New Council Member Joel Cruz Is Veteran, Hartford Native
Inspired To Run By Best Friend's Murder, Will Replace Cotto On Aug. 17
By JESSE RIFKIN
August 09, 2012
HARTFORD —— Joel Cruz, a veteran, received the phone call that would change his life at 4 a.m. on Veterans Day, 2007.
"I have bad news," Cruz's father said. "Jonathan is dead."
Jonathan Arroyo, 24 and Cruz's best friend since elementary school, was shot in the head outside Johnson's Fish Market on Capen Street.
"I dropped to my knees and started crying," Cruz remembered. "Right then I knew I needed to help my community, and decided to run for city council."
On Aug. 17 he will be sworn in. A member of the union-backed Working Families Party, Cruz was appointed to replace council member Luis Cotto. Cruz, 32, will be the second-youngest member.
Cruz's Hartford roots go back to the 1960s, when his paternal grandmother arrived from Puerto Rico "with five kids and no money," he said. Growing up in the North End, Cruz attended McDonough School, where in the fifth grade he met his future wife, Karla.
After sixth grade they didn't see each other for a decade until Cruz's younger sister began dating Karla's brother. "She shows me a picture of her boyfriend's family, and there was this woman I didn't recognize," Cruz recalled. "I told my sister, 'Whoever that is, give her my number and tell her I'm in the military.'"
The couple will celebrate their 10th anniversary this October.
Cruz's top priority is making Hartford a good place to raise children. "My daughters walk down Park Street," he said "and see used needles and syringes on the ground."
Promoting safe healthy families is why Cruz works as a "fatherhood specialist" at Catholic Charities' Institute for the Hispanic Family on Wadsworth Street. His roles include case management and offering courses with titles such as "Healthy Relationships," "Economic Stability," and "24/7 Dad."
Cruz was not always so certain of his life's direction. After graduating from Hartford Public High, he decided to join the Army.
Walking into their Pearl Street office, the recruiters were out for lunch. As Cruz left, the Marine officer next door asked if Cruz had thought about joining the Marines.
"No," Cruz responded, "but I like that uniform."
Three years later, Cruz was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C. Granted a month's vacation, he drove all night to Hartford. As the sun broke above the horizon, he passed the World Trade Center. The date wasSeptember 11, 2001.
Back home, Cruz went to bed at 7:30 a.m. to be woken shortly thereafter by his master sergeant: "Our country is under attack. Get back to base right away."
After four years active duty, Cruz became manager of medical records at Charter Oak Health Center and earned a bachelor's degree in Theology with a minor in pastoral counseling from American Theological University. Now he serves as associate pastor at House of Praise and Worship on Ledger Street.
City Council President Shawn Wooden said he likes what he's seen of Cruz.
"He impressed me as a newcomer to the political scene with lots of energy and integrity," Wooden, a Democrat, said. "He did not map out a political career early in life, but wants to serve this city in a very basic way. I am excited about his enthusiasm."
Cotto, a two-term council member since 2008, had similar sentiments.
"I love the young man," Cotto said. "He does not come from the regular politicos of Hartford, so he understands the everyday struggles of residents. Hopefully he will open doors of city hall to a different population.
"And he served in the Marines, so he's disciplined. If a meeting is at 7, and I'm there at 7:05, I never hear the end of it."
Cotto is resigning because of his wife's new job in Massachusetts. Cruz almost did something similar.
"For a time, our family thought about moving to East Hartford or Glastonbury," Cruz said. "But you can not give back to Hartford unless you live in Hartford."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at