December 4, 2010
LESLIE KELEN: Which one of you would like to describe the project?
JOSUE: I'll do it. Well, we're from ``Faces and Voices of Chicano/Latino Leaders'' project. We are high school students, and we interview people—leaders from the Latino community—to learn about their lives and the process of [their] moving between adulthood and childhood. We'll [try to] make [this] a conversation [between us].
RUBY CHACON: I want you guys to feel at home here, okay? 'Cause I'm a stranger to you right now, but I just want you to feel at home. And the three of you are students, right?
LESLIE: Why don't you guys introduce yourselves?
LUIS: I'm Luis Carillo—I go to West and I'm a sophomore.
JOSUE: I'm Josue Barilla—I go to West, too. I'm a junior and I'm half Puerto Rican and half Guatemalan.
ETHAN: Ethan Glenn and I go to AMES [Academy for Math, Engineering, and Science].
RUBY: My name is Ruby Chacon and I don't go to school right now, but I did in the past. I'm a mom and a spouse, and I guess I have multiple roles—[as] an artist, activist, community member, and co-founder of Mestizo. Yeah, that's me, in a nutshell. What about you, Les?
LESLIE: Well, I'm a facilitator, trying to…
RUBY: But you are part of the circle. So we need to know who you are.
LESLIE: Right, I'm Leslie Kelen. I'm the Director of the Center for Documentary Expression and Art, and we have the good fortune to be doing this project with our partner, the Utah Coalition of La Raza. We started [interview preparation] in the summer [of 2010], and now we're in the full process of the interviews. We've been out in the Chicano/Latino community since the beginning of this 2010-2011 school year, and this interview will be our last interview for 2010. Next year, we're going to reassess [the project] and see how we proceed to complete the work. So, Luis, why don't you get us on the road?
LUIS: My question is when were you born?
RUBY: When was I born? I was born April 18, 1971, here in Salt Lake City, at the University of Utah. I actually can tell you a little story about my birth, if you want. Just to go into a little bit of detail here. When I was born, my mom and dad decided to name me Monique Ruby 'cause Ruby was actually after my Aunt Ruby. And my dad didn't like my aunt, and my dad wouldn't pick my mom up from the hospital. She got pissed off at him, and out of spite she changed my name at the last minute to Ruby Monique, so that's how I got my name. My mom's has a temper; so don't piss her off. She'll do something that'll really get to you [laughs].
JOSUE: Tell me a little bit something interesting about you.
RUBY: Something interesting about me—well, I don't know. I guess something interesting would be something you guys probably don't already know, 'cause you already know that I'm an artist, right? Let's see, what don't you guys know about me? Well, I can tell you that when I was your guys' age, I had a really difficult time seeing myself graduating from high school. I didn't, I guess the interesting thing is, I guess my upbringing kind of defined my paintings, because I felt like because my stories—and I don't think I learned this until later, but the stories that were absent in the schools and absent in public places, like museums and galleries, that reflected my family and my history, were, because they were absent, I couldn't see myself as a part of [the world around me], and so I really had a difficult time seeing myself get through school. The only story that really penetrated my family's lives and my life was the stuff that was kind of portrayed in the media, which is very negative, stereotypical, [and] fear-based. Consequently, I really did think that my destiny was to either be locked up somewhere, eventually be locked up, or be what my mom does, which is clean for a living, clean hospitals for a living. I just did not see myself as going to college [or] as graduating from high school. I saw myself as a single mom. And it seems really strange, but that was really what was in my mind, that that was what I identified with, and I think because those dignified stories weren't there. They were absent. We weren't in the history books, and I didn't actually get to know my history until I was about 27 years old and after I graduated college, and I think that's a real tragedy. I think it's atrocious to have somebody go through their whole educational experience and never seeing yourself as part of [this larger world], I think that's just horrible. And so that's why I think this project is so important, because these stories need to be documented because I think it's the livelihood, I think it's the lifeline and livelihood for future generations to know that they come from something that's very beautiful, very dignified, and it's not just what the media portrays, because we're much more than that. So is that interesting enough?
