Professor cultivates spaces for imagination on campus

By Zulema Herrera, Staff Writer

Editors note: The headline in a previous version of this article uses “immigrants,” which does not accurately portray the subject of the story. The Daily Illini has since changed the headline. The Daily Illini regrets this error.

Dr. Sandra Ruiz, a Chicago native, grew up in a working-class Puerto Rican family and always dreamed big despite her circumstances. 

“We have incredible ownership and agency in our lives more than we imagine, yes the state and the market own so much of what we do, but at the same time, no one can take your imaginative power away from you,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz is an assistant professor in the Latino/a and English departments who said she always had a desire to learn. 

“Study was so important to me, learning, thinking, creating, no matter what was happening, which was really real,” Ruiz said. “Not having enough money for food or for books or to join band, I knew that the thing I had was my ability to work very, very, hard.”

Ruiz had described her parents as old school whose reality of life did not match hers. 

“I was definitely the changeling of the family, the weird kid, who they were like, ‘why can’t you be a lawyer or doctor and stop this?’” said Ruiz. 

She said she was “that scholarship kid,” which ended up paying off well since she earned her acceptance at the University of Chicago, earning her B.A in English. This decision was significantly influenced by the pressure of her parents, who told her to stay in Chicago. “They said ‘if you’re going to go to college you’re staying in the city if you leave we’re not gonna payout, we’re not gonna help you.’” said Ruiz.

However, for graduate school, she left for NYU to get her masters in Performance Studies. Despite the misunderstandings between her parents, she was incredibly proud of how far she came and the lessons they taught her. “They were resourceful and I have so much respect for someone who can make a meal for family out of just bread and cheese,” said Ruiz. “Knowing how to do things with your hands was something I learned at a young age because there wasn’t money to pay for people to fix things.”

Professor Ruth Nicole Brown, a colleague and friend of hers, described her first interactions with Ruiz as gravitating. 

“Every fellowship meeting, I felt like I was inching closer and closer to her in my seat,” Brown said. “We both have an appreciation of the Performance Studies and politics and the way those things go together.” 

After Ruiz’s completion of her M.A in Performance Studies at NYU, she came to UIUC as an IPRH(Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities) fellow where she met Brown, who had been on campus for some time before her. 

“She is definitely someone I admire tremendously because she created SOLHOT(Saving Our Lives Hear our Truth) and she is in charge of a Black Girl Genius Week,” Ruiz said. “When I got to this campus, I knew about her and I was super excited to learn from her.” 

In addition to Brown, the late professor Jose Estaban Muñoz also was an influential mentor in her career and personal life during her time at NYU. 

“He was known as one of the most important queer theorists of our time,” Ruiz said. “I try to practice a lot of the things he gave me as a student and he loved us, loved us tremendously, we used to call him Tio(uncle).”

Mateo Hurtado, a previous student of hers, is currently completing his M.A in Performance Studies at NYU, much like Ruiz did and stressed the impact of Muñoz in his field of study and with her pedagogy. 

“She studied under him and he was such an influential mentor to her,” Hurtado said, “because of his pedagogy because of his writing and also because of his kindness, which is not something that people always come across with a teacher.”

Hurtado, an alum in FAA, met Ruiz in a state of unrest after he left ISM(Illinois Student Musical) due to a play that showcased the whitewashing of Latinx characters. In response, Ruiz gave him options for the next steps and suggested for him to create his collective. “The meeting changed everything with the span of my artistic and academic career,” said Hurtado. “She said ‘the Brown Theatre Collective’ and when she said that I was in shock and was thrilled.”

Since that moment, Hurtado and Ruiz began collaborating to get it off the ground to create a safe space for people of color to grow within the arts. “I always tell my students to let excellence be your shade and your justice,” said Ruiz. “You cannot be able to change the system, but what you can do is great work, read critically, write beautifully, and live your life with incredible integrity no one can take those things away from.”

One of the principles that Ruiz has lived by is imagination, which she says is her only institution. 

“I was trained that if the majoritarian space doesn’t work then you create another space that does work and find your people,” said Ruiz. “It became a sort of Rainbow Coalition in the most beautiful sense all types of races, all types of faiths, all types of gender and it’s been incredible.”

La Estacion Gallery was created in a similar way, which was based on the needs of the students. The gallery was birthed from a copy room in the Latino/Latina studies building and hosted guest artist Erica Griessman for its first exhibition. Taking a new route, Ruiz taught a class called “Curating Performance” that utilized students’ work for its latest exhibition “Objects who hold, Objects who let go” that opened Fall 2019.

Paulina Camacho Valencia, Ph.D. candidate in FAA, was a contributor to the exhibit and reflected on the class as a place that challenged her thinking that expanded how she and her peers learned.

“We had the opportunity to make and develop a piece,” said Camacho. “I am learning not just in the classroom but outside the classroom…I feel like I can see myself growing as a student.” 

Ruiz said that the work within the Gallery project was emotional and difficult for the students who expressed a lot of personal experiences that attempted to connect messages of gender, sex, and race. “I think that difficult work forces us to transform who we are as humans,” said Ruiz “If the work is giving you a form of representation that is transparent to your understanding about another human than what have you learned? How will you change?”

Throughout her work on campus as well as her years of study before UIUC, Ruiz has been writing a book of her own called “Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anti-colonial Performance.” This book was published recently in the summer of 2019 and explores performance within different identities based on the experiences of different Puerto Rican figures. 

“In the book, what I try to do is combine my two loves: activist and revolutionary protest and more experimental artists,” said Ruiz, “and try to think about what the existential affinity is between the artist and the revolutionary.”

In the different chapters, she focuses on forms of artistic performance like photography but also performances by key Puerto Rican activists like Lolita Lebrón. “I read her revolutionary action as a form of performance to talk about not only what she does in the name of liberation for the island,” said Ruiz “but also how she resists our understanding of sexuality and gender.”

Ruiz highlights Quuer women of color, like Lolita, was impactful to her work since they manage to find a space for themselves when they have so many things going against them. “I talk about how the only thing she owns is her death and she offers it for the liberation of the nation,” said Ruiz.

Ethan Madarieta, Ph.D. candidate in FAA and previous student of Ruiz, describes the book as a decolonial gesture. 

“It is a brilliant example of using a lot of white and western philosophy to think decoloniality,” Madarieta said.

“Ricanness is a theory that I would hope would work for all sites under siege,” Ruiz said. “All places that are trying to confront one master narrative, one colonial narrative, of how you should be, how you should perform, how you live your life.”

Throughout all the projects, galleries and classes she was part of, she emphasizes the need for these spaces for her students and how much they mean to her.

“Justice is not just down in the courtroom or through reparations or other things we imagine will set us free from oppression, it can happen by coming together and imagining, putting on a play, or putting on a gallery,” Ruiz said. “I absolutely love my students, graduate, undergraduate and I don’t say that lightly…they are my most important thinkers; they give me life.”

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