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Ruiz, Vicki L. (1955–) - Chicana History

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Vicki Lynn Ruiz, the daughter of Robert Mercer and Ermina Ruiz, was born May 21, 1955, in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in Florida. Her father, a fisherman, took tourists deep sea fishing, and Vicki, her sister, and her mother all worked for the family business. They followed the tourist migration, so Vicki would attend school in Panama City until Thanksgiving, in Marathon from December or January to April, then back in Panama City for the remainder of the year. Her job as a child was to sell tickets for the fishing trips and place flyers in the souvenir racks of local hotels.

Vicki Ruiz’s interest in history comes from her family. As a severely asthmatic child, Vicki spent many days at home with her mother, who told her stories of her own Colorado girlhood, during which she became the sole supporter of her mother and two sisters. “At times when I was bogged down with my dissertation or when I’m embroiled in some sort of academic politics,” writes Ruiz, “I always think of my mother and I very much admire her.”

Ruiz identifies herself as a third generation Chicana, recalling the history of her immigrant grandfather, a coal miner, and her U.S.-born grandmother, who also told young Vicki tales of the past. Although her father’s ancestry is part Austrian, Ruiz knows little about and fails to identify with that side of her family. When he married her mother, Ruiz’s father was “more or less disowned” by his parents, so her paternal grandparents played hardly any role in her young life.

Life for a Mexican-American girl in small-town Florida was not easy. Some parents did not want their sons dating Mexican-American girls, and Ruiz was denied an academic scholarship sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, even though she had scored the highest on the standardized test in history, because she could not trace her ancestry to the pre-Civil War South. Ruiz attended Gulf Coast Community College and then Florida State University, hoping that an education would also provide her with an escape. She planned to become a teacher but listened to the advice of one of her professors, Jean Gould-Bryan, who encouraged her to go on to graduate school. “I applied to Stanford on a whim,” she writes, but she got accepted and earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. there.

During a summer research trip to Mexico, Ruiz met another person who was to have a significant impact on her life, union organizer Luisa Moreno. After spending a summer with her, listening to stories about Moreno’s work with cannery workers, Ruiz decided to write her dissertation on the Mexican cannery workers and their struggle for unionization. Moreno and others convinced Ruiz that the stories she had heard, of the victimization of Mexican women, told only part of the story. “For instance,” she argues, “no one knew that cannery workers in southern California received equal pay for equal work. Some had day care centers on the job site.” Ruiz began the work that would define her as someone who helps create and define knowledge more broadly to encompass the life histories and struggles of marginalized peoples. Ruiz’s work, published as Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930–1950 , was reviewed by William Flores as “essential reading for anyone engaged in research on Chicanos and Mexicans, on cannery workers, and more broadly on issues of gender and work.” Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History , a book Ruiz edited with Ellen Carol DuBois and now a standard text in the field, is the first collection that provides for a more inclusive, multicultural women’s history, focusing on the experiences of Latinas, African-American women, Asian American women, and Native American women.

Ruiz’s first academic appointment was at the University of Texas at El Paso, where she worked from 1982 to 1985. She was then hired as assistant and later associate professor at the University of California at Davis. She left Davis in 1992 to take a position as Andrew W. Mellon All-Clarement Professor in the Humanities at the Claremont Graduate School. Ruiz’s most recent move has taken her to Arizona State University at Tempe, where she is professor of women’s studies and history.

The author, editor, or co-editor of seven books and author of over a dozen book chapters and seven articles, Ruiz has won two book awards, from the National Women’s Political Caucus and the American Educational Studies Association, and two research awards, from the Chicana/Latina Research Project and the California Council for the Humanities. She has also won a community service award, an Outstanding Faculty Award, and an Honored Faculty Award from the University of California at Davis. Ruiz has worked on public history and oral history projects, served as an advisory board member on ten film projects, and served on the editorial boards of many publications, including Encyclopedia of the American West, The Latino Encyclopedia, The Reader’s Companion to the History of American Women , and Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies . Her most recent work is From Out of the Shadows: A History of Mexican Women in the United States , in progress.

She takes pride in her work at the University of California at Davis with the MURALS program. A mentorship program, MURALS matches upper division students of color with faculty members to collaborate either on the professor’s own research or on an independent student project. Clear about the need to draw students of color into academia, and for senior faculty to mentor junior faculty, Ruiz remembers the words of Luisa Moreno: “One person can’t do anything; it’s only with others that things are accomplished.”

Vicki L. Ruiz took the name Ruiz in 1979 to honor her mother and to signify her marriage to a distant cousin. They had two children, Miguel and Daniel, and divorced in 1989. Ruiz takes great pride in raising her sons. “Raising feminist sons amid the Terminator and MTV is certainly a challenge,” she writes. “Miguel and Daniel are intelligent, loving children who care about people and about issues.” In 1992 Vicki Ruiz married Victor Becerra, a college administrator. A bachelor at thirty seven, he had never been married or had children. “However,” Ruiz notes, “he has become an absolutely terrific parent!” He is also employed at Arizona State University, as academic advisor for the College of Liberal Arts.

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