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Obama to honor UC Irvine Latina history professor

Vicki Ruiz, a professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies at UC Irvine, is set to receive a 2014 National Humanities Medal from President Obama at the White House on Thursday.

Ruiz is among 10 honorees from universities nationwide. She is the first at UCI to receive a National Humanities Medal.

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"I went to the White House many years ago, but only as a tourist," Ruiz said with a laugh, in an interview with Times Community News. "I consider the award one that recognizes the field of Latina history more so than myself. I am deeply honored by this once-in-a-lifetime acknowledgment of my work."

Honorees are chosen by the president along with the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency that funds humanities programs throughout the country.

The medal acknowledges individuals or groups whose work has expanded the country's knowledge of history, literature, languages, philosophy and similar subjects.

Ruiz's work in historical research focuses on the stories of Latinas who fought for civil and labor rights.

Before becoming a professor at UCI, Ruiz pursued her master's and doctoral degrees in history at Stanford University starting in the late 1970s.

In 1978, she spent the summer in Guadalajara, Mexico, with Latino civil rights and labor leader Luisa Moreno while conducting research for Albert Camarillo, then an assistant professor of Chicano history and U.S. urban history at Stanford.

"[Moreno] was very generous in sharing her stories with me," Ruiz said. "She spent a lot of time showing me around the city. On the last day of my trip, I told her I wanted to write my dissertation on her. She said, 'No, you are going to write on the cannery workers in Southern California.'"

Thus began her interviewing, researching and writing on Mexican American women in the Southwest.

"What I was most excited for was the chance to find their stories tucked into archives, government documents, diaries and newspapers," Ruiz said. "All of these are awaiting interested scholars."

Ruiz was able to dig up stories of resilience and family loyalty, such as a woman who picked berries at Knott's Berry Farm to support her growing family in the early 20th century.

The dissertation inspired Ruiz to write her book "Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950." It was published in 1987.

Ruiz, who was the first in her family to earn an advanced degree, joined the UCI faculty in 2001.

With Camarillo, Ruiz is writing a biography on the woman who first led her to her life's work – Luisa Moreno.

Thursday's medal ceremony at the White House will be live-streamed at 3 p.m. PDT at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

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Chan writes for Times Comunity News.

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