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.
"One of the clearest arcs you can draw is from his early dissents in the 1970s to ... settled law in the '90s and 2000s," says Cruz. "It is a powerful arc of principled leadership."
Cruz sees great need for principled leadership now.
"We are facing the epic battle of our generation," says Cruz. "This president is the most radical president ever to occupy the White House. The question we are fighting over is: Does this nation remain a free-market economy?"
Entitlements, he believes, must be reformed -- not just for fiscal reasons, but also to advance liberty.
"It is absolutely clear if we are going to address spending and the deficit and the debt we have got to address entitlements in a serious way," he says. "Historically, politicians have been terrified to do that. They have been terrified that they will be demagogued. In my judgment, we are at a moment of time where serious leadership is possible to address entitlements and to look for a way both to restrain the exploding unfunded liabilities of our entitlements and also provide for more individual ownership, responsibility and choice both with respect to Medicare and Social Security."
One way to do this, he says, is to reform Social Security by allowing people to have personal retirement accounts. "It is a transformative policy, and it is based on an understanding that focuses on individual ownership and policies that expand and facilitate individual responsibility," he says.
Cruz stands with the pro-life plank of the Republican platform. "I am pro-life unapologetically," he says, pointing to his record defending pro-life positions as Texas solicitor general. "If someone is really a conservative, they will bear the scars of having been in the fight," he says, "and if they don't bear the scars and if they have never stood up and defended conservative principles, that suggests that is not their principle and motivation."
On foreign policy, President Reagan is his model.
"The person in modern times whose views I think were closest to mine on foreign policy issues was President Reagan," says Cruz. "I think the principal focus of U.S. foreign policy should be protecting U.S. interests, protecting our national security interests, and I think we should be vigorous in doing so. That should be the touchstone. I think we should not be engaged in nation-building.
"Simultaneously, though," says Cruz, "I think we should be unrelenting voices for freedom, and this is where some of the realists I disagree with, because the realists in the 1970s said the Soviet Union was unbeatable: We have to accept their military superiority. We have to accept our second-class position. But President Reagan had the moral clarity to say communism will end up on the dustbin of history because the Soviet Union is a communist nation that is an evil empire.
"We need to remain unapologetic, clarion defenders of liberty," he says.
One suspects Ted Cruz will do just that. He is now running for the U.S. Senate from Texas.