Ruiz, who is among nine intellectuals nationwide selected this year for the prestigious honor, will receive the medal at a White House ceremony, after delivering brief remarks about his work at the headquarters of the National Endowment for the Humanities. A reception with the president and first lady will follow the ceremony.
The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1996, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened the engagement of American citizens with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand access to important resources in the humanities. Previous medalists have included Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison, novelist John Updike, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and author Elie Wiesel, and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
“I was greatly surprised,” said Ruiz, a distinguished professor in the UCLA departments of history and of Spanish and Portuguese, of his selection. “I felt the honor — a great honor — was undeserved and very much unexpected.”
A scholar who specializes in the social and cultural history of late medieval and early modern Spain, Ruiz was selected for his “inspired teaching and writing,” according to the announcement issued by the White House. “His erudite studies have deepened our understanding of medieval Spain and Europe, while his late examination of how society has coped with terror has taught important lessons about the dark side of Western progress,” the statement read.
“Teo brings to the historian’s craft not only immense creativity and skill, but a human touch, a feel for the joys and sorrows of average women, men and children,” said David Myers, chair of the UCLA Department of History. “It is in this human touch that his humanism — and passion for the humanities — is to be found.”
Ruiz has published, or has in press, 13 books and has written more than 60 articles in scholarly journals and hundreds of reviews and smaller articles.
His most recent book, “The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization” (Princeton University Press, September 2011) reflects on Western humanity’s efforts to cope with and make meaning of the world and its disturbing history — from the existential condition and natural disasters to the endless succession of wars and other man-made catastrophes. A dramatic synthesis of more than two millennia of history, the book was praised by Inside Higher Education for its “enormous erudition.”
Also last year, Ruiz co-edited of a volume that gathered 18th-century Franciscan friar Junipero Serra’s personal accounts of his voyages in California. The book was published in Spain.
Among his other books are “Crisis and Continuity: Land and Town in Late Medieval Castile” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), which was awarded the Premio del Rey prize by the American Historical Association as the best book on pre-1580 Spanish written in 1994–95; “Spanish Society, 1400–1600” (Longman, 2001); “From Heaven to Earth: The Reordering of Late Medieval Castilian Society” (Princeton University Press, 2004); “Medieval Europe and the World” (Oxford University Press, 2005), with the late Robin W. Winks; and “Spain: Centuries of Crises, 1300–1474” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).
“A King Travels,” a long study of festivals in late medieval and early modern Spain, is due out in March 2012 from Princeton University Press, and another book, a general history of the western Mediterranean, is under contract.
While revered as a medievalist, Ruiz also has a contemporary side. Since moving to Southern California 14 years ago, he has established himself as an authority on dowtown Los Angeles, giving informal tours of the area and teaching a popular UCLA undergraduate course on the subject.
“I am a lover of cities,” he said, “and I am attracted by the eclectic nature of Los Angeles architecture, most vividly in downtown L.A., and by its ethnic diversity.”
Ruiz was born in Cuba in 1943 to descendants of immigrants from Spain’s Old Castile region (today’s province of Burgos), which has figured prominently in his scholarship.
As a teenager, he was active in the Cuban Revolution, which in 1959 overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista. But after a friend was killed in 1960, he resigned from the revolution and was imprisoned. Following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he was released to make room for new prisoners of war. Ruiz left for Miami that year with “only three changes of clothing, $45, a box of Cuban cigars to sell and a Spanish translation of Jacob Burckhardt’s ‘A History of Greek Civilization.'”
By 1962, Ruiz and two cousins moved from Miami to New York City, where he worked at various jobs, including as a taxi driver. Despite many obstacles, he received his doctorate from Princeton University in 1974. During the 1970s, he traveled to Spain several times to conduct research in his family’s ancestral homeland.
Ruiz joined UCLA’s faculty in 1998 after teaching at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York Graduate Center, the University of Michigan, and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.
In addition to being selected for the National Humanities Medal, Ruiz this year is enjoying two other honors reserved for truly outstanding achievements over a lifetime of scholarship. He was one of 14 scholars nationwide selected by the preeminent honor society Phi Beta Kappa as a 2011–12 visiting scholar. As part of the program, which is designed to offer U.S. undergraduates the opportunity to spend time with some of America’s most distinguished scholars, he is visiting seven college campuses across the country through Feb. 17. He has been meeting with students, participating in classroom discussions and seminars, and giving lectures on a range of subjects.
At UCLA, Ruiz was one of two faculty members selected this year to deliver a faculty research lecture. The highest honor the university’s faculty bestows on a colleague, the lecture is designed to recognize the achievements of UCLA’s most distinguished scholars while giving the campus and greater community an opportunity to gain new perspectives on scholarly subjects. At his April 26 public lecture, Ruiz will discuss his recent research on festivals in medieval and early modern Spain.
Ruiz has enjoyed many accolades during his career. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and has served as a member of the ACLS board of directors. He was selected as one of four Outstanding Teachers of the Year in the U.S. for 1994–95 by the Carnegie Foundation, and in 2008, he was honored as a UCLA Distinguished Teacher.
Ruiz has been a frequent lecturer in Spain, Italy, France, England, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. He served as chair of the UCLA Department of History from 2002 to 2005 and as chair of the UCLA Department of Spanish and Portuguese in 2007–08.
“Teo is, in a certain sense, the embodiment of all that we hold dear in the UCLA History Department: excellent scholarship, fine and dedicated teaching, and committed service,” Myers said. “In the relatively short time that he has been at UCLA, Teo has inspired and recommitted many of us, his colleagues, to remember our joint calling as teachers, scholars and servants of the public mission. He also reminds us that it is not an obligation but rather a privilege to teach in a department as fine and diverse as ours.”
See also this lecture by Professor Ruiz: