Cruz, who describes herself a "freedom fighter" on her social media bio, says her interest in activism began after landing the role of Marisol "Flaca" Gonzales in Orange Is the New Black.
"I didn't move to Hollywood and say, 'Oh, I want to be a freedom fighter. I want to use my voice.' No, it just happened," Cruz tells ET. "Being a part of a show like Orange Is the New Black, I never really understood the behind the scenes of prison, the price of prison, the money-making behind it, the situation where you have 70% restrictions after you leave."
"You can't really get back to who you really want to be in life because you are trapped in this invisible prison even after you do your time. I just thought that a lot of Black and brown people usually are the ones that are locked up, and it's just our life, and that's what people expect of us," she states. "But I want to change the game."
"I didn't even know my voice was important until I started using it," she adds, noting that she's passionate about prison reform, diversity in Hollywood and raising awareness for Black Lives Matter.
Last month, Cruz attended a BLM protest in Washington Square Park in New York City. Nationwide demonstrations against police brutality took place earlier this year after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. As a Dominican American woman, Cruz says she realized the need for the Latinx community to come together during this difficult time.
"We got to protect each other," she says. "I swear that if we were all united, we could [move things forward] -- and we're trying to be equal here, we're not trying to dominate. We're just looking for equality. We're looking for the same possibility as a white kid has in this country. That's what I'm fighting for."
"I feel like us, Latinos, and the Black community, work three times as hard just to get that opportunity," she adds. "We want to be the best and it's not like we're showing off, it's just what we have to do if we want to get ahead in life. I'm an example to my family. I am the one out of everyone who had this dream and didn't give up until I did it -- and no one can still believe it. And I'm still living it, I'm not there yet!"
Cruz is also taking matters into her own hands with her production company, Unspoken Film, where she's creating content for Latinxs.
"I just want to visibly show my experience because all I can really talk about is my experience in Hollywood and in my life," she relays. "I'm working on my own TV show that I created, how I felt as a Latina, outside the box here in Hollywood, and the difference between the Latinos in New York and in L.A. We don't really see that too often -- and there is a difference."
"I never saw anyone like me on TV that described who I was. Dominicans are still not that visible, and we all look different," she adds. "After seven years of Orange, I still feel like I'm new in the game and I haven't showed what I can do."
As for her latest project, A Nice Girl Like You, Cruz is getting candid about sex and love. The film stars Lucy Hale as Lucy, a violinist whose ex-boyfriend accuses her of being too inhibited and creates a wild sex-themed to-do list. Cruz plays Lucy's friend and fellow musician, cellist Nessa, who takes a broader and more open approach to matters of the heart.
"I was totally feeling myself [laughs]. I was totally like, 'I love my new hair. I love what I'm wearing,'" Cruz says of her character. "It's the first movie that I get to be a little different than Flaca. I was just excited that I got to explore that and actually exude the sexiness that I feel inside right now... I felt comfortable with myself. Finally, to be able to play a character where she gets to be fun and feel sexy -- and it not be a slutty person."
"Through this character, and at the moment in time, I was feeling comfortable in my own body, in my own skin. It was just perfect," she adds. "God knows what he does, he puts the right things, places it in front of you at the right time, because I don't think I could've played Nessa when I started Orange because I wasn't feeling myself like that."
"It took me a long time to get here," she reflects. "[I'm] working the hardest to open doors for people who look like me or have this dream that seems impossible."
A Nice Girl Like You is available on Apple TV, Amazon, and all major VOD platforms.