10 Remarkable O.C. Women

Vicki Lynn Ruiz

Distinguished Historian

Since she was a child, this recipient of the 2014 National Humanities Medal—which President Obama awarded to her at the White House—has loved collecting stories. She was enthralled by her mother’s and grandmother’s tales of their childhoods. Ruiz, who turns 61 this month, tries to instill in her students at UC Irvine this same fascination, and she conveys to them their good fortune to live in this historical moment: “I explain to the students that no matter what their background, 100 years ago very few of them would have been welcome in a college classroom.”

Ruiz knows this kind of prejudice first-hand. In high school, a teacher tried to prevent her from taking an honors English class because she was Latina. Ruiz got her doctorate in history from Stanford University, where she began the work for which she’s best known: collecting oral histories of Mexican women working in U.S. canning factories. “I want my students to understand that everything has a history. I want them to study photographs, art, diaries, and newspapers. I want them to see that people in the past were like us … and we are connected to them.”

F25G0R Washington DC, USA. 10th Sep, 2015. United States President Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Vicki Lynn Ruiz of Irvine, California, historian, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Thursday, September 10, 2015. Credit: Ron Sachs/CNP (RESTRICTION: NO New York or New Jersey Newspapers or newspapers within a 75 mile radius of New York City) - NO WIRE SERVICE - © dpa picture alliance/Alamy Live News
F25G0R Washington DC, USA. 10th Sep, 2015. United States President Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Vicki Lynn Ruiz of Irvine, California, historian, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Thursday, September 10, 2015. Credit: Ron Sachs/CNP (RESTRICTION: NO New York or New Jersey Newspapers or newspapers within a 75 mile radius of New York City) – NO WIRE SERVICE – © dpa picture alliance/Alamy Live News