ETHAN: So tell us about your parents when you were growing up.
RUBY: Oh, I tell you, that's a hard question. That gets a little personal. My mom was a single mom but I do have a father who I, I mean I do—but it's not to say that I don't love my father. I recently have connected pretty well with him. [But] he was kind of in and out when we were little. I think I was just a little elementary school [kid] and I never saw him very much. So my mom was a single mom. There were six of us, six kids, and we were all a year to a year-and-a-half apart, so we were like steps. So really what I saw as a kid was my mom was always working. She was always absent because she was always working, because she was trying to support us, and we pretty much raised each other. I was number five, and so I think it was, for me, it was, we were all still kind of growing, and so we were pretty mean to each other. In fact, we were really mean to each other. We would call each other names and fight all the time—physically fight all the time. I saw my oldest brother, the first-born, as kind of father figure, because there was a little bit more years apart from us that he was always the disciplinary and always the one that, I think, always kept me kind of straight. All my sisters ended up being teen moms, and because of that, I think he saw that he had to protect me. So he wouldn't let anybody come near me. I hated it when I was growing up, but I am thankful for it now. So, our parents, I guess I could say, were really, as far as financially and emotionally, [they were absent]. And my oldest brother, I mean, I saw him as a kind of father figure. I feel really bad saying that. I really have a hard time talking about it because I never want to disrespect my father, and I was raised never to talk bad about my father because he's my father. That's the father I was given and I shouldn't judge him for it. And later on, I kind of started to understand why my father made the decisions he made, and I know it wasn't easy for him. I know he had a really rough history. They grew up during the time when segregation was legal and when they were hit for speaking Spanish and couldn't drink from the same fountains and were forced to sit in the back of the classes, weren't allowed to ride the buses. I didn't know this until, like I said, I was 27 years old and I went to go ask my family kind of about my father because I wanted to understand [him]. And I didn't know he had a brother who was married before my mom, and he had a brother that was killed because his wife was driving and the truck tipped over on his brother. And he was the pride of the family because everybody thought that he was gonna be a priest, and so when he died it really devastated the family. He had another brother that died from an illness, and I started to understand why my father couldn't get close to us, you know, just a lot of loss, a lot of people close to him dying. You know to this day I know he loves me but he would never tell me or even express it, but I know he does. So that's a little bit about my father. My mother's just really very expressive—very. She says what's on her mind, always. Sometimes it's hurtful and sometimes it's great. She's very passionate, very loving. And she didn't have an education. She only went to the second grade, so I see a lot with my mother and father in their personalities. I saw a lot of internalized racism going on with my father because they were really tortured in school, and my mother only went to the second grade, so I see a lot from her. I [also] see that her identity is still intact. And so back in the day school was really harmful to somebody's identity because you weren't treated [well]. I still think that goes on today, too—probably. I don't know if it's to a lesser degree or not, probably more subtle 'cause it's not legal, but it's still harmful to somebody's dignity.
LUIS: So how were you like as a child?
RUBY: How was I? I had, wow, okay, as a child, well, I always liked to draw, I was always getting in trouble for drawing on the walls, for carving my name in the furniture. I was always drawing—I remember that. And I think that's the part that kind of saved me a little bit, because I was able to kind of put all that anger that I had inside of me that was going on around me into something. And I had a really bad temper when I was young. I had a really bad temper. And I think I was just very sensitive, so I would either cry or just get angry and want to hit somebody. [Laughs] So, yeah, I mean I was, but I guess I would consider myself very passionate like my mom, but at the same time very reserved and kinda shy like my dad. It took me years in public or with people that I didn't know—it took me years to kind of be comfortable in my own skin and be able to not be so shy. It may not show now, but I was very, just chronically shy, and my dad's that way. So I guess as a child I had a little bit of my mom and a little bit of my dad.
