Acclaimed historian goes the distance from Cuba to the classroom
At 3:30 p.m. one recent Tuesday, cavernous Moore Hall 100 was completely packed for the first day of Professor Teofilo Ruiz
’s History 2C course. Students buzzed about the strange scene that developed before them: Four lit candles lined the stage in the darkened room while Afro-Brazilian candomblé
music blasted over loudspeakers.
Suddenly, a figure wearing a black cape swept onto the stage. The students seemed momentarily perplexed — until they realized that the caped figure was Ruiz, who went on to open the lecture with a disturbing tale set in Rome, at the woodland lake of Nemi. The legend told of a priest — who was also a murderer — patrolling the borders, knowing that if he slept or let down his guard, he would be slain. The story, Ruiz intoned, was about the "kings who must die."
If his students were a little freaked out, they shouldn’t have been — after all, the scintillating title of the course is "The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics and Witches in the Western Tradition, 1000-1700." And Ruiz — a distinguished professor in the UCLA departments of history and of Spanish and Portuguese — is known for his unique classroom openers, as well as for his warm and enthusiastic teaching style.
On April 26, Ruiz will get a chance to shine before a campuswide audience when he delivers UCLA’s 112th Faculty Research Lecture
at 3 p.m. in Schoenberg Hall. The highly regarded lecture series recognizes the work of the university’s most distinguished scholars and gives the campus community a taste of the academic achievements and viewpoints of the faculty honored. The lecture is free and open to the public.
An internationally recognized historian whose work focuses on medieval Spain and Europe, Ruiz plans to discuss knight-errants and the elitist world of fictitious warfare: tournaments, running and fighting of bulls, skilled equestrian games. He will draw from his most recent book, "A King Travels: Festive Traditions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain," which was released earlier this month by Princeton University Press.
The Faculty Research Lecture will be the latest in what has been an incredible whirlwind of awards and achievements for Ruiz, who published another book just last September, titled "The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization" (Princeton University Press). In February, he traveled to the White House to accept the prestigious National Humanities Medal, awarded to those whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities.
With his usual mischievous humor, Ruiz described his recent visit to the nation's capital to receive the medal.
"I told President Obama, ‘Fight on. We are behind you.’ And he said, ‘Thank you. I am honored and grateful.’ And I said, ‘No, I am the one who is honored and grateful,’ " said Ruiz, following with a pause and a smile. "And then I said, ‘Michelle rocks!’ The president laughed and said, ‘Oh, so you like Michelle more than you like me?’ And I said, ‘No, I like both of you the same.’ "
Teofilo Ruiz accepts the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in February.
The White House visit was a high point for Ruiz, who was born in Cuba in 1943 to descendants of immigrants from Spain’s Old Castile region. He grew up devouring what he called "a very unhealthy diet" of 19th-century French romances by the likes of Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo. Coincidentally, his boyhood home in San Francisco de Paula was across the street from Hemingway’s house, where Ruiz spent a great deal of time reading his favorite romances at an old, stone table.
"I didn’t know Hemingway well, but I knew of him," Ruiz said. "I was one of his hangers-on. He was a strange character — I couldn’t understand what he was all about." (Ironically, or perhaps in homage to the eccentric author, Ruiz regularly assigns Hemingway’s final work, a memoir called "A Moveable Feast," to the more than 40 undergraduate students who accompany him on a trip to Paris every summer in the Summer Travel Study program sponsored by UCLA's International Education Office. "They read it now as a kind of evocation of Paris in the ’20s," he explained.)
Ruiz was not quite 10 years old when Fulgencio Batista came to power for the second time in Cuba in 1952, and by the late ’50s, the Batista government had become "brutal, arbitrary and thoughtless." In his teens, Ruiz joined a student organization that fought for Fidel Castro against Batista’s regime.
"When Castro came to power on Jan. 1, 1959, I was completely taken by the revolution," Ruiz said. "I was absolutely convinced that we were going to change the world. This is what people in their late teens and early 20s should feel — that they are going to change the world. Unfortunately, the world changes us, rather than the other way around."
Ruiz recalled that 1960 started out as an incredibly wonderful year, but at the end of the year one of his friends was killed, and Ruiz walked away from the revolution. In the days leading to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, Ruiz was arrested and imprisoned for several weeks. Upon his release, he immigrated to Miami. He later moved to New York City, where he attended the City University of New York (CUNY) and worked several jobs to support himself, including driving a cab. He received a B.A. from CUNY in 1969, a master’s degree from New York University in 1970, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1974, all in history.
He began his teaching career at Brooklyn College and went on to teach at the CUNY Graduate Center, the University of Michigan, Princeton and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris before coming to UCLA in 1998.
Despite his many accomplishments, something remained that Ruiz had been wanting to do for a long time. Earlier this year, he finally did it: He went back to Cuba after 51 years, accompanied by his wife, Scarlett — and several fellow travelers on a UCLA Alumni Association-sponsored tour that Ruiz led.
"I didn’t think I was ready to take this trip by myself," Ruiz explained. "My wife went with me, but in many respects, this was a very good group, a very progressive group. And they provided a kind of buffer for me. Having to lecture to them and see the city through their eyes was very important."
Ruiz visited his hometown and saw the house where he grew up, still in very good shape. But the rest of the town, he was sad to see, was in shambles. He was also disappointed to find that "the scale of everything was so much smaller. Everything looked small and puny, compared to my memories. So that was a terrible blow."
Spending time in Havana, however, revived his spirits. "All these things came into play: the people, who are so full of humor and good sense and warmth and affection; the language itself, in that everybody is your brother and everybody is your sister and you are everybody’s grandfather," he said. "And the banter — the endless bantering in the street, the music and the sea and the intense green and the city itself, which is so luminous. So beautiful."
Ruiz is not waiting another 51 years to go back.