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Awards & Honors: 2011 National Humanities Medalist

Teofilo Ruiz

“I think that the role of a historian, the role of a teacher—and I truly believe this—is to go against the grain. To argue. To be a contrarian. To make people think critically about things,” says Teofilo F. Ruiz, professor of history and chair of the department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Los Angeles. For almost four decades, Ruiz has been pushing students and the discipline of Spanish history in new directions.

Ruiz regards his career as an act of serendipity. Born into a middle-class Cuban family, he was on the path to become a lawyer like his father—then the revolution intervened. As a young man, Ruiz joined the uprising against dictator Fulgencio Batista. The new Castro regime that came to power in 1959 didn’t suit his sensibilities either, and in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion, Ruiz found himself in jail. Following his release, his family decided that a sojourn in the United States would be in his best interest.

After spending a few months in Miami, where he painted hotel rooms to make money, Ruiz headed north to New York City. During the day, he worked at the Continental Can factory; at night, he went to school tuition-free at City College of New York. A class on the Middle Ages rekindled his love of the era, and a master’s degree in history from New York University soon followed. Ruiz considered teaching high school, but one of his mentors steered him a different way. “He said, ‘Teo, this is crazy. Your accent is pronounced. You have to go and get a PhD and teach at the university where it does not matter.’”

“It was the most innocent of things to do,” say Ruiz of his decision to study for a doctorate in history at Princeton. “Of course, it was much more complicated than that.” He credits his adviser, Joseph Strayer, the legendary medievalist, with teaching him how to do research, but also instilling in him an enduring love of it. Besotted with Paris, Ruiz intended to make France the focus of his scholarship, but he soon found himself heading southwest over the Pyrenees into the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile.

Over the course of thirteen books, including Crisis and Continuity: Land and Town in Late Medieval Castile, From Heaven to Earth: The Reordering of Castilian Society, 1150–1350, and Spanish Society, 1400–1600, Ruiz has explored the culture and society of medieval and early modern Spain. He acknowledges that he is a revisionist, in as much as he wants his fellow historians to embrace the fluidity of Spanish history rather than constructing narratives that spin around 1492. “There is a continuity that does not obey or cannot be centered around a specific date,” he says. But, if you must have a date, he’d prefer you consider 1521, when the city of Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his allies, or 1499, when Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama returned from India with a ship laden with peppercorns and cumin.

Ruiz’s scholarship has been recognized with fellowships from Mellon, Guggenheim, and NEH. He was also elected vice president of the American Historical Association’s Research Division, serving from 2005–2008.

His most recent book, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization, sprang from a popular class that Ruiz teaches at UCLA on mysticism, heresy, and witchcraft in medieval and early modern Europe. Reaction to the book has been mixed, and Ruiz acknowledges its tone can be a bit pessimistic. “Some of my skeptical points of view about the world came out—and I was not sure that I wanted to share that with people I don’t know.”

This spring brings the publication of A King Travels: Festive Traditions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain, a book he describes as “hefty” in both size and scope. “We always think of Philip II sitting in Escorial going over documents, but he spent a lot of time on the road traveling, sometimes for two years.” Ruiz uses Philip’s journey from Aragon to Catalonia to Valencia in 1585–86 as an entry point to exploring the pageantry, politics, and social upheaval generated by a royal visit.

Ruiz has also earned accolades for his teaching, including being named U.S. professor of the year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1995 and receiving UCLA’s Distinguished Teacher Award in 2008. He describes his teaching style as “frantic, hectic.” As a graduate student, Ruiz admired professors like Carl Schorske, who could deliver an elegant well-crafted lecture from behind a podium. “I can’t do that. It’s not in my abilities,” he says. “I engage the students by combining the personal with the scholarly.”

He also doesn’t use notes. “I can’t explain how it happens. I walk into the classroom. I am in an absolute panic even after thirty-nine years of doing this. And then something possesses me for one hour and fifteen minutes and I cannot stop. I am like the Energizer Bunny.”

By Meredith Hindley
Meredith Hindley is Senior Writer for HUMANITIES Magazine.