JOSUE: So have you seen your father lately?
RUBY: Oh, yeah, I see them; I see them periodically.
JOSUE: What are your conversations like?
RUBY: Very brief, they're very brief. I mean, for him to have a conversation with me for like five or ten minutes means that whatever we're talking about is very important to him, because he doesn't talk. I mean he doesn't… So it's kind of—and honestly I think I have a relationship to
my father just through those brief encounters, but also because through my aunt and uncle when they tell me stories about him I get to know him more. I didn't learn anything I know about my father through my father. [Laughs]
ETHAN: Do you have any really memorable childhood memories, anything really specific?
RUBY: I guess speaking with my father. I remember [when I was] really little going fishing with him. That was a nice memory, just fishing with my dad. And I remember a lot of fighting. My sisters used to fight all the time and used to fight every weekend with girls. They'd always have mean fights. So there was always a lot of fights—my brothers and sisters were angry, and for good reason.
LESLIE: What kind of fights were they?
RUBY: Just fights…
LESLIE: Were they fist fights?
RUBY: Yeah, and I hate to say it because I'm trying to think, I have good memories, I'm sure, but I do remember a lot of just fighting. I remember when, I guess, the first time I was afraid of losing one of my brothers and sisters when my brother was stabbed like 11 times, and …
LESLIE: Well, what happened?
RUBY: He lived….
LESLIE: No, what happened to cause that…?
RUBY: Oh, just a fight at a party, a fight at a party. And he ended up getting stabbed. And then I guess some guy saw him bleeding and called the ambulance and he ended up living. Stuff like that, I don't—it was really hard being a kid. Oh, God, why do you guys ask me these questions? Jeez, it was hard. It was really hard being a kid.
LESLIE: This is your older brother?
RUBY: Yeah, and same with my other brother, he was shot before. I just remember a lot of things like that, like they were vulnerable. I felt very vulnerable as a kid. I felt, it's so weird 'cause there's so many contradictions growing up. I felt really loved, like I feel like my family, we loved each other so much; and we still love each other and are really close. But at the same
time, I felt really unsafe and vulnerable. And I know that none of us felt comfortable in school.
I don't feel there were a lot of options for us. I can just tell you, I'd never want to be young again. I'd never want to be young, ever, again, because it was just too, it was too much being young for me. It was really hard to get through because I didn't—and it has no blame towards my mom or my dad, because my mom, with the tools that she had, she did everything she could for us and I know that. And my brothers and sisters, we tried to look out for each other, but we were really young and we could be mean when we parented each other. So I think it's the circumstances, having a single mom, so many kids and just being poor. I mean, we didn't have the resources that other kids had. So we just kinda were left with each other.
LUIS: So how was high school for you, like…?
RUBY: It was torture [laughs]. I want to talk about something positive here, 'cause I'm really a very positive person now. But it was torture—yeah, it was torture. I started out at South High and I just wanted, [in] 9 th grade just wanted to have fun and made bad choices, so just kinda hung out with my friends, didn't go to class. And so I tried to actually, I remember the first time my brother talked me to about I had to be the one—because my younger sister ended up, she was pregnant, she was in 8 th grade and she was pregnant, and I was the only one that didn't have kids, and so he wanted me to, he was like, "You have to be the one to get through school." I'll never forget that conversation, because I wanted to be [the one], I just didn't know how. I couldn't see myself being the one, I couldn't see myself in school because I just didn't see, it wasn't in the picture for me, how people like me didn't get through school, I thought, back in those times. So I took myself out of South. I had like, 'cause my mom didn't, like I said before, she didn't go through the school system so she didn't really know how to get me through and anytime the school