KUVO DJ and storied singer Venus Cruz says that when she arrived in Denver from New York, she felt like “the first Latina on the surface of Mars.”
It was 1992. As Cruz tells it, the city was poor, economically and culturally. But for someone fleeing a tumultuous past, in which her mother abandoned her and her family joined cults, she says, “I felt freedom. It was like starting over. I had left my past behind.”
Cruz was born in Puerto Rico, where her grandparents raised her after her mother left when she was a small child. There she was schooled in Catholic stories, though some of her family members practiced Buddhism and others were involved in the Mita Congregation, a twentieth-century Christian denomination based in Puerto Rico. Some call Mita a cult because of its esoteric belief that Teófilo Vargas Sein was the first prophet of the third part of the trinity, the Holy Ghost, manifest as a divine, Jesus-like person named Mita. Members of Mita wear all white and boast one of the largest marching bands in Puerto Rico.
Growing up, Cruz studied music, learning to play the piano and taking singing lessons from a Russian opera singer. She was expected to perform for her family, and when she could not sing and play on command, they ostracized her.
In the meantime, Cruz’s mother, who had a wild streak, had moved to the Bronx, where she was in a car accident that left her in a coma for a year. After recovering, the onetime wild child devoted herself to academics, studying science. She eventually married.
At ten, Cruz moved to New York and moved in with her mother and her new husband. There she encountered hip-hop and salsa blaring in her neighborhood every day.
“I would collect the hip-hop fliers, because they were left at the rectory,” Cruz says. Through music, she learned to speak English. “My brother got the bike, and I got the stereo. I also learned English from TV shows like Barney Miller.”
She recalls experiencing snow for the first time in New York City. “I remember the shades of color and brick buildings” on her block at Tremont and Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Down the street, she attended Saint Mary’s Elementary School.
“I was held back in school because I couldn’t spell in English.” Teachers put her in a class for deaf children, she says. “When you’re that immigrant kid, you’re hyper-sensitive and observant.”
Like her family in Puerto Rico, Cruz’s mother was no stranger to esoteric religious practices like Santeria, a Caribbean religion that merges indigenous spiritual practices with Roman Catholic ritual.
“I remember she told me once that I had to go directly to my room because my dad was performing an exorcism,” Cruz says of her stepfather.
At one of her friend’s birthday parties, relatives placed a mound of fruit in the middle of the living room, Cruz recalls. A woman performed an African chant and killed a chicken. The kids went to the birthday boy’s bedroom and played video games.
Cruz’s relationship with her mother grew strained, and she never met her biological father. As an adult, she learned that he was murdered when she was still a teen. At seventeen, she moved out of her mother’s home and bounced around, crashing with friends while studying for her GED so that she could separate herself from her family. She passed the test. A friend’s mother who worked as a flight attendant offered her a cheap ticket to fly away from New York City. She left the Big Apple for Denver, which at the time was seen as a cowtown. She has been mostly estranged from her mother ever since.
Cruz started working as a housekeeper at Lowe’s Giorgio Hotel and enjoyed the job, because it gave her time and freedom to start dabbling in Denver’s music and art scene. At first she fell in with the punk scene, and then she met the musicians in the alternative-rock band Grimace. She married the group’s drummer, Steve Richer.
“He’s still one of my dearest friends. All those kids always listened to KUVO,” the jazz station she now deejays for, she says. “Steve could play double pedal drums, but also scat like Ella Fitzgerald.”
Throughout the ’90s, Cruz watched Denver rock bands like Boss 302 and ’57 Lesbian. She recalls jazz great Ron Miles hanging out at the 15th Street Tavern and remembers when indie-pop band Dressy Bessy was just getting started.
By the late ’90s, she was disillusioned by the music scene and an unsatisfying experience in a funk/hip-hop band she’d rather not identify. She started working in the Five Points Media Center, where KUVO was also located. She delivered public presentations at the Museum of Nature & Science, including a stint performing as an astronaut for the Space Odyssey exhibit. For a long time, she was the museum’s only bilingual facilitator.
After a few years away from music, she started playing with the Future Jazz Project, a band that blended hip-hop and jazz. Then wanderlust struck, and she left Denver for Southhampton University in England, to study documentary filmmaking. Before graduating, she learned that her friend Rodney Franks, who worked at KUVO, had fallen ill, so she returned to town. While caring for Franks, she met a friend of his, writer Sam DeLeo. Cruz and DeLeo have been married for nearly a decade.
Back in Denver, Cruz has carved a niche for herself, performing in disparate parts of the music scene. She recently performed as a chorus member in the Denver Center’s production of The Christians; she has worked at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance; she has performed as a vocalist, on multiple bands’ recordings, including Wheelchair Sports Camp’s new album, No Big Deal.
“I can sing over anything and change lyrics and styles,” says Cruz.
Cruz plans to release her first record in summer of 2017 with her band, What Young Men Do. “The idea was to record my friends telling stories of what young men did,” she says. “Then women started telling me what young men did to them. Some songs over the years I’ve changed up, and I edit and re-edit as another means of exploring.”
For the next stage of her career, Cruz is looking forward to touring nationally and securing professional management. She says she is finally experiencing a fuller range of freedom than Denver has afforded her in the past.
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Her eclectic experiences, from culture and religion to musical influences, have informed the Jazz Odyssey show on KUVO, where she and other DJs explore the relationship between traditional jazz and more contemporary music.
As a DJ, she’s got an adventurous approach. She might play Sun Ra or Pharoah Sanders, but also Autechre or Aphex Twin.
Whether she’s working as a musician or a DJ, she has learned to navigate the Denver music scene, which she feels too often functions as a “boys’ town.”
More than twenty years of work have earned her the respect of the community, and now, says Cruz, “I think people know I can hang like a musician.”