From Homeless To Hollywood – Interview with Erika De La Cruz
Erika De La Cruz is a Mexican woman who is a passionate entrepreneur, a tv host, an inspirational speaker and is fighting to uplift women from different backgrounds and help them find the courage to pursue their dream jobs. In her #1 Amazon best-selling book, Passionistas, she shares young women’s stories and their struggles, along with her own, in hopes of inspiring and motivating other young women in their own lives.
Erika sat down for an interview and talked about her best-selling book, the story of how she became an entrepreneur and her pride in her Mexican heritage.
Dee: I love Passion to Paycheck. That’s your book? Correct?
Erika: Passionista is actually my book. Passion to Paycheck is an annual event we hold for all Passionistas and is the name of the brand that we kind of roll under for now. Passion to Paycheck is an annual online community event for all Passionistas which is perfect.
Dee: I love this. So tell us a little bit about how you came up with the book and what motivated you to create a book to help Latinas?
Erika: The book stemmed from mud; from me jumping from a really cushy corporate job at a really young age. I was one of the youngest marketing directors ever for this broadcast company I was with. And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to get experience, but then I’m going to move on,” and everyone was like, “Sure, honey, sure. Once you get your health benefits in your office, I don’t know how true that will be.” But it was after about a year and a half of me being that marketing director for that company, Entercom broadcasting, that I was finding myself really unhappy. I just wanted to express myself and do more of the on-air stuff that I was doing for maybe like a quarter of my day. But [instead] I was in meetings feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing there.
So I started building a personal brand where, in some realm, I could be myself for a living. [I thought], I know I can be happy. I know I’ll be following my passion. I know I will be aligned with what I truly want to be doing. So the universe is going to totally have my back. I know it. I started taking some extra breaks within the company. I was a horrible employee, to be honest. I basically started building out my Twitter doing red carpet events. Really doing social media, motivational content, kind of all a la carte on my end, or on making connections within the brand and company.
I got connected with fashion week in San Diego, left the [broadcasting] company after two years, and dove into hosting on a late-night television show and hosting fashion week. But simultaneously, I was in the speaking world. Because as a young marketing director, a Latina, and a millennial, everyone kind of wanted to hear from me.
Different companies would ask me to speak, but it was mainly on business. So when something called Sue Talks (which is the female equivalent of a Ted Talk) asked if I could speak, I freaked out and said absolutely. I gave them my normal business proposal and they were like, no we want to hear about the personal stuff you’ve been through.
Until that point, I thought my history or my past was like a deficit. I kind of just hid it, hoping people would take me seriously in the professional world. I was hiding my personal journey until this organization asked me to share it. So I, for the first time, got the courage to share something that I had been through with my family, which was losing our family home and our business. Every single thing really happened overnight in 2009 when I started college. I was kind of just keeping my head down, getting good jobs, and being in survival mode. So I really didn’t think to share anything of the hardship I had been through. But when I ended up sharing it in a Sue Talk, it was watched by my now business partner. He approached me and said he had worked on the Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur Soul series, and that he wanted to do a book on the Girl Boss movement. Something very feminine, something youthful. And he was looking for a young woman to head it up and be the face of the brand. I would be responsible for the marketing and the brand, the actual brand.
And immediately I knew what it was. I had loved this term Passionista that I read in an article somewhere years before. I put it on a vision board and I pitched them the term and they loved it. We got 40 other mainly millennial women, ironically. The percentage of women of color to non-WOC was by accident, but that’s what I knew.
Growing up, Barbie was blonde, and I was annoyed that I was always Teresa. I would pretend like she was Mexican. It doesn’t say on the box, but I feel like Teresa Barbie is Mexican. So I have all these brunettes on the cover. There are a lot of diverse stories, Filipina stories, black stories.
One of the young women actually tells her coming out story in one of the chapters and I’m like, this is real. This is what you can’t find on these curated feeds online. Having just shared my real truth and having this book and partnership come out of it. I was like, okay, this book’s going to be about sharing authentic [stories] including tales of loss, cultural identity and finding it in the workplace, and anything that you might not share on your social media every day. That’s what this chapter in the book is for.
