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A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind

Teofilo Ruiz wastes no time grabbing his students' rapt attention. The acclaimed UCLA historian has been known to enter a medieval history class on the first day, sign his name on the board as "Stephen Dedalus" and initiate a lecture on James Joyce's Ulysses.

By Robin Keats for UCLA Magazine

When the students tell him that it is a history class, he gathers his things and leaves. And returns shortly afterwards. That, needless to say, gets their attention. But memorable class openers are far from the only way Ruiz gets his young charges to attend to his words. The Cuban-born scholar is hailed for his teaching style, his warmth, his scholarship, his books, his personal history—and the passion that is evident in everything he undertakes.

A Man of Honors

In February, the internationally recognized historian traveled to Washington, D.C., to be awarded the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony. The prestigious annual award 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.

According to a White House announcement, Ruiz's "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." Princeton University Press published Ruiz's new book, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization, last year.

The National Humanities Medal is only the latest in a series of honors that highlight Ruiz's career. He's been chosen as "Outstanding Master's Universities and Colleges Professor of the Year" by the Carnegie Foundation; been given the American Historical Association Biennial Award for the best book on Spanish history; was the 250th Anniversary Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton; been honored by the Institute for Advanced Study; received an NEH Fellowship; and was a Guggenheim Fellow. Articles and books (published in America and Europe)—including his latest, A King Travels: Festive Traditions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain—flow from his pen.

Bullets and Books

Born into a middle-class family, Ruiz grew up in Cuba in an environment that fostered learning. Seven of his aunts were teachers. His father, an attorney, had a library that was a transfer point where Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Sir Walter Scott entered his life. Across the street from his boyhood home was the Hemingway Farm that had an outdoor stone table at which he would sit and read. At 17, Ruiz joined the fight against the regime of Fulgencio Batista. "I was swept by the Revolution," he says. "It had a tremendous impact on my life and my point of view, and it still does."

But when a friend was killed in 1960, Ruiz became disaffected in the swirl of revolutionary events. He walked away from the revolution—and in April 1961 was arrested and thrown in jail. Ruiz was eventually released after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion that same month. In October of 1961, he immigrated to Miami and then moved to New York City, where he attended City College of New York (now City University of New York, or CUNY) and supported himself by driving a cab and working at Continental Can Company. In 1974, Ruiz received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He taught at Brooklyn College, Princeton, the CUNY Graduate Center, the University of Michigan, and France's prestigious Ecole des hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences). In 1998, Ruiz joined the faculty at UCLA.

A Native Son Returns

It has taken a half-century for Ruiz to return to the land of his birth. He traveled to Cuba on a UCLA Alumni Association excursion this past winter. "I had two sets of memories, [of] what was and [of] what is," he says of the trip. "Walking through my hometown [just outside of Havana] was depressing. And it was also exhilarating."

In an account of this odyssey written for friends, Ruiz says, "I could not or would not return in the early years because of threats to my freedom. Then, the restrictions imposed by the Cuban government on those Cubans wishing to visit the island kept me away. Finally, already old, I continuously reminded myself of how much I needed—for a whole series of complex issues—to take this sojourn. Yet, always at the very last moment, some other voyage beckoned, and I kept postponing and/or delaying the trip... If I resisted my return, it was because I fully understood and feared the psychological impact of such re-encounter with my lost youth, of the probable erasure that may occur of my carefully nurtured memories of my early life, of places, people, and events."

Such an erasure did not occur. His boyhood home seemed much smaller to him now, as it does for all those who go home again. Still, Ruiz came to terms with his personal history.

"I had not cried at the sight of my hometown's ruins," he writes. "I, who do not cry for the dead, cried at the shimmering beauty of the place that had once been my home and was, finally, home again."

History Through a Poet's Eyes

Teo Ruiz also speaks of another, more abstract but just as unique geography—the place where poetry and history converge. "Keats, Byron and Shelley wrote in a time of incredible upheaval," the scholar explains. "The poet's work is always linked to historical context."

Poetry is integral to the context of his perspectives on history and beliefs (and lack of belief). He quotes Baudelaire and Rimbaud and enjoys the playfulness of language that's at the core of e.e. cummings' work. His thoughts mix and merge with those of Yeats, Browning and Dylan Thomas, as well as lesser-known poets like James Thomson.

Raised as a Catholic, he became an atheist. Raised middle class, he became egalitarian. He is a pessimist whose outlook is betrayed by exuberance. Looking back at his youth, for example, Ruiz sees passion that may have been naïve, but which came to be informed and persistent. "I was very political when I was 18 or 19, in the first year of the Cuban Revolution," he recalls. "I was absolutely convinced that I could change the world. Now, as I know, the world has changed me. But I never gave up that idea. I have a combative attitude."

That attitude is apparent in his opinion of the world. "There is no monument of civilization that is not a monument of barbarism," he says, in a self-conscious quotation of the left-wing thinker Walter Benjamin. And, again, there is no contradiction or contraindications in his thoughts. It is just Teo Ruiz looking at life through both sides of a well-honed lens and reporting as accurately as he can.

"The things that are beautiful, that move us and change us are also essentially painful," he says. "The capturing of that moment in time in which you can see into the heart…that is beautiful and painful. Whatever is beautiful, we grasp for the moment—like the sunset. It is that instant we comprehend and then it withdraws and we are left bereft."

Ruiz loves the warm sun and the sunsets of L.A. and the way it graces his embrace of life and learning. The man who adores Bach, who calls his weathered cell phone "Jurassic," who has read Harry Potter and has been captivated by the intrigues of Masterpiece Theatre has much history to examine, much to write and so many still yet to teach to even consider attempting to set a slower pace.

"The art of writing is an act of prolonging our lives," Ruiz says. "So is the art of teaching. We remember our writers, our teachers. As long as you remember me, as I always tell my students, I am alive."