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A Present From Mexico's Past

One Man's Lifelong Pursuit of Latino History Earns Him a Humanities Medal

November 03, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RANCHO SANTA FE — The morning is cool, California autumn, with low-slung clouds trailing veils of gray mist as they drift inland from the Pacific. Inside Ramon Eduardo Ruiz's house, a single-story adobe that opens L-shaped onto a manicured garden, the dawn chill clings stubbornly, and the crisp air shatters easily under his words.

"I don't believe signing welfare reform was good for the poor," Ruiz says, sitting in a comfortable leather chair in his study, clay tiles underfoot and the dark walls lined with books. "Blockading Cuba is not a good thing for the Cuban people. I've been to Cuba many times and always believed in what they are trying to do."

Ruiz has, as he freely admits, many opinions. Strong opinions. While even his critics concede that his ideas are formidable, well-reasoned and difficult to rebut, most of Ruiz's thoughts run contrary to the moderate-conservative mores dominating current cultural and political debate.

Which means he has had trouble getting those views heard.

That could change this week. On Thursday, Ruiz will be among nine Americans receiving the National Humanities Medal at the White House. Among his peers for this day are Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Ruiz, 77, has been writing and teaching about Latin America--mostly Mexican history--for more than 40 years. Highly regarded in his field, he's invisible to most of America. A quick check of bookshelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble outlets found one copy of his newest book, "On the Rim of Mexico: Encounters of the Rich and Poor" (Westview Press), a critical look at life on the south side of the border since NAFTA. There were none of the 11 previous books he has written or edited.

Ruiz doesn't take it personally. He learned long ago that he's exploring a history that finds few enthusiasts north of the border, despite the inherent drama of bloody conquests and revolts, and what he sees as Mexico's present status as an economic colony of American state capitalism.

Latin American history is ignored for myriad reasons, believes Ruiz, who was born and raised in the La Jolla area, the American son of Mexican immigrants. One of the factors is American hubris, a national egoism that disregards all histories but a European-derived one. Another factor is the politics of color, "and it's a mistake to ignore it," he says.

And then there's the American citizenry itself, more interested in the personal and the present than the communal past.

"Americans are just not historically oriented," Ruiz says. "It's a new country, an immigrant nation, most of them coming after the late 19th century. History doesn't play a very large role."

Work Shed Light on Mexican Revolution

Yet pursuit of history, the desire to put the present into context, has played a dominant role in Ruiz's life. And in turn, his work has been a critical factor in helping define the debate over the nature of the Mexican Revolution. It's a complicated history, one that is prone--like most histories of revolutions--to interpretations of convenience.

For leftists, the Mexican Revolution was the first socialist uprising of the century, presaging the Bolsheviks in Russia, Mao in China and Castro in Cuba. Other historians, though, argue the opposite, that the Mexican revolt was actually the last of the bourgeois revolutions--like the French Revolution--in which the middle class overthrew the aristocracy.

Ruiz, though, stood the debate on its ear by arguing in his "The Great Rebellion" that, despite all the bloodshed and turmoil, the Mexican revolt wasn't a social revolution at all, since nothing really changed except who controlled the apparatuses of society. To paraphrase an old rock 'n' roll song, the old boss was the same as the new boss.

"His thesis was that it was just a great explosion of anger," says Abdiel Onate, associate professor of history at San Francisco State, who uses some of Ruiz's books to teach Mexican history. "Mexico was already a capitalist society before the revolution, and it produced a regime that consolidated capitalist development afterward.

"It was very well-received, not so much because people agreed with his thesis but because the work was of very high quality. Academically, it was very solidly researched and well-organized. It was a persuasive argument that he was presenting . . . that makes available a wide range of facts and information."

'Intuitive Mind, Supportive Nature'

Behind Ruiz's academic rigor, says Ray Sadler, chair of the history department at New Mexico State University, stands a sharp, intuitive mind and a supportive, genteel nature.

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