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Former Talent Search advisor Alanis Ruiz wins Cesar Chavez Award
Story by Janis Nichols. Photos by James Hill.
Tears of joy expressed the mood in the Event Center at Rock Creek Campus one day this spring when former TRIO Talent Search advisor Maria Alanis Ruiz won the 2015 Cesar Chavez Distinguished Service Award. The honor was part of the week-long Semana de la Raza celebration in April.
Alanis Ruiz was an easy choice for the Semana de la Raza coordinating committee composed of students and staff at Rock Creek. A product of migrant labor camps of Texas and Oregon, Alanis Ruiz stands tall in the Chicano/Latino community with more than 45 years of social justice activism.
“By any measure, Maria is one of a kind,” said Narce Rodriguez, dean of Student Development at the Rock Creek Campus. “Her achievements and her struggles tell the story of the Chicano Movement in Oregon. She is an icon in the community and her legacy will stand for generations. Hundreds of students from K-16 have benefited from her experience and her integrity.”
Now retired from PCC, Alanis Ruiz will soon be teaching Chicano/Latino Studies to dual-credit students in the Beaverton School District.
Born into labor camps
She started her life in Linares, Mexico, 300 miles south of Texas. Desperate for work, her father migrated to the U.S. in 1954. The rest of the family, which consisted of seven children, moved 12 years later, crossing the border to Texas in 1966 by way of an old station wagon. Alanis Ruiz was 18 years old, and the relocation would mark the beginning of years of family illness, labor camps, poverty and personal empowerment.
“In Mexico, we weren’t farm workers,” she said. “We lived in a city with three million people, but because there was little work available to us in the states, we found ourselves in migrant labor camps.”
When the family car broke down somewhere in south Texas, a chance encounter with another migrant family led her family to Oregon and the promise of steady employment. The family settled in Eola Village, near McMinnville, and became members of a labor camp with 5,000 workers.
“I worked in the fields for two years,” Alanis Ruiz said. “I earned piece rate pay which was $5 a day, or crop rate which was eight cents a pound for green beans, $1.50 per pound for strawberries and 20 cents a pound for hops.”
She said the working conditions toughened her and transformed her. Later she participated in boycotts on the picket lines in the late 1960s and early 70s. When her family followed the picking seasons up the West Coast, Alanis Ruiz decided to stay behind in Oregon and was eventually recruited into the University of Oregon’s Spanish English Speaking American Mexican Program in the fall of 1970.
“I did not have a high school diploma nor could I speak English, but with support from (the program), I passed the GED exam and received a scholarship to study at the Language Institute at Oregon State University,” Alanis Ruiz said.
Movement shaped her career
The Chicano Movement of the 1960s was an extension of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement to achieve empowerment through restoration of land grants, farm worker’s rights, education, and voting and political rights. The movement enabled Alanis Ruiz to embrace her racial identity and her call to social activism. In 1972 she joined Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) and later became the director of the Migrant Labor Project, a student-based group that assisted migrant workers. In recognition of her efforts that led to the closure of a labor camp, she was selected for the Whitman Award given by State Senator Wayne Morse in 1973.
After graduating from Oregon, she worked as an admissions counselor and student recruiter at Cesar Chavez College in Mt. Angel and later worked at Aguila Inc. in Portland, a bilingual alcoholism counseling group. While there she helped to write a grant proposal that was awarded $300,000 for a two-year outpatient alcohol treatment program. The experience led her to a job as an admissions counselor and minority student recruiter at Portland State University in 1980, where she would earn a master’s degree in Education Administration and Policy Foundations.
For 13 years she organized the scholarship gala which annually raised more than a hundred $1,000 to $5,000 scholarships for financially needy PSU students. In 1985, she organized the first Cinco de Mayo celebration at Portland’s Waterfront Park. Today the celebration draws more than 300,000 people to the site and thousands more to celebrations throughout the state. In 1995, she developed the PSU Chicano-Latino Studies program.
Alanis Ruiz was knighted an Honorary Dame under the Banner of the Rose by the Portland Royal Rosarians in 2006. Five years later, she started her own consulting company, Sin Fronteras, which partners with school districts to offer parent education workshops. And that work brought her to the TRIO program at the college.
“I’ve come full circle,” Alanis Ruiz said. “We are struggling with some of the same issues in 2015 that we faced in the 1960s. We lack diversity in our classrooms and not enough social workers to engage families successfully. On the brighter side, we are reaching students at an earlier age, there is more financial help and parents know their children need higher education.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for every vulnerable student to know there is at least one person in his or her life who is there for them, no matter what, she said. For herself, it was Felipe Canedo, one of the two University of Oregon graduate students who helped her earn a GED and found a way to finance her education. Canedo also promised her father she would be safe on a college campus.
“At Felipe’s funeral, I found out that 39 years ago it was Felipe who had paid for my $2,000 scholarship to the OSU Language Institute,” Alanis Ruiz recalled. “I had no idea he had done that.”