would send a letter or whatever, I would be the one to read it to her so I could easily manipulate her, and so she wouldn't know if I was going to school or not. So I took myself out, asked permission to the board of education to go to a different school so I could set myself on a better path. I ended up switching schools to Granite, [and] ended up getting the worst counselor you can imagine. This woman shouldn't have ever even interacted with children, ever. But she would tell me on a daily basis—she would call me into her office and tell me that there was no way I was gonna graduate anyway, so I may as well just give up. And I just heard my brother's voice, [and] I just couldn't [give in]. I would go to school with my stomach twisting, not wanting to be there, but knowing that I had to be there and then having this counselor that would constantly tell me that I wasn't gonna graduate anyway, and I wanted to drop out so bad. But I just didn't want to hurt my mom and I didn't want to hurt my family. So that's the reason why I stayed. I mean, my family was really my inspiration to keep me there, and I saw a few people drop out, students of color that dropped out because she told them the same thing, and I really believed her, like I believed her that I wasn't gonna graduate. And so like my senior year when the list of seniors that were `gonna graduate were on there, I looked at it and I saw my name there, I really thought that they made a mistake. Because my counselor kept telling me I wasn't `gonna graduate, and after that list came up, she never called me in her office again. I ended up graduating, and I just think this woman is just like the worst human being that you can ever imagine. I mean I just can't imagine treating young people like that, it's just horrific. But I hated it because of that experience. I was told pretty much that I didn't belong there, and I'm really lucky I had my family to kind of push me, because if I didn't have my family, I think I probably would have dropped out. So, yes, it was terrible.
LESLIE: Did you have some positive teachers, too? Was it balanced at all in the schools?
RUBY: In elementary school I had a really good experience. I had one teacher that was awful, but I had a really good experience in elementary school with the principal. I'll never forget him, because he was always there. He was always there talking to me and made me feel like I mattered. And then I think probably because of his leadership I had good teachers. So I had a really good experience in elementary school. It was when I went to junior high and high school that it just went downhill. Back in those days there weren't a lot of students of color, and I think this perpetuated the negative stereotypes, I think that impacts people's psyche and what they think about you. And I felt it—I wasn't an idiot—I felt it and so it was really awful. I hated it, and I know my brothers and sisters went through the same thing, I know they did. I know that's why they couldn't make it through school because it's emotional torture. When you're so young and you're trying to form your identity, trying to make sense of it, and you have adults that are supposed to be professionals taking care of you who you know that they think you're not going to amount to anything, then it's kinda like—well, maybe they're right. I mean, they are the professionals; they're the ones with degrees, right? My counselor had doctor in front of her name, and so at the time I really thought that I really didn't want to go to college because I didn't want to be like the people that treated us the way we were treated. And so it was really an internal battle for me to finally go to college, and I was lucky that I went to Santa Barbara to change that whole psyche, because I ended up getting a Chicano counselor who was very supportive. I thought [the] counselors' jobs were to tell you why you couldn't be something, because that was my experience. But when I got this counselor in Santa Barbara who was Chicano, he didn't do that, and it changed my whole idea of maybe I could go to college. So I was lucky I ended up going to Santa Barbara for my first taste of what it meant to go to a community college.
JOSUE: How was your experience in college—`cause what I read [in the pre-interview notes] says, you were ``looking forward to seeing fine guys''?
