Position

AHA President, 2015

Institution

University of California, Irvine

From the 2015 Presidential Biography booklet

By Valerie J. Matsumoto, University of California, Los Angeles

History has captivated Vicki L. Ruiz since childhood, beginning with the family stories recounted by her mother and grandmother at the kitchen table. The everyday struggles and accomplishments of food-processing workers, field hands, and daring flappers have informed her sense of the past. Throughout her work she has delineated how the journeys of immigrants and their children entail not only a physical movement through space but also an internal dimension, as old selves are tested and new identities fashioned. In this process, individuals make decisions within the constraints of shifting social and economic conditions. Questions of how people have defined themselves as Americans across class, gender, race, cultures, regions, and time continue to pervade her research. As her publications reflect, Ruiz is driven to tell untold stories and to reveal lessons hidden in the shadows of history.

A path-breaking scholar and teacher of Chicano/Latino history, Ruiz has contributed to the reshaping of US women’s history, labor history, immigration studies, and history of the US West. She has produced 14 books and edited collections, as well as more than 60 essays, garnering numerous awards for research, teaching, and community contributions. In 2012, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Furthermore, that she has been elected president of the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, American Studies Association, and Berkshire Conference of Women’s History reflects the esteem in which her leadership is held.

Vicki L. Ruiz grew up learning two kinds of US history—the version taught in school, from which Latinos were largely absent, and the one at home. Her mother Erminia Pablita Ruiz Mercer was born in Colorado, the eldest daughter of a Hispana boardinghouse keeper and a Mexican immigrant miner—a Wobblie activist who took Erminia with him to IWW meetings. After he died in 1933, Erminia left school at age 13 to support her mother and two sisters, first making donuts and then becoming a “salad girl” at a cafeteria, while taking business classes at night. Employed as a typist at the Denver General Hospital, she met Robert Paul Mercer, a young airman stationed at the Lowry Field; they married in 1941. During World War II, Erminia became a “Rosie the Riveter,” mindful that each airplane she worked on might carry her husband. Robert Mercer had grown up in Kansas, the son of an orphan-train adoptee from Texas and the daughter of an Austrian farm family. At age 18 he forged his parents’ signatures to enlist in the Army Air Corps, serving in both the Second World War and the Korean War. He defied his parents again in marrying a Mexican American woman.

The enterprise her parents launched on the currents of coastal tourism framed Vicki’s childhood and adolescence. After leaving the military, Robert initially worked for Lockheed in Georgia—where Vicki was born—and then started a sport-fishing business. Robert was captain and mechanic of the Blue Sea II, while Erminia ran the ticket office, with help from older daughter Julie. As a child Vicki caught small fish from the dock to supplement her father’s bait supply and sold tickets in her teen years. As the family followed a seasonal work circuit along the Florida coast, from Panama City to the Keys and back, Vicki attended two, and sometimes three, different schools each year until eighth grade. At that point Erminia, worried about the disruption of her education, called a halt to the family migration and insisted they stay in Panama City.

Growing up in northwest Florida during the 1960s and 1970s brought lessons about the complications of being a mixed-heritage person, neither black nor white, in the Deep South. In the newly integrated junior high school, African American students sat on one side, white students on the other, and Vicki in the middle. Her position in the social hierarchy was conveyed by anonymous notes slipped into her handbag bearing racial epithets or saying she would be better liked if she claimed to be Italian.

Amid the unsettled schooling, reading became a refuge and a portal to a wider world. Limited by severe asthma, Vicki eagerly awaited the weekly arrival of the library bookmobile. She became a voracious reader, enthralled by the exploits of Nancy Drew and the trials of Anna Karenina, as well as biographies and histories. She also began to explore the linkage between individual experience and the larger past. Learning that her French teacher had joined the French Resistance during World War II prompted her first foray into oral history. Preparing by reading books on wartime France, she spent hours with Madame Crutchfield outside of class, asking questions about her life.

In college Vicki found mentors who provided vital encouragement. Her professors at Gulf Coast Community College gave her the confidence to pursue a bachelor’s degree. After earning an AA degree in 1975, she enrolled at Florida State University and met a pivotal teacher, Jean Gould Bryant, whose classes in women’s history changed her life. She also took an African American family course—and every other class—taught by sociologist Leanor Boulin Johnson. Johnson, in fact, introduced Vicki to books in Chicano studies. Exposure to these dynamic role models awakened her to new career possibilities. After Blanche Wiesen Cook gave a campus talk about Jane Addams, Vicki thought how wonderful it would be to spend one’s life doing that kind of research.

The impact of the US civil rights and other liberation movements, marked by the arrival on campus of scholars such as Bryant and Johnson, had begun to open new fields and transform college curricula by the 1970s. Steeping herself in women’s studies and African American studies, and reading works such as Nancy Cott’s Root of Bitterness and Eleanor Flexner’s Century of Struggle, caused Vicki to wonder about what was missing from many of her earlier history books: Where were the women? Where were the African Americans? At that time, FSU offered no classes in Latino studies, but Vicki scoured the library for Chicano history, reading Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America and following reportage on the United Farm Workers in the New York Times. At Jean Bryant’s urging, she applied to graduate school, intent on pursuing Chicana history.

The presence of Albert Camarillo—a pioneer in the nascent field of Mexican American history and Chicano studies—drew her to Stanford University. After graduating from FSU in 1977, she entered Stanford that Fall to work with Al and another key mentor, Estelle B. Freedman, a leader in women’s history and feminist studies. Their insight, generosity, and encouragement would prove crucial not only to Vicki but many cohorts of historians trained at Stanford.

Meeting a renowned labor leader and civil rights activist would set Vicki on the course of her research path: Between her first and second years, she went to Guadalajara, Mexico, to interview Luisa Moreno/Rosa Rodríguez de Bemis (1907–92). In the 1930s and 40s Moreno had attained prominence organizing New York seamstresses, Florida cigar rollers, and California cannery workers; she became vice president of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), as well as playing a primary role in organizing El Congreso del Pueblo de Habla Española, the first national Latino civil rights conference held in the United States. Red baiting forced her to leave the United States for Mexico during the Cold War. Although Moreno rarely spoke with strangers, Al’s introduction paved the way for Vicki to get to know her; hearing firsthand about Moreno’s experiences deepened her awe. Vicki recalled, “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’re going to write about the cannery workers in Southern California. You’re going to find those women. I’ll help.’ And that’s how my life work in Chicana history began.”

With Luisa Moreno introducing her to union organizers, Vicki began to search for the rank-and-file members whose experiences would form the basis for Cannery Women, Cannery Lives. The UCAPAWA organizers in the San Francisco Bay area welcomed Vicki; although Cold War persecution had made them leery of tape recorders, they allowed her to interview them if she took handwritten notes. With serendipitous timing, she met Edward Escobar, the new assistant dean of graduate studies at Stanford, and discovered that his mother Carmen Bernal Escobar had been a strike leader. Drawing on newspapers and union records as well as oral history, Vicki wove together a rich collective biography of the cannery workers who, from 1939 to 1950, formed flourishing democratic union locals in southern California, securing maternity leave and daycare benefits, until beset by cannery closures and McCarthy-era persecution.

Like the UCAPAWA members, women graduate students pursuing history at Stanford developed their skills within an intensely engaged community. The (still ongoing) dissertation-writing group organized by Estelle Freedman provided camaraderie and critical feedback as Vicki conceptualized her dissertation. The members—including Gail Hershatter, Emily Honig, Joanne Meyerowitz, Dorothy Sue Cobble, Antonia Castañeda, Katherine Pons, Gary Sue Goodman, and Gayle Gullett—met monthly to read and discuss each other’s work.

An efficient, energetic researcher, Vicki completed her dissertation while starting a family. She married Jerry Ruiz in 1979, their first son Miguel was born in 1980, and she received her doctorate in 1982. Second son Daniel arrived in 1983, just as she finished her first year of teaching at the University of Texas, El Paso.

