As teenager in the 1950s, his father, Rafael Cruz, fought with Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution, not knowing Castro was a communist. He was eventually imprisoned and brutally beaten by the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship's police.
Rafael's father bribed his son's way out of prison. The son fled Cuba with a hundred dollars sewn into his underwear -- and earned a degree in mathematics from the University of Texas.
Cruz's mother, Eleanor, grew up in an Irish-Italian working-class family in Wilmington, Del. She ended up in Texas, too -- earning a degree in mathematics from Rice. Ted Cruz's mathematician parents started a small business doing seismic data-processing for oil exploration companies. The business rose and fell with the domestic oil industry, and Cruz learned the risks and rewards of entrepreneurial activity up-close and personal.
He went to Princeton, then Harvard Law, became founding editor of the Harvard Latino Law Review and graduated magna cum laude.
One of the mottos of Ted Cruz's undergraduate alma mater is "Princeton in the nation's service." He took it seriously.
After Harvard Law, he clerked for Judge Michael Luttig, a great constitutionalist on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Then he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist -- becoming the first Hispanic to clerk for a chief justice. After a couple of years at a Washington, D.C., law firm, he became domestic policy adviser to the presidential campaign of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
After two years in the Bush administration, Cruz went home to Texas in 2003. Conservative state Attorney General Greg Abbott appointed him solicitor general to represent the state in court disputes.
On behalf of Texas, Cruz litigated for pro-life causes, the Second Amendment and a correct understand of the Establishment Clause.
One case that was particularly important to him was Van Orden v. Perry, which challenged the right of Texas to keep a monument of the Ten Commandments on the state capitol grounds. Abbott argued that case in the Supreme Court, but Cruz wrote the brief. The court ruled 5-4 for Texas -- in the last-ever opinion filed by Cruz's old boss, Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
"He passed away later that fall," says Cruz, who deeply admired Rehnquist as a principled and persistent leader.
"His nickname for his first decade on the court was the Lone Ranger, because he dissented alone over and over and over again," says Cruz of Rehnquist, pointing out that Rehnquist eventually saw his views prevail on some issues -- such as public displays of the Ten Commandments.