RUBY: [Laughs] That was in Santa Barbara. I went to Santa Barbara because one of my best friends asked me to move out there with her, and I wanted to go out there to see more boys that I was interested in there. I ended up seeing a lot of students that looked like me, a counselor that looked like me, and it was really important that I went there. Aside from that, I ended up coming back here 'cause it was just really hard to [settle in]. I was 18 years old and I had two jobs and was going to school full time, and then I was away from my family for the first time, so it was hard for me because I was so young. But it was important at the same time because I ended up growing and seeing that I belong somewhere. I ended up going there just for a semester and then coming back. It was my first 4.0, by the way—my first semester in Santa Barbara. And so it makes a different when you have people that are on your side. But then I came back here and I don't think I really made the decision—I know this is not what you're asking, but I didn't really make the decision to go to college until I started going to community college. I felt like, okay, maybe I could go there, but I was still kind of one step in, one step out. Then I met my husband. I was room mating with my sister at the time and I met my husband, who is my husband today, my future husband then, and I needed to get away from my younger sister. She was still wanting to do the parties and everything all the time and I was working. I just was tired of coming home to parties. So [when] I met my husband we ended up moving in together, because I didn't have any other options. I didn't want to move back in with my mom, not because I don't get along with my mom, but because my mom didn't understand school. She thought if you're doing homework you're being lazy. So I didn't want to be working and coming home and cleaning and not being able to put time into school. So I moved in with my husband but I ended up getting pregnant. It was not planned. I was about 20, and so when I got pregnant, we decided we had something more important to finish school for. We decided—`cause my husband was the first in his family to get a high school diploma, too—we decided we wanted to make sure our son didn't have the same problems trying to navigate the school system. So we decided that if we were gonna show our son to live his dreams, we would have to do it first. That's why we made the decision to finish school. But it was hard. I mean, it wasn't until the end when I was about to graduate that my mind really opened to feeling like I could be active in my education. When I started I was more passive—going because I was supposed to. So I had good times and difficult times, and I wasn't like a single college student. I was a young mom going to school, so I had to figure it out. I didn't know the language of school, so it was hard but at the same time good.
LESLIE: Let me ask you: Did you start your artwork in college?
RUBY: Oh, I started at the community college when I met Terry, my husband.
LESLIE: How did the world of art weave its way into your life?
RUBY: Well, I was taking [courses] at the community college and I refused to go see a counselor 'cause I knew I was back in Utah and I was really afraid of counselors. I thought I was `gonna get the same kind of counselor [I had in high school]. So I started taking random classes. I didn't know about any of the degrees—I was afraid to go see a counselor. So I would take a ton of art classes until I figured out what I wanted to do. I didn't know what I was gonna do—and then I would show Terry [my husband] my art. I showed him the stuff that I was doing, and he told me, "Why don't you major in art?" But nobody told me you could get a degree in art. I didn't know you could get a degree in art. When I figured that out, that's when I decided I was gonna major in art. And then I applied to the U. Well, this is an interesting, too. My husband is Caucasian, white, and I'm Chicana. We applied at the same time to the University of Utah. I had a higher GPA than Terry, at the time. He got accepted and I got denied, and he was pissed. He told me to appeal it, and I didn't know you could argue something. I didn't even know what the word "appeal" meant, back in the day. I thought that was a really strange thing, you can actually ask somebody [to look into it]. I thought "No" meant ``No.'' That's it. I didn't know you could actually argue it. So I did and they ended up letting me in. It's weird, huh?
ETHAN: Was it pretty difficult raising a child, working two jobs, and then going to college?
RUBY: I was working two jobs when I didn't have a child. So [later] I worked part time, and I just went to school. Yeah, it was very difficult.
JOSUE: How old is your kid?
RUBY: Right now he's 18. That's him [pointing to a painting in the house]. He's a musician, too, and he ended up being an artist, just like us.
JOSUE: Where is he at right now?
RUBY: He's in his first year of college in Sacramento and [he] wants to study music. He's doing great, he's kicking butt in school. But you were asking, was it hard? Yeah. [Laughs] It was really hard. You know, the interesting thing is, my husband and I applied for welfare, 'cause we weren't making it. I mean we were struggling, and we couldn't get any help—because they said that one of us could drop out of school and work full time. And we made a commitment that we were both gonna get through school, so we just said screw it. I think it was a blessing in disguise, because I think that mentally welfare can make you feel like you're less than, like you're not worth anything. But, yeah, we struggled. We starved half the time, and we made sure our son was fed first. But it was hard. I worked at his daycare so we could get free daycare, part time, and then worked for income as well. So it was pretty difficult, but it's doable. I mean, we did it; you can do it. I figured, yeah, I grew up with not a lot of money so I could do this. You know, I was prepared my whole life to be able to live with almost nothing, so I could be a student. And that actually helped me make my decision to be an artist, 'cause I figured I know how to live off nothing, so I know I can be an artist. I know I can build my business as an artist, 'cause I know how to live off nothing. Sometimes those things are good, sometimes you can turn—I feel like you can turn a lot of those things you thought were your liabilities in your life, you can turn them into your assets. They can be something that prepares you for your next phase in life. So I think anything that happened to me as a child, even though it was difficult, I think those things really helped me become who I am today. I mean, had I grown up in a privileged family, I think it would have been harder to make the decision to be an artist, in fact.
