Ramón Eduardo Ruiz

National Humanities Medal


Ramón Eduardo Ruiz, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, San Diego, has spent all of his seventy-seven years living "within hailing distance of the Mexican border, at one time or another calling Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California home."

"You could call me a Mexicanist," Ruiz says. He was born to Mexican parents, living and working in the U.S., but who never became U.S. citizens because they "were very proud of their heritage and instilled this pride in their children." As a historian and scholar of Mexico and Latin America, Ruiz may indeed have been born to his work. Ruiz said his birthplace and experiences inspired him to concentrate his studies on the Mexican border. The border is described in his latest book, On the Rim of Mexico, Where the Rich and Poor Rendezvous, “as one of the longest international boundaries in the world, setting apart two entirely different countries for more than two thousand miles. Nowhere else does a poor, third world country like Mexico share a common border with a wealthy, powerful neighbor.

"The Mexican border," he writes, "brings back memories of my youth and forebears. My mother, her father and mother, and her grandparents, as well as patriarchs before them, were born and matured on the outskirts of Parral, a mining town in the border province of Chihuahua that dates from the early seventeenth century… My mother and two of her sisters were the exceptions; they married, migrated north, and then succumbed on this side of the border."

Ruiz was born September 9, 1921, just a few miles from San Diego where his father worked for the legendary landowner Kate Sessions, one of the pioneers in the development of San Diego. Sessions was an expert on plants and horticulture, and Ruiz's father, Ramón, worked for her, learning the business and then opening his own nursery. His mother, Delores Urueta, worked alongside his father in their own nursery.
"My mother was intent on reminding us of our heritage and we always spoke Spanish at home, even though we all also spoke English," he said.

As the author of fifteen books and numerous articles about Mexico and Latin America, Ruiz’s work is used as standard reference for Hispanic scholars. In addition, he has avidly studied Cuba and, in 1968, his book, Cuba: The Making of a Revolution, was named one of the twenty-one best history books that year by the Washington Post Book World.

His 1980 book on the Mexican Revolution broke new scholarly ground and further enhanced Ruiz’s standing as a historian. The Great Rebellion: Mexico, 1905-1924 disagreed with the view that the revolution was a social change that freed an oppressed people from foreign bosses and military dictatorships and established popular rule and economic justice for workers. Instead, Ruiz wrote, the revolution was "essentially a face-lifting of Mexican capitalism" and "one of the last bourgeois protests of the nineteenth century, and not the precursor of the socialist explosions of the twentieth century." Writing in the New Republic, reviewer John Womack, Jr., called Ruiz's book "the first major statement by an eminent American historian of Mexico that the real revolution was not a triumph of the people at large, but a long, violent, specifically bourgeois reform which crushed other popular uprisings for the sake of better business."

In On the Rim of Mexico, Ruiz has entwined the richness of his own family and remembrances with extensive research, travel, and interviews with the people who live on both sides of the border.

The book transcends the topical issues of the border, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and lurid accounts of Mexican drug lords, killings, and political corruption. Instead, it addresses the economics and personal identity of those who live and die next door to Uncle Sam. "A huge majority of Mexicans depend for their livelihood, either directly or indirectly, on the United States, but just the same, American border cities would slumber were it not for cheap labor and customers hungry for American goods. The exchange of goods and services underlies the dynamics of border economics," Ruiz argues.

Ruiz graduated from San Diego State College (now university), received his masters degree from Claremont Graduate School, and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. He served in the Pacific as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.

Beginning his teaching career in 1955 at the University of Oregon at Eugene, Ruiz has also taught at Southern Methodist University and Smith College. In 1970, he joined the University of California and in 1991 became professor emeritus. There he has worked to build a strong Hispanic studies program. Ruiz has held visiting professorships at numerous colleges and universities in the United States and Mexico. A civic and community activist, he was one of the early protestors of the Vietnam War and supported the late Chicano leader, Cesar Chavez, in his efforts improve the lives and welfare of migrant farm workers.

By Charmayne Marsh

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.