Vicki Ruiz, a path-breaking historian who chronicles the lives of Latinas in the U.S., will be celebrated by the National Women’s History Project on March 28 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. Ruiz, UC Irvine Distinguished Professor of History and chair of Chicano/Latino studies, is being honored as part of National Women’s History Month, for which this year’s theme is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.”
The first in her family to earn an advanced degree, Ruiz is a tireless force in shaping the field of Chicano/Latino studies. She has written extensively about the role of Latina American women in the history of the U.S. Southwest and Pacific Coast as they fought for civil and labor rights, starting with her 1987 book, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950. Since then, she has written or edited several more books, including Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, and From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America.
Ruiz joined the UCI faculty in 2001 and was dean of Humanities from 2007 through 2012. We caught up with her to talk about her career path and future plans.
How does it feel to be honored by the National Women’s History Project?
I am thrilled. Though modestly funded, the dedicated staff of the National Women’s History Project has placed women’s history on the map, especially at the pre-collegiate level. Remembering past posters, I never would have imagined in a million years that my image would be on one (and to be honest I am not thrilled with the hairstyle.)
What was your trajectory from student to historian?
When I arrived at Florida State in 1975 as a transfer student from Gulf Coast Community College, I wanted to become a high school history teacher. Then, I took “race relations,” a class taught by sociologist Leanor Boulin Johnson, a young, newly minted Ph.D. from UCLA, and was mesmerized by her grace and the way she fended off ignorant comments. I mustered the courage to visit Leanor during office hours. She introduced me to Chicana studies.
As a graduate student at Stanford, I spent a summer with Latino civil rights and labor leader Luisa Moreno. I was sent by my adviser, Albert Camarillo, to review transcripts of interviews he had conducted with her. I was transfixed by her stories. On the last day of my stay, I blurted out, “I know what I’m going to do for my dissertation. I’m going to write about you.” She shook her head and said, “No, no. You are going to write your dissertation on the cannery workers in southern California. You find these women.” I did and that’s how my life work in Chicana history began.
Why should we write women back into history?
We all know stories about neighborhood women, but if you look at the panorama of their stories, their names are often hidden in organizational minutes, government documents, in diaries, in newspapers. Once their stories emerge, you often get a sense of their quiet courage. In Latinas in the United States, which I co-edited with Virginia Sánchez Korrol, you’ll find women like Carmen Del Valle, a social worker in Buffalo, New York, who spearheaded efforts for a community clinic in the Latino neighborhood – a clinic that now bears her name. You will also find out the truth about women we hear about more as myth, like Loretta Janeta Velásquez, the Cuban woman who fought for the Confederate Army dressed as a man. These women refute the idea that Latinos are immigrants who arrived just day before yesterday.
Your professional career has given a voice to Chicano/Latino history that hasn’t always been there. Do you think history as a field has become more inclusive since you first started?
Absolutely. You see it in the textbooks and graduate training. We need to continue to strive for inclusivity. U.S. history books can no longer get away with an obligatory photo of Cesar Chávez as representative of the scope of Latino history.
What has been your greatest challenge?
The greatest challenge that my generation of Latina and Asian American women historians faced was invisibility. The research we conducted was on the periphery or was considered a “niche,” not of significance to the narrative of U.S. history or to U.S. women’s history. While greater recognition has occurred in academic quarters, this erasure still remains in popular historical representations. Latina and Asian American feminists are absent in the recent “You’re Beautiful When You’re Angry” documentary on second-wave feminism. In my mind, how could the filmmakers have ignored the rich scholarship and archival evidence? The 1980 publication, This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, represented a political coming of age, capturing the feeling of isolation when feminists of color attempted to make alliances with white women.
Are you proud of former students who have gone on to write history?
Well, I am proud of all of my students, but here are a few examples.
Virginia Espino is the producer of “No Más Bebes Por Vida” [“No More Babies for Life”], which will air in September on PBS. The gripping film documents the practice of involuntary sterilization of Latinas at the USC/L.A. County hospital during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Margaret Jacobs – I worked with her at UC Davis – works on federal policies toward indigenous children in the United States and Australia, especially the role of women in influencing and implementing these policies. Her book White Mother to a Dark Race won a Bancroft Prize.
Lilia Fernández wrote Brown in the Windy City, an amazing history of Latinos in Chicago who sustained and remade their neighborhoods during the waves of gentrification after World War II.
Matt Garcia has written two important books about Chicano history, including From the Jaws of Victory, which portrays Cesar Chávez less as a saint and more as a gifted labor leader.
What are you currently working on?
I’m writing the biography of Luisa Moreno, one of the most famous Latinas no one knows about. I’m coming full circle back to the biography I wanted to write when I was 23.