Vicki Ruiz Engages With Latino History

To kick off Latino Heritage month, historian and professor Vicki Ruiz spoke to students about the place of Latinos in history. Her lecture, entitled “Nuestra America: Latino History as United States History,” brought out the historical narrative of Latinos that is often buried in American History survey textbooks.

“Dr. Vicki Ruiz does history like weavers create a multicolor cloth. The cloth becomes a net and you as readers become entrapped,” said Swarthmore professor Aurora Camacho de Schmidt in her introduction. Ruiz wove this cloth with colorful oral histories and striking patterns of statistics. Her portrait helped listeners uncover the role of Latinos during three critical time periods: the U.S. Mexican War, the Filipino-Cuban-Spanish American War, and World War Two.

She began with a vignette discovered in an old letter: an Apache dancer was told to stop dancing in a public space. Ruiz recounted the story and then began to pull clues about the time period out of the framework. The story showed what life was like in the Spanish Borderlands, areas such as Florida and California that created a boundary between Spanish land and American land, around the time of the U.S. Mexican War.

Unlike the mythical pictures painted by movies like Zorro, the people living in the borderlands around 1848 fought everyday battles against race and class. Composed of Jews, Mexicans, African Americans, and other groups, the population faced problems in a potentially mobile yet caste based society. There were indentured servants. Women tended to the kitchen, laundry, and sewing. And, as the audience learned from a period testimonial of a mother battling for custody of her child, there were questions concerning relationships between the wealthy and the “mulattos.” But despite the interesting issues raised by these living situations, the issue is often shoved aside in favor of preparations for the revolutionary war.

Jump forward fifty years and Latinos are faced with another important yet overlooked struggle: The Spanish American War. This textbook name leaves out Cuba and the Philippines, two of the most important players.

Jose Martí, an integral part of the Cuban Independence movement that ignited the war, wrote famous political essays that are still quoted today to support various political perspectives. Some of his work was written during his fifteen-year exile in the United States. One essay, “Nuestra America,” called for a transnational America in which countries were more acquainted with their neighbors and in which, “There is no racial hatred, because there are no races.”

Also, during this time Puerto Ricans began immigrating to the United States. Some worked in sugar cane mills in Hawaii, while others moved farther north to New York.

The story picks up again for its final chapter in 1948. “Was World War Two a catalyst for Latinos living in the United States?” Just like other minority groups, such as African Americans, Latinos fought in the war and worked in defense plants at home alongside “true” Americans.

Also around this time period, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) formed and helped Latinos win rights through the legal process. They fought cases against segregated school districts and against prevented interracial marriages.

Although historians cannot agree whether the war and its aftermath provided Latinos with more opportunities, individual oral histories, one of Ruiz’s most favored sources, say yes.

During the question and answer session, she directed her attention to issues facing Latinos today.

Spurred by audience questions, she spoke out about the need for academic engagement with the community concerning Latino history and heritage. “We don’t have the luxury to stay in our offices and say, ‘I’m an academic,’ she said.


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