I was hoping that readers would be inspired by the real, real shit. Not the “I woke up and my influencer dream cloud carried me to whatever it is that I’m doing,” but the stuff that hurts, the stuff that’s painful. I was able to share that my mom went into homelessness when we lost everything. And as a result, I went from the age of 18 to 24 without her.
I’m so grateful that she raised me to be the woman I was, but I also underwent a lot not having that mama in college. I did get myself back to college and I was able to finish, but my roommates were able to call their moms. I was feeling super insecure. I was going through some me too, etc stuff in college.
And I remember feeling super alone and vulnerable and it felt like it was something I was hiding. When I touched on it in the Sue talk, I felt super empowered by the response I got. So I expanded on it in the chapter, the feeling of being super alone. You’re honored to be on a red carpet, but you realize, Oh…no one knows that I’m all alone or all this stuff that I’m hiding.
We tell ourselves that we’re hiding all this stuff. But in reality, we just lived a life and every life looks different, but it was like I was afraid of being found out. But then I got to share it, and from it, this huge tidal wave of women came forth. They wanted more.
It was like a stint of coaching. I loved transformational work and sharing motivational stuff because I was also certified in brainstormed facilitation. I worked with my business partner who worked with Brian, Tracy, and Jim Roan, who trained Tony Robbins. So I was learning a lot of personal development.
I started sharing with the “Passionistas” who read the book and that’s how the event Passion to Paycheck was born. It was mostly Hollywood’s elite because my background is in television and they came to share and address mental health, suicide, etc. I’m super proud of that.
We’re on our fourth annual event, but our first event was launched with Liz Hernandez as our keynote speaker. She’s one of my favorite Latinas. She came up in radio as I did. And man, she spoke so vulnerably. She had a full-time dream job at Access Hollywood at the time but shared that she had this huge calling to share the importance of words.
And literally after Passion to Paycheck, her brand was born. She’s on Oprah’s network now. And I like to think that a little of the authentic, vulnerable Juju leaked in that day.
Dee: With your mom, I know you shared that it’s kinda like going from 18 to 24. You had a break pretty much. I mean, you’re an adult, but not. You were just starting adulthood and that’s very important at 18. So do you feel like you had to grab mentors? There are two types of family. There’s the one that you’re born in, and the ones that you adopt based on the surroundings and trips that you cultivate. Do you feel like you had to do that?
Erika: 100%. It’s crazy. My mother was a beautiful immigrant from Mexico, she built a beautiful business for 20 years with my father, who designed and built the home I grew up in, taught me grace, showed me [so much] love until I was at that perfect age to be called an adult. She did the best she could after everything was lost. I think she took a moment for herself and receded from society. It wasn’t, ‘I’m leaving you. I don’t love you.’ Although it occurred to me like a ‘Bye. Where are you going?’ Type of thing. At the time, I discovered what it was to have “framily”. That’s what I call friends that become family. Because all of a sudden your immediate family is inaccessible. And they were, all of them. My sister, my dad, and my mom were pretty much dealing with their own stuff.
We were all independent for a good year. And so I was forced to look to the cousins and the family, friends, and peers who were my age for any sort of support and feedback. They literally got me through to college and to my college graduation. I had this funny-looking hodgepodge of a group coming to support me because I could not do it. I couldn’t imagine believing in myself.
It was like if someone threw me into a car saying, look, you have a 1993 Honda accord as a resource, you have whatever’s between your ears. And I think I had like, 170 bucks in my bank account. It was like, get back to college, figure out how. So there was so much research involved. Where was I going to sleep?
And a family friend took me in for the summer after we lost everything after my first year of college. I wanted to turn and try to go back to my mom, my dad, who I saw was struggling to get back on his feet, and my little sister. That’s where, instinctively, I wanted to go.
But I had a support network that reaffirmed that this little thing inside me, still had a life to live. There was a bright future and resources at my fingertips that would lead me to be able to help them, to be able to turn back for them. I loved it. And it was so accurate to this day.