In the course of a career that began in the Texas borderlands, Ruiz has traversed the US West, going in 1985 to the University of California, Davis, where she gained tenure. In 1992 she went to the Claremont Graduate School as the Andrew W. Mellon All-Claremont Professor in the Humanities and married Victor Becerra, an urban planner and community organizer. Three years later they moved to Arizona State University. They returned to California in 2001 when she joined the faculty at the University of California, Irvine, where she has been recognized as Distinguished Professor of History and Chicano/Latino Studies; she has also served as dean of humanities and presently chairs the Department of Chicano/Latino Studies.

From the outset, a hallmark of Vicki Ruiz’s work has been illuminating the importance of networks of kin and friends in women’s lives. In the first half of the 20th century, immigrant Mexicanas and their daughters, facing racial discrimination in work, education, and recreation, compounded by the hardship of the Great Depression, relied on support from relatives, co-workers, and neighbors. Ruiz’s first monograph Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930–1950, examines the work culture that took shape from “an intermingling of gender roles and assembly line conditions, family and peer socialization, and at times collective resistance and change.” Cannery ties were formed and reinforced as assembly line veterans showed greenhorn relatives how to grade peaches, romances blossomed under the watchful eyes of kin, and women shared their dreams and Hollywood gossip, sometimes across ethnic lines. As Ruiz makes clear, the forging of these networks proved instrumental to the cannery operatives’ labor organizing; they also prompt awareness of a broader range of sites that can foster the growth of political consciousness and collective action.

Published in 1987, Cannery Women brought to center stage Mexican American women’s union activism, long overlooked by scholars. Praising the book for refuting entrenched myths, George Lipsitz noted, “as Mexican-Americans and as women they do not fit the stereotypical images of the dominant labour history.” Rather than docile and compliant, women operatives—75 percent of the food-processing labor force in California—fought hard for improved working conditions and the well-being of their children. Analysis of the successful 1939 strike at the California Sanitary Canning Company (Cal San) reveals the solidarity and innovative tactics that enabled them to gain recognition of their UCAPAWA Local 75 and a closed shop contract. Indeed, Ruiz showed that UCAPAWA, the seventh largest affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, can be viewed as “a women’s union”: women comprised more than half the membership and, unlike other CIO branches, women held leadership positions at all levels in UCAPAWA across the country. While contributing a new dimension of race and gender to labor history, Ruiz also embarked on a collaborative project that would critically reexamine the boundaries of women’s history.

One of the most popular anthologies in US women’s history was sparked by an intense debate over “questions of difference among women” at a session of the Wingspread Conference on Graduate Training in US Women’s History, organized by Gerda Lerner and Katherine Kish Sklar in 1988. Having met for the first time at the conference, Vicki L. Ruiz (the workshop facilitator) and Ellen Carol DuBois (the note-taker) subsequently decided to co-edit an anthology of women’s history centering on women of color. They hoped it would “contribute to a reconceptualization of American women’s history, as a series of dialectical relations among and across races and classes of women, representing diverse cultures and unequal power.” The result was the award-winning Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in US Women’s History.

Unequal Sisters helped to shift the frameworks of US women’s history to become more expansive, complex, and inclusive. Much early work in women’s history was rooted in the assumption of a universal female experience and the notion of separate spheres, with women presiding over a domestic realm while men claimed a public space of economic enterprise and politics. Associated with the northeast region, this model focused mainly on middle-class white women and often obscured the experiences of working-class and minority women. By the 1980s, feminist scholars began to study power relations between women, revealing fractures along lines of race and class. Emerging in research on the southeast, this “biracial paradigm” dispelled the idea of universal sisterhood, but tended to limit questions of inequality to a black/white dichotomy. The editors of Unequal Sisters, looking to the west as a region where numerous cultures and races have converged, called for a multifaceted approach that would also include the experiences of Native American, Mexican/Latino, and Asian women. Mirroring the transnational and transgender developments in US women’s history in the 21st century, the fourth edition of the anthology, edited by Ruiz, appeared in 2008, with a new subtitle: Unequal Sisters: An Inclusive Reader in US Women’s History.

