When UC Irvine professor Vicki Ruiz received a National Humanities Medal from Barack Obama at the White House in 2015, her children had a bet on whether their mom would cry.
As Obama put the medal around her neck in the East Room, the first for an Anteater, emotions swelled through the scholar. Ruiz is a giant in American history for doing something academia never bothered with until she came along: show that Mexican-American women in the past had lives outside of making babies and cooking. Her two books—1987’s Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950 and From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America (1998)—brought to life mujeres who organized their communities, danced liked flappers, worked in factories and protested injustice. And 2006’s three-volume Latinas In the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, which she co-edited, created a comprehensive who’s-who of Chicanas, salvadoreñas, boricuas, and so many other ladies long left out of both mainstream and alternative histories.
“I thought about my mother,” she now says, remembering what went through her mind as Obama congratulated her to applause and camera flashes. “I thought of my grandmother. All the women I’ve interviewed, about my students. It was a recognition of my field. I didn’t see it as a recognition of me, personally.”
And that’s why she didn’t cry—there’s still work to do.
Ruiz talks fast, enthusiastically, with a good smile and a knack for also listening. It’s a talent she learned from her mother and grandmother,” who “had incredible gifts of narrative,” the 61-year-old says. The daughter of a Kansas farmboy and a Hispana who worked at the Lockheed plant in Long Beach during World War II and whose family has lived in the American Southwest “since time immemorial,” Ruiz’s childhood was atypical of the usual Mexican-American narrative. She grew up between the Florida Keys and Panhandle during the 1960s because her father followed the fishing and tourism seasons.
“It was interesting being a Mexican-American girl in Florida,” she says charitably of that era, recalling one instance of bigotry that proved crucial to her life. “My junior year in high school, Mrs. Epps encouraged me to apply to honors English
[for] my senior year. I did a test and writing sample. But the senior teacher, Ms. Fey, was not going to admit me—wouldn’t give a reason. My dad asked for a meeting, and she told him, ‘Vicki needs to know her limitations—she’s not as smart as she thinks she is.’ After that, my dad threatened to sue the school, so I got to be front and center of Ms. Fey’s sour face my senior year.
“It was good,” Ruiz adds. “I learned then what baile folklorico pioneer Rosie Guerrero said years later: ‘You gotta learn you’re not born for people to like you.'”
By then, Ruiz was already bothered by what was being taught and not taught in her history class. “When it came to Latinos, all they taught us in Florida was Ponce de Leon and the Alamo,” she says. “And since it was the 1960s, they also said the Wobblies [the nickname for the radical union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)] were Communists.” But Ruiz had heard a different version of the group at home: her maternal grandfather, a Mexican immigrant from Guanajuato, was a Wobblie who took his young daughter to meetings in Colorado mining camps. “The IWW was for working people, and all kinds of languages and immigrants were accepted,” she says. “I wanted to bridge the narratives that I learned at home with what I learned at school.”
She enrolled in community college, then transferred to Florida State with the intention of becoming a high-school history teacher. But courses taught by women historians and sociologists made her realize she could aim for more than merely becoming the first person in her family to graduate from a university. Ruiz was accepted into Stanford University’s doctoral program in history, where she learned under Albert Camarillo, a pioneer in Chicano studies. He had done interviews with Luisa Moreno, a legendary labor activist who organized women in Southern California’s canneries during the 1930s and 1940s, work for which the United States eventually deported her. Camarillo asked Ruiz if she wanted to continue his research. “I went down to Guadalajara,” she says, still relishing the memory. “[Moreno] looked at me and figured I was harmless enough.”
Ruiz stayed with Moreno for a month and a half. Near the end of their talks, Ruiz told Moreno that she wanted to do her dissertation on her. “‘No,'” Ruiz recalls Moreno telling her, in an anecdote the professor has often repeated, “‘go find these cannery workers. Talk to them.'”
The result was Cannery Women. “The literature at that point was that Mexican women tended the home and hearth,” Ruiz says. “But that was a lie. In women’s history back then, there was the idea of public sphere and the private sphere, and they never met. But that never held up in Latina history.”
Cannery Women has gone through eight printings, and remains a classic of women’s labor and Chicano studies (Ruiz’s only regret: not spending more pages on the former Hunt-Wesson tomato cannery in Fullerton, where Moreno led a strike in 1942, back when it was called Val-Vita). “It’s important that people see themselves,” she says of her works. “When I finally saw myself in a book, it was so powerful for me, and I know it’s the same for others. Latinos are not people who came to the U.S. the day before yesterday.”
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During her 16 years at UC Irvine, she has served as chairwoman of the History Department and of Chicano/Latino Studies, and she was dean of the Humanities for four years, one of the few Latinos ever to hold that position in American academia. Ruiz is especially proud of helping to grow UCI’s Department of Chicano/Latino Studies from a tiny group of professors to one with 12 faculty members that includes everyone from legendary novelist Alejandro Morales to Santa Ana native Glenda M. Flores. “I knew her as an undergrad,” Ruiz says, beaming. “I wrote a letter for [Flores] to go to USC for graduate school, and she’s now my colleague. I want students to be able to discover their dream. To watch students who don’t know how smart they are, and helping them recognize that they can do whatever they want to do—I learn so much from my students.”
It’s not just idle talk. One of the most powerful scholastic memories she has happened at her first job at the University of Texas, El Paso in 1982. She was lecturing about the Farah strike, a 1972 labor struggle in which more than 4,000 garment workers—the vast majority of them Mexican-American women—fought for the right to unionize. “I had all my academic work and research in line,” Ruiz says, “but two older women were sitting in the class. Every time I’d say something, they’d elbow each other and whisper and were winking and giggling. Finally, one of them raised her hand. ‘I’m sorry, Dr. Ruiz,’ she said, ‘but we were there.’ I just turned the class over to them. It was wonderful!”
She was only 26 back then, “with two kids in diapers and trying to finish my dissertation. How incredibly young and energetic I must have been!” Though she is older and wiser now, Ruiz isn’t done. She’s still working on her magnum opus: a biography of Moreno. “She grew up in an extremely wealthy household in Guatemala and gave up that life of privilege—an extraordinary woman who reinvented herself,” Ruiz says. “I want to write a historical narrative. I want people to read it.”
In her spare time, Ruiz loves to try new restaurants; she especially loves Old Vine Café and Taco Maria in Costa Mesa. She’s such a fan of Old Vine chef Mark McDonald that she took her husband on one of McDonald’s annual culinary tours of Italy for their 20th wedding anniversary. And she praises Taco Maria chef Carlos Salgado for “provid[ing] an education about Mexican food to the typical OC fine-dining customer,” she says. “He just elevates and shows that Mexican food can be haute cuisine.”
Highlighting the works of others—this, more than personal glory, remains Ruiz’s passion. Even when asked about her legacy, she returns to her eternal muse. “I showed that Latinas have made history,” she says. “And that was important for me to show. Women have built their communities. We need to know more about them. In all the different spheres—in the arts, as academics, as writers, as public-health advocates, as veterans. The quiet courage.”