The book on the very first page is dedicated to Ashley, and Nicole Shosha, my nanny growing up, who I reached out to when I had lost everything. Ashley and Nicole are the names of my two best friends to this day. They didn’t let me keep my head down.
[I was told] “You know, you have to go to therapy. I know you don’t think you’d like it, but I know your school has resources”. So I called a therapist and he was a beautiful, gay man, who I will never forget. He had such a degree of empathy that we would cry together.
To have this degree of support from family and an extended family is such a gift because I think when we have our support systems that are super close, we get comfortable with them. I think it was a gift that I had to reach out to people I otherwise wouldn’t have known as deeply.
And now I feel so lucky because my family and I have such a beautiful relationship now, but I also have this huge network. I love all the people in my life and some of them are not blood-related.
Dee: I know you mentioned Liz Hernandez and that she was able to start her own brand. Do you have women reaching out to you?
Erika: Yeah, my art is constantly, constantly filling with beautiful women, either sharing a piece of their story or [because] they’ve heard mine. Passionista is now a series of events. We started with Passion to Paycheck, but now we have an annual vision board party. So we had 1000 women in January attend a virtual vision board party translated fully in Spanish.
And this morning, I got a note from one of the Latino men who were at the party saying ‘I’m seeing all my dreams unfolding, I’m applying for something I never thought I’d get the courage to, would you write me a testimonial?’ I wish I had time to write every testimonial, but that morning, I did have time.
I find that whatever I’m putting out, is what I find in my inbox. So whatever I’m sharing or bringing to the world is mimicked back to me. And it’s an indication that I’m creating more of it in the world. So from the vision board party, the women are writing to me about their goals or seeing things that they put on a board and mapped out that are now coming to life because they just keep believing in it.
When someone hears my story, I then get to hear about theirs and their family and what they may have been through. In the Sue talk, I mentioned my grandmother. So many people write to me about their relationship with their elders and with their grandmothers.
And it was beautiful because for the vision board party for Passion Easter this year, at the end we flipped all the zoom cameras so we could see into their world. And because it was translated to Spanish, oh man, I could cry. This is what I wanted to happen. When we turned the cameras back, it was women with their mothers, women with their familia who might not have ever been able to join because they simply didn’t speak English.
And my grandmother that’s alive now doesn’t speak English. And so I get by on my Spanish. It’s pretty good. As Mexican Americans, my parents struggled with not knowing English and decided not to teach me Spanish growing up. But that didn’t stop me because I wanted to be able to talk to my grandmother while she’s here.
I want to be immersed in my culture in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to if I never learned Spanish.
Dee: Funny thing. Somebody had mentioned to me that, either her or her mother, doesn’t know English that well. So sometimes they would speak in an accent, obviously.
I had a grandmother that way. And a lot of people forget that when you speak in an accent, it doesn’t mean you think in an accent. I think unfortunately in the world we live in, there’s a lot of ignorant people that think if somebody speaks with an accent, they’re not educated or they don’t know what they’re talking about. If I went to a foreign country and tried to speak their language, I would consider myself a very educated woman.
Erika: So you’re reading my mind. It’s incredible. My entire background is in communication and nonverbal communication. And to witness the subtle demeanor changes when someone opens their mouth and does have an accent. I feel there’s this stigma or undertone.
Dee: Yes, there is a stigma, and that’s true. Ignorance. It comes from a privileged mindset. I think true educated, well-rounded people wouldn’t react to these things like that, but there are very few of those people.
Erika: Yeah. I know. You’re so on the money. I’ve even observed that I felt super uncomfortable in groups where we would meet people, Mexican people, specifically in California. And I could just see the demeanor of my peers change. Or they might speak in a way that is more slowed down even if the person is speaking perfect English. Like my mom speaks perfect English, but with an accent.