Continuing to broaden the scope of her work, Vicki Ruiz produced the first comprehensive history of Mexican women in the United States, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America. Foregrounding the southwest, she explored women’s resilience and resourcefulness in migration, labor, generational relations, political engagement, and shaping ethnic culture. Patterns of women’s collective action emerge, from the mutualistas formed for charitable assistance in late 19th-century barrios, to 1930s union organizing, to voter registration drives by groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens. Attentive to the tensions as well as common threads among women, Ruiz examines the variety of Chicana feminisms that flowered during the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 70s. The spirit animating women’s civil rights efforts, often channeled through community-based organizations, has persisted to the present. To quote the late historian Camille Guérin-Gonzales, From Out of the Shadows provides not only a celebration of women’s lives but also “a blueprint for social justice and human dignity.”

In Shadows, Ruiz further contested the notion of “separate spheres” in women’s history, arguing that integration is a more illuminating construct than separation in investigating the wage-paid work and family roles of immigrant Mexicanas and other women of color. In mining towns, farm labor camps, and city barrios, the double shift of labor inside and outside the home, as well as the multi-directional reach of women’s networks, reveal intimate linkages between public and private spheres. Organizations such as the Mothers of East Los Angeles, founded in 1984 with a focus on environmental issues, illustrate the fusion of civic efforts with family concerns.

A second connecting strand throughout Shadows is Ruiz’s concept of “cultural coalescence,” which has been influential in Chicano history, US women’s history, immigration studies, and social science. Moving beyond a monolithic notion of linear assimilation into a larger society, cultural coalescence acknowledges the complicated process by which “immigrants and their children pick, borrow, retain, and create distinctive cultural forms,” making choices within the limitations of societal and familial circumstances. This process becomes visible in the ways that Mexican immigrant women dealt with the Americanization efforts of Protestant missionaries from the 1920s to the 1950s, selectively availing themselves of settlement house resources without relinquishing their cultural mores. Generational tensions sometimes arose as US-born daughters drew from popular culture in forming youth identity, and these adolescents, seeking a measure of autonomy, proved ingenious at circumventing parental supervision. The forgotten voices of rebels, laborers, organizers, and poets recovered by Ruiz have struck a chord with readers across generations. As historian Laura Briggs wrote: “My failing-social-studies kid wrestled with that book and loved it and took it to bed and snuck it under the covers with a flashlight … .”

Through a series of collaborative projects, Vicki Ruiz has aimed to make Latina/Chicana history accessible to scholars, students, and general readers, beginning with Latina Legacies: Identity, Biography and Community, co-edited with Virginia Sánchez Korrol. This anthology presents the biographies of 15 Latinas, ranging from activists such as Luisa Capetillo, Luisa Moreno, and Dolores Huerta, to artist Ana Mendieta and actor Carmen Miranda. Reviewer Alma M. Garcia wrote, “Their stories stand as a testament to the resiliency, tenacity, and courage of women everywhere who face gender constraints that were more different in degree than in kind.” Taking on an even more ambitious project, Ruiz and Sánchez Korrol co-edited the award-winning Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia. This landmark work has resonated in the lives of readers, as relayed by Maria Garciaz, director of the Salt Lake City Neighborhood Services: “On weekends I sit with my nine-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son and they each read a section. We have some wonderful conversations about each woman they read about.” Garciaz concluded, “The encyclopedia is a powerful tool.” Extending the reach of this project is the interactive Latinas in History website (https://depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/latinashistory/), developed by Ruiz with Sánchez Korrol and Carlos Cruz in 2009.

