The Chicano movement of the 1960s and ’70s was the largest and most widespread Mexican American civil rights and empowerment movement up to that time. Los Angeles was a key location, and Raul Ruiz, while still a college student there, became a leader for a generation of Mexican Americans. Together, they directly challenged the American system to live up to its principles of equal rights for all.
“The Chicano movement began with no concept of membership. You weren’t a member of the movement; you were an activist in it. Our stress was on building not an organization, but a community-wide social movement,” Ruiz told me when I interviewed him for my book The Chicano Generation: Testimonios of the Movement.
As an activist, Ruiz was a Renaissance man. By this I mean that he was involved in almost every manifestation of the Chicano movement in Los Angeles. Most important was his role in the movement press. In the late 1960s, he became coeditor of the newspaper La Raza and transformed it into a monthly magazine that would become the premier publication for Chicanos. Under Ruiz, La Raza’s reporting on community issues fomented real change.
Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1940 to working-class Mexican immigrants, Ruiz came of age in L.A., where the family relocated in the 1950s. After a Catholic high school education in South-Central L.A., he attended Los Angeles State College, now Cal State Los Angeles. He studied Latin American history, which sparked the process of his becoming radicalized and politicized—a Chicano.
He joined the Chicano underground press in East Los Angeles, writing for La Raza and the newspaper Inside Eastside. He also started a community paper aimed at high school students called Chicano Student Movement. As a developing journalist, Ruiz assisted Sal Castro, a charismatic teacher at Lincoln High School who was inspiring Chicano students to consider dramatic action to challenge the discriminatory and inferior conditions at L.A.’s Eastside schools. The result was walkouts in March 1968 involving some 20,000 students, which forced the city’s board of education to begin negotiating on school reforms.
Ruiz also became a leader of Católicos por La Raza, challenging the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to use its wealth and power to improve conditions in the barrios. Católicos embarked on a series of demonstrations, including a large protest on Christmas Eve of 1969 outside the cardinal’s midnight mass. Police confronted the group, and the publicity from the event forced church officials to commence a dialogue with Católicos.
The Vietnam War became a key issue for the Chicano movement, as a disproportionate number of Chicanos were being drafted and killed. Ruiz and other leaders organized the National Chicano Anti-War Moratorium on August 29, 1970. He helped publicize the demonstration through La Raza, and between 20,000 and 30,000 people, mostly Chicanos, marched in East L.A. As police deputies attacked the rally, Ruiz took dramatic photos of the tear gas assault on the Silver Dollar Bar and Café that killed Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar.
“I didn’t hear the shots because there was so much noise from the disturbance down on the boulevard, including sirens and helicopters overhead,” Ruiz told me. “But I saw what was going on and took pictures. I didn’t even have to use a photo lens since I was so close. I also took pictures of the other deputies squatting behind their cars and behind a telephone post. They were right next to me.”
La Raza ran the headline “The Murder of Ruben Salazar” in English and Spanish, and Ruiz’s photos sparked outrage and led to an inquest on Salazar’s death. Ruiz testified that the police had caused the death of Salazar, but no criminal charges were filed against any of the officers.
Aside from being a journalist and an activist, Ruiz participated in another pivotal event: the creation of an independent Chicano political party. Distrustful of America’s two-party system, many Chicanos sought an organization that would better represent their interests—La Raza Unida Party. Ruiz twice ran for the California State Assembly as an RUP candidate, and while he didn’t win, he succeeded in using his campaigns to promote the issues of the Chicano movement.
Ruiz’s other contributions include helping to develop the field of Chicano studies. He was hired in the early 1970s as one of the first professors of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge, where he taught for four decades and influenced countless students.
In the post-movement years, Ruiz continued to be an activist. He stood up to anti-immigrant movements; he protested U.S. policies in Central America in the 1980s; he campaigned against U.S. wars in the Middle East; and he opposed the Trump administration’s racist policies.
What I admired most about Ruiz was that he was a fighter for social justice and for the betterment of the Chicano community. Raul Ruiz was my colleague and a friend, and I will miss him. But he will be remembered in history as a major leader of the Chicano movement. He still lives! Raul Ruiz, ¡Presente!
Mario T. García is a Distinguished Professor of Chicano Studies and History at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of more than 20 books on Chicano history.