It’s like they can’t engage in a conversation the way they would with someone who sounded exactly like what they’re used to hearing. Oh my gosh, I have been in business meetings where they joked about someone at the meeting and a gentleman said, yeah, I know Juan. He probably picked the fruit in our strawberry jam. And I’ll never forget.
II wanted to rip him a new one quite frankly. And just say, you have no idea who these people actually are. And my dad raised us with an ego. He has such a big ego, he’s so full of himself because he was able to pick five peaches in each hand and put himself through middle school and high school. He went to the field with my grandfather and they picked fruit and he bragged my entire childhood about it. And he and my mom ran a business for 30 years, they are actually business professionals.
They’re entrepreneurs, they’re hustlers. I grew up extremely middle-class in a way that I didn’t have to want for anything. And that’s because of their drive.
Dee: You were raised with hard workers. Even though you had to figure a lot of things out, you learned a lot about survival and, and what it takes.
Erika: People have whispered when they ask, Oh, are you a mix? I’m like, what is wrong with you? Are you asking me if I’m Mexican?
Dee: Yes. Why should that be a secret or why should you whisper that in college? You got to put people in their place, and there’s a way to do it without creating drama, but make them see their ignorance and stupidity.
Erika: I hear a lot of stuff because simply someone assumes that I’m Italian or something because my mother and sister, their Aztec blood is worn on their sleeve. And for me, I’m a little more white-passing. And I know that I have this privilege. I remember feeling relieved when I would hear other kids be called beaners growing up and not me. That was my whole life. And even my white friends can remember the boys in our class. Every other word was beaners or wetbacks or border hoppers.
It’s been a journey for me to claim my heritage because I survived. First through eighth grade being so relieved that I was sliding under the radar and that I wasn’t subject to any of it. I learned to not say you’re Mexican because that’s what you’ll get teased about. And I was almost grateful to disassociate. In high school, when I had my first little high school sweetheart, I said ‘Oh yeah, we own a Mexican restaurant.’ And I go, ‘yeah, I’m Mexican’. And he goes, ‘don’t say you’re Mexican. You’re Spanish. Say you’re Spanish.’ Like that’s not my woman. My woman is a Spaniard. And as a 15-year-old, my brain was like, okay. And now I’m like, I do have Spanish blood, but guess what? They moved to Mexico. And in Mexico, they’re just Mexican now. And so it’s just fascinating because it was only after college when I started realizing how much pain I was in. Disassociated from my people.
Dee: Unfortunately society puts that kind of stress on young people to disengage. Yes, we’re born here. Yes, we have American passports, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t embrace your culture, that you don’t embrace where you’re from, that you don’t embrace who you are. Latinista Magazine focuses on that. We celebrate all Latino cultures because if you look at it, a lot of cultures have borrowed from Latinos.
Erika: Yeah. Amen.
Dee: You know, everything like J-Lo and the Kardashians, there was Iris Chacon, who had a big ass.
Erika: Exactly. I’m curvy, I love my curves. Growing up, when I saw the Barbies, I was annoyed that my best friend was blonde and looked like a stick and now it’s so funny because she’s like, ‘are you kidding? I would love for my hair to be gorgeous and thick and hold curls. I was jealous of your booty.’ And I’m like, you’re kidding me here.
I wanted to be the opposite. And that’s why these conversations are so beautiful because when someone sees me, I want them to know I am Mexican. I just gave a talk to this group of high schoolers at St. Jude, and all I got was a message saying, it’s so nice to know you’re Mexican.
Hahaha. It was because growing up, I remember looking at any brunette and hoping or wondering, maybe she’s Mexican too. And so now you could see me on a runway, or a red carpet, or on TV, and likely if you hear me speak, you will always hear, “Hey, I’m Mexican.” Because I was crossing my fingers hoping that there were other Mexican women out there.
I think we need to erase the stigma that we’re either the help. And if you’re a woman, you’re spicy or exotic or oversexualized. I’m like, yo, I’m classy. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m doing damn well. That’s actually another Mexican narrative. I feel that in Caucasian culture if you’re white, you get all the narratives.
Learn more about Erika De La Cruz and her book Passionistas here!