The opportunity to present a more comprehensive and inclusive vision of the American past to a larger public spurred Ruiz’s involvement in another joint project. She was the first Latino co-author of a US history textbook, joining Jacqueline Jones, Peter Wood, Elaine T. May, and Thomas Borstelmann in writing Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United StatesCreated Equal introduces a national narrative that encompasses every region, highlighting themes of diversity, systems of power, environment, and globalization.

In addition to her research, Vicki Ruiz has played an important role in building the field of Chicana/Latina and US women’s history through mentoring a constellation of scholars. When she graduated from Stanford in 1982, Ruiz was the fourth Mexican American woman to earn a doctorate in history; three decades later, there are approximately sixty, of whom she directed the dissertations of nine. Twenty-three PhD advisees have completed doctorates under her supervision, and she has served as a committee member for many more. She has also mentored eight postdoctoral fellows—all scholars of Chicana history—under the auspices of the Ford Foundation Program, UC President’s Program, and Woodrow Wilson Program. In 2015 her former students gathered at UC Irvine to honor her with a conference entitled “Nuestra América: Rethinking Fronteras in US History”; their presentations revealed the legacies of her intellectual rigor and generosity. The qualities that have made her a “peerless mentor” shine in the words of her former advisees.

A member of the close-knit “sisterhood” of Ruiz’s PhD students at UC Davis, Margaret Jacobs discovered a feeling of belonging in a much larger network. After taking part in a 2003 PCB-AHA panel to honor Vicki for her mentorship, Margaret observed, “Most of us were from different generations of her students and did not know each other. It was remarkable how similar our stories were. Each of us spoke of feeling out of place in history graduate school, of sensing that we did not belong or that we were not welcome. Each of us also told of finding a home and community of scholars when we met Vicki. She made us feel that we had important histories to tell, some of them rooted in our own personal backgrounds, and that the historical profession needed our outsider perspectives. She not only mentored us as individuals but helped to create communities of scholars.”

Ruiz’s support for students has extended beyond the completion of their degree. Matthew Garcia expressed gratitude for her continuing advice on writing and career: “I knew nothing about the requirements of tenure; the value of being willing to move; how to line up a press for a publication; how to give a job talk at the assistant, associate, AND full professor levels; and more recently, how to be a manager of faculty. She is always there for me, no matter when I ask, and what opportunities (or trouble) I am in.”

Through her example, she has inspired her students’ pedagogy as well as their research. “Vicki’s work and role in the field were the reasons I pursued a career as a historian,” said Margie Brown-Coronel. “I could not have imagined my journey as a scholar without her. And now that I teach and supervise students I strive to carry with me all the lessons I learned from her like fairness, diligence, integrity, and encouraging students to seek the undiscovered and the possibilities of historical research and thinking.”

Ruiz has imparted lessons about the importance of service as well. Natalia Molina, a former postdoctoral mentee, wrote, “Whether serving on a committee or a board, or acting as a mentor to undergrads and graduate students, Dr. Ruiz serves as a role model by demonstrating precisely what it takes to succeed in the profession. As a scholar, one who is the first in my family to go to college, let alone earn a graduate degree, Dr. Ruiz has taught me the first rule of service: It is not enough to achieve on one’s own. We must always reach out and help those around us and especially those that come after us.”

Throughout her career, Vicki Ruiz has devoted time to providing guidance and resources to high school and undergraduate students as well as to K–12 teachers. At UC Davis she co-founded and directed Mentorships for Undergraduate Researchers in Agriculture, Letters, and Science, an ongoing program that pairs professors with students of color and women in underrepresented fields to work on collaborative research projects. At Arizona State University, Vicki twice received a Community Recognition Award for her involvement in the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program that offers workshops, field trips, and mentoring to encourage college-bound goals. At UC Irvine she has served as the interim director of Humanities Out There, once the university’s signature community engagement program, as well as co-organizing a teacher-training seminar for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. As her lengthy CV reflects, she has given service on local, regional, and national levels to a host of organizations, including the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A new chapter of family history has opened, as the sons who were little boys when Ruiz’s first book debuted are now adults. She said, “I take great joy in my children, now young men with careers and families of their own. The acknowledgements in Cannery Women and From Out of the Shadows marked their growth from children to teenagers. Miguel is now a patent attorney and Daniel an English professor, and I am thrilled with my new daughters Bianca, a paralegal in the field of immigrant rights, and Flavia, an artist, dancer, and elementary school art teacher.” In Shadows Vicki also expressed appreciation for her husband Victor’s many contributions to her work, including his reminder “to write from the heart.”

