Best known for his fancy footwork on the football field, former NFL star Victor Cruz is representing his culture and community everywhere he goes, and teaching his daughter to do the same.

By Jesús Triviño Alarcón
August 10, 2020
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It was Victor Cruz’s Puerto Rican abuelita who first taught him to dance salsa as a kid in his living room in the gritty neighborhood of Paterson, New Jersey. The record player blasting the sounds of Frankie Ruiz. Many years later, the former Giants wide receiver would pay homage to his grandmother with an end-zone dance that was as much a celebration of his touchdowns as it was of his roots.

“Winning a Super Bowl [in 2012] as an Afro-Latino, representing my culture in the football field and everywhere I go, and seeing people of all colors dancing salsa in the stadium—that’s my biggest legacy,” says the single dad, who is passing down his heritage to his 8-year-old daughter, Kennedy. Starting, of course, with those famous moves. “She’s teaching me at this point!” says the 33-year-old, whose father-daughter quarantine dances have racked up thousands of views on Instagram.

This year, Cruz has strutted his stuff as an ESPN analyst and cohost of Pop of the Morning, a live-entertainment news show on E!, in which fans get to see his more opinionated side. “From the very moment I started playing football to now, I’ve never been afraid to put myself out there,” he says. That confidence is something he’s instilling in Kennedy, teaching his “Black queen” to value all facets of her identity and family history as she begins to understand how far they’ve come and their responsibility to pay it forward.

It’s a lesson that feels especially poignant in the wake of a global pandemic disproportionately affecting Latinos as well as the civil unrest driven by the Black Lives Matter movement. But Cruz knows full well that to raise “an upstanding citizen,” you have to lead by example. And he’s never been more willing to put in the work.

TIMOTHY SMITH

Is Kennedy anything like you were as a kid?

She absolutely reminds me of myself when I was little! Energetic, always the life of the party, and smart. Even our laugh sounds the same. We have tons of inside jokes and code names for things. Kennedy isn’t shy about anything, and I love that. She takes my personality and ramps it up two notches. But I want her to be herself, whatever she wants to be, and I always encourage that.

How are you making sure she stays grounded?

We live 17 minutes from my old neighborhood of Paterson, so I take Kennedy around there often and show her where I came from: “This is how Daddy grew up. This was my house. I used to go to school here.” By explaining that journey to her, I can help her understand that we’ve come a long way. It’s her job now to take it further. Last November, we volunteered at a homeless shelter in Paterson during Thanksgiving. I plan on doing that every year so she can see how important it is to take care of our communities.

How did that community shape you?

As a kid, I could get in touch with my culture just by walking outside and feeling the Latin energy—the bodega on the corner, the café across the street, people speaking Spanish all around. Obviously, having parties and dancing with my grandparents were important too. All of that absolutely led to who I am today. Kennedy gets a lot of that culture at home now too.

You and Kennedy’s mom are separated. What helps you be a good coparent?

Communication. You can’t do anything as a coparent without talking. Even if you’re no longer living under the same roof, the discussions still need to happen for the sake of your kid. And you have to put your ego aside because it can create turmoil and distraction. The focus should never be on the parents. If your child is happy, then everyone is going to be happy.

Your mother, a single mom, worked long hours to support you. Is that where you get your work ethic from?

There are so many life lessons that my mom taught me. Working hard, never quitting. I attended a one-year, postgraduate prep school in Maine to get my grades up for college, and all my close friends got kicked out a few months into it. I told my mother, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” She said, “Complete the task, and it’ll be a story you can hang your hat on in the long run.” That advice is something I carry with me no matter what I do. I hope my mom is proud of who I have become.

What was your relationship with your dad, whom you met at age 7?

Great for the most part. Because it started later in life, though, it had its ups and downs. My dad was a firefighter. I knew him for only 13 years before he passed away, yet I learned a lot from him in that time. He taught me that fatherhood isn’t easy. You want to spend as much time as you can with your kid, but you have to live your life and do the things that inspire you as well. Finding that balance can be hard.

I also get my style from him. He always looked the part. It didn’t matter if he was going to play ball or to a black-tie event. He taught me that looking the part always gets you in the door.

You opened up about your father’s suicide in the documentary I Am Giant. What advice would you give someone going through this kind of loss?

It’s hard, man. There’s really no right answer. Everyone processes it differently. When I think of our years together, I remember all the fun times. My dad joked and laughed a lot. I was just looking at pictures with my family the other day, and we saw his personality come through. That’s what you have to hold on to.

Does religion help you cope?

I’m more spiritual than religious. Prayer and meditation are the two things I definitely lean on in tough times. During the lockdown, I’ve been able to do a lot more. Meditating in the morning really just calms me down and allows me to process things. Once I’m up and running around and my mind is churning, it’s a different story! And prayer is something I always lean on for forgiveness and to express gratitude for a life that lets me give back and make a mark.

In 2012, you started the Victor Cruz Foundation, which provides STEM programs for underserved kids in your hometown. It’s hard not to compare you to Puerto Rican baseball great and humanitarian Roberto Clemente.

When I was growing up, I had a picture of Roberto Clemente positioned on the front porch so that every time I came home, I saw him. I still have that photo. So to come full circle now and be mentioned in the same breath as him is incredible. I never wanted to be the athlete who left his hometown and never came back or showed love. Paterson has given me so much—knowledge, opportunities, resources, friendships, mentors. How could I not repay that city?

You’ve been vocal about social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, but even more so now. Within the Latino community, how can non-Afro-Latinos show their support?

I’ve always preached education. To understand where we are now, you have to gain knowledge of where Black people come from and the lineage of oppression that they’ve faced for hundreds of years. Once you know the history and the things that are happening around you, then you can say, “I know what needs to change and what I need to personally change.” The more you inform yourself and your family on the history of the Black community’s fight for social justice, the better you’ll understand how to move forward.

What needs to happen in our education systems?

The issues and topics discussed in classrooms have to be diversified. There’s nothing wrong with learning about white activists in the U.S., but let’s also highlight Black people who’ve helped this country. Run deep into the Harriet Tubmans of history. Show all of them. I shouldn’t have to wait to get to an African-American history class in college to learn about [abolitionist and women’s-rights activist] Sojourner Truth and [Black nationalist leader] Marcus Garvey. I should’ve learned about them in high school or even grammar school. It’s going to take a lot of time, but schools need to start building a curriculum that teaches the truth to all children.

How do you raise your daughter to be a proud Afro-Latina?

I teach Kennedy about Black culture, and I share stories about my upbringing. The Black community struggle means I didn’t grow up around rich people. In Paterson, everyone was living check to check, week to week, and that was the battle. But we figured it out. I try to instill that same resiliency in Kennedy. And we constantly speak to her in Spanish. She’s in a language-immersion school because we want to make sure she’s fluent. We’re making a concerted effort to raise her to be bilingual and multicultural so she’s always in touch with her roots.

This article originally appeared in Parents Latina's August/September 2020 issue as “Cruz Control.”

Parents Latina

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