CDLC: In the upcoming year, I’ll be involved in several student organizations. I am going to be working on the 2021–22 executive board of LLI. LLI made me feel like I could take up space at UVA because my intention was to take up space in who I am, especially going to such a place like UVA with knowing their connection to the white nationalist protests and bleak history from its founding. I’m glad to be able to usher more new students at UVA to become leaders. Additionally, I’ll be working with undocUVA as an undocuALLY coordinator in trying to make the UVA community an ally to undocumented people.
I also have an internship with Professor Frank Dukes who worked to design the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA. He has a project called Transforming Community Spaces where he offers what he can to communities looking to address legacies of harm in their community spaces. The case that I worked on was Africatown in Mobile, Alabama, a community founded by the people who were on the last slave ship from West Africa, which has an interesting history of environmental racism. This was an opportunity that I applied for last summer and started in the fall semester, which has made me feel like I was able to contribute towards a kind of healing energy at UVA after its nasty history.
Outside of UVA, I mentor preteen and teen girls at Badass Girls. We mentor holistically and cover several different topics which include family relationships, friendships, intimacy, body positivity, and emotional intelligence. I trained intensively for six months, but it’s another job I love and invest a lot of energy into. The transformative justice that I was first hooked on was feminism. Badass Girls is a super feminist organization that is queer-inclusive, intersectional, and has faculty who are some of the wisest humans ever. I’m constantly learning in that job, from both my mentors and mentees.
FM: Thank you. I am glad we can be able to create that kind of space here during this interview. As we conclude, I am curious about your artistic taste. What artists inspire you?
CDLC: A lot of the art that I interact with is on social media, which is cool because it’s an accessible space for anyone. As for Native artists, in reconnecting as a Quechua descendant, I’ve found some cool Quechua artists, in particular Bobby Sanchez. I’m into queer art and they identify as Quariwarmi, which is sort of like the equivalent of “Two-Spirit” in Quechua culture. They are a rapper, model, and write poetry! They’re on a lot of my playlists and their most popular song is “Quechua 101 Land Back Please.” Getting into poetry, I love interacting with their poems but also generally poems that involve Quechua and other aspects of Andean culture.
- Cady de la Cruz, LinkedIn
- Mellon Indigenous Arts Program, University of Virginia
- “Say Grace,” by Emily Jungmin Yoon
- Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS), University of Virginia
- “Quechua 101 Land Back Please,” Bobby Sanchez (Quechua/Wari descent)
- Meet UVA/FAAM intern Frances Montevilla (Bolivian-American)