Heeding this admonition, Ruiz has returned to the project that first inspired her: a biography of Luisa Moreno/Rosa Rodríguez de Bemis. Ruiz describes her as a “quintessential transnational subject” who invented and reinvented herself in the process of crossing physical and intellectual spaces: Moreno’s activism began early with the publication of her feminist essays in her native Guatemala; while still a teenager she departed for Mexico, later moving to the United States. Garnering experience as a journalist, poet, and garment worker, she became an eloquent civil rights advocate as well as labor organizer. She left the country “under warrant of deportation” in 1950. Moreno’s career offers a window into the linkages among feminist, labor, and civil rights struggles in three nations—as Ruiz writes, “Her life demonstrates why Latino history matters to US history.”

In September 2015, President Barack Obama honored Vicki L. Ruiz with a National Humanities Medal in recognition of her achievements in broadening public engagement with US history. As a scholar, teacher, mentor, and leader she has deepened understanding of a more complicated, diverse, and rich past, inspiring researchers and igniting the imagination of audiences beyond the ivory tower. Developing projects of increasingly wider scope, she has illuminated Latina and Latino experiences as an integral part of American history. In every realm of her work Ruiz reveals the power of stories in shaping our lives and dreams, the potential for community organizing, and the importance of the choices we make every day.

 

Bibliography

American Dreaming, Global Realities: Re-Thinking US Immigration History, co-edited with Donna R. Gabaccia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930–1950. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987; in eighth printing. National Women’s Political Caucus Distinguished Achievement Award.

“Citizen Restaurant: American Imaginaries, American Communities,” American Quarterly 60, no. 1 (March 2008): 1–21.

Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United States, co-authored with Jacqueline Jones, Peter Wood, Elaine T. May, and Thomas Borstelmann. New York: Longman, 2003; 4th ed., 2013.

From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998; 10th ed., 2008. Selected as an ACLS Humanities E-book; American Library Association Outstanding Academic Book of 1998.

Las Obreras: Chicana Politics of Work and Family. Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Publications, 2000.

Latina Legacies: Identity, Biography, and Community, co-edited with Virginia Sánchez Korrol. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Latinas in History: An Interactive Project, co-developed with Virginia Sánchez Korrol and Carlos Cruz, 2009. https://depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/latinashistory.

Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, 3 vols., co-edited with Virginia Sánchez Korrol. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. American Association of University Presses 2007 Outstanding Public and Secondary School Library Selection; New York Public Library, 2007 Best in Reference.

Memories and Migrations: Mapping Boricua and Chicana Histories, co-edited with John R. Chávez. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

“Nuestra América: Latino History as United States History,” Journal of American History 93, no. 3 (December 2006).

“Of Poetics and Politics: The Border Journeys of Luisa Moreno.” In Women’s Labor in the Global Economy: Speaking in Multiple Voices, edited by Sharon Harley. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

The Practice of US Women’s History: Narratives, Intersections, Dialogues, co-edited with Eileen Boris and Susan J. Kleinberg. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Unequal Sisters: An Inclusive Reader in US Women’s History, 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. Three previous editions, titled Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in US Women’s History, co-edited with Ellen Carol DuBois. An abridged second edition was published in Japan, 1997. American Education Association Critic’s Choice Award.

Western Women: Their Land, Their Lives, co-edited with Lillian Schlissel and Janice Monk. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

Women on the US-Mexico Border: Responses to Change, co-edited with Susan Tiano. Winchester, MA: Allen and Unwin, 1987; reprinted by Westview Press, 1991.