With a hug and a pat on the back, President Barack Obama on Thursday presented the 2014 National Humanities Medal to Vicki Ruiz, Distinguished Professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine. The White House ceremony honored those who “share their gifts to make our lives and the world more beautiful, richer and fuller and, more importantly, help us understand each other a little bit better,” Obama said. The president called the annual recognition of artists, writers and historians one of his favorite events, saying, “I always do pretty well with writers and scientists; that’s sort of my crew.”
Ruiz’s citation read: “2014 National Medal of Humanities to Vicki Lynn Ruiz, for her contributions as a historian. In monographs and edited volumes, Dr. Ruiz has pioneered the history of twentieth-century Latinas in a distinguished career that began with collecting oral testimony from Mexican immigrants who worked in U.S. canning factories.”
The National Humanities Medal acknowledges those who have deepened the country’s understanding of humanities and broadened citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy and other such disciplines. Recipients are selected by the president in association with the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“We couldn’t be prouder of our very deserving Professor Vicki Ruiz,” said UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman. “She is a first-rate academic, campus leader and tireless researcher of immigrant women’s stories, and these are the kinds of histories we don’t hear often enough. She has so much to teach us.”
“I consider this award as one that recognizes the field of Latina history more than me as an individual,” Ruiz said. “When I was a graduate student, I could not begin to imagine all of the stories awaiting interested scholars in public archives and personal memories. That said, I am deeply honored by this once-in-a-lifetime acknowledgement of my work.”
While earning master’s and doctoral degrees in history at Stanford University in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she spent a transformative summer with Latino civil rights and labor leader Luisa Moreno.
“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,’” Ruiz recalled. “But Moreno 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.’”
That’s how Ruiz’s life’s work began. An expert in 20th century U.S. history, the soft-spoken historian has spent her nearly 40-year academic career reclaiming the stories of Latinas who have fought for civil and labor rights.
“We all know stories about neighborhood women, but if you look at the panorama of their experiences, their names are often hidden in organizational minutes, in government documents, in diaries, in newspapers,” Ruiz said. “Once their stories emerge, you get a sense of their quiet courage.”
Ruiz shared their experiences through her research on Mexican American women in the U.S. Southwest and, in the process, pioneered the field of Chicana/Latina history. She began with the direction Moreno set, publishing Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950 in 1987. Since then, Ruiz has written or edited several more books, including Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, which she co-edited in 2006.
The three-volume set – with more than 600 entries and 300 photographs – documents contributions by Latina women to the economic and cultural development of the United States. The first comprehensive gathering of scholarship on Latinas, it was named a 2007 Best of Reference book by the New York Public Library and an Outstanding Title by the Association of American University Presses.
“Vicki Ruiz’s scholarship is a powerful testament to the ways the humanities can deepen and enrich our understanding of the world as well as of the lives of those who have made a difference to how we live in the world. Vicki Ruiz has literally written Latina women and Hispanic civil rights leaders into history. She could not be more deserving of this honor, and we at the School of Humanities remain indelibly proud of her,” said Georges Van Den Abbeele, humanities dean.
In 2000, Ruiz was named “Woman of the Year in Education” by Latina magazine, and in 2009, she was inducted into Stanford’s Multicultural Alumni Hall of Fame, established in 1995 to recognize distinguished alumni of color. In 2012, Ruiz was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and in 2013, she was named Distinguished Professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies at UCI, an honor considered the campus’s highest for faculty. In 2015, UCI’s Alumni Association bestowed upon her the Lauds & Laurel Faculty Achievement award.
Ruiz serves on an advisory board for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and on the board of Imagining America: Artists & Scholars in Public Life, a national action research consortium. She has been president of four major scholarly groups, including the Organization of American Historians and the American Studies Association.
The first in her family to earn an advanced degree, Ruiz joined the UCI faculty in 2001 and was named dean of humanities in 2008. She completed her term in 2012 and now chairs the Department of Chicano/Latino Studies in the School of Social Sciences.
“This medal is recognition where it’s due – and at the highest level – and I couldn’t be more excited,” said Bill Maurer, social sciences dean. “Professor Ruiz has pioneered the study of Latinas in the United States and has championed Chicano/Latino studies nationally and internationally. She has also been a vibrant and vital academic administrator. Her energy is infectious, and her own story is incredibly inspiring.”
Throughout her successful career, Ruiz hasn’t lost sight of her initial plan: to tell the story of civil rights and labor leader Luisa Moreno. “She’s one of the most famous Latinas no one knows about,” Ruiz said. With her Stanford mentor Albert Camarillo, she’s now writing Moreno’s biography, coming full circle to what she sought to write at age 23.
Ruiz is UCI’s first National Humanities Medal recipient. Including this year’s awardees, 163 individuals and 12 groups have been honored since 1996, when the first medal was conferred.
“The National Endowment for the Humanities is proud to join President Obama in celebrating the achievements of these distinguished medalists,” said NEH Chairman William Adams. “The individuals receiving this medal have sparked our imaginations, ignited our passions and transformed our cultural understanding. They embody how the humanities can serve a common good.”
A complete list of honorees is available at http://www.neh.gov/whoweare/nationalmedals.html.