LUIS: How did you feel when you got your degree?
RUBY: Which one?
LUIS: The art one.
RUBY: The art? I was really happy that it was finally done! But, honestly, I can really tell you that the high school diploma was more memorable for me, because it was like the first big wall that I knocked down inside me. I'll always remember that day. My mom just cried, and it was just the most [memorable], because I had somebody there tell me I couldn't do it, the whole time I was there, and I did it, and so it was the most memorable. The college—I don't think my family really understood college, so it wasn't as big of a deal to them. I mean, I think it was a big deal, but I think they didn't understand the degree as they did the high school diploma. So emotionally I think the high school one was a lot more memorable for me than the college degree, if that makes sense. But I know it sounds strange. But personally, I think it was a good feeling. Even though I couldn't really share it with my family, it was still good. I still felt really good because I accomplished something. Nobody in my family even went to college, my immediate family, 'cause I have cousins that have gone to college.
JOSUE: Where is your husband?
RUBY: Where is he? He's in Korea right now. He's a writer, so he's in Korea. We both made the decision that in order for him to get some writing done, he needs to be away and also make income, so he's teaching English and writing the book.
JOSUE: When you celebrate the holidays with your family, like Christmas, Thanksgiving, how were those experiences?
RUBY: You mean recently, or at any time?
JOSUE: Back when you were with your brothers and sisters and mom?
RUBY: That's kind of a multi-layered answer, 'cause in different stages it's different. Growing up, I didn't care about any of that because we didn't really have the money to do any of that, so we really couldn't celebrate it that much. My birthday was more important than anything, when I was young, because Christmas has become such a commercialized, what does everybody get [holiday]. Of course other families can [provide]; we had Sub for Santa every year, so I didn't care about Christmas. That wasn't a big deal for me. Now I think it's more about being a family for me—it's kinda reshaped and redefined in my life. A lot of those holidays are religious holidays and I'm not religious, but I celebrate them because it's important to some people in my family. So I would say there is a phase in my life as an adult that it was really hard to be during the holidays with family, because my siblings, my brother ended up getting locked up and in and out of prison, and my sisters had an illness, a drug addiction, and a lot of the drug addiction ended up permeating a lot of my family members, and so it became difficult. Now it's more calm. My sister is clean and sober. She's actually living with me. I'm really proud of her…
LESLIE: The one [shown in the painting] behind you?
RUBY: No, she died—both my brother and my sister died from a drug overdose. So it was really hard, but I'm happy to have my sister with me. It's a good time to bond. So I guess it's kinda different phases, depending on where family and everybody is. I try to keep myself emotionally apart sometimes 'cause that's the only way I can function.
JOSUE: Does she live with you in your house?
RUBY: Yeah. She's doing really well, so I'm really happy to be with my sister.
JOSUE: How old is your sister?
RUBY: She's like 38.
JOSUE: What does she do?
RUBY: She lives here but she's trying to get back into going to school. She's got about six months sobriety right now, so she's trying to find out what she's gonna be doing. My older brother and my other sister live in Seattle. So it's just my younger sister here now. This last Thanksgiving was really nice, 'cause there's no party, nobody was using. I have learned to appreciate the moments I have with family while they're present mentally. I've learned to be able to do that, because I know when they're using I can't be around it. I just have to separate myself, and that's really hard. But I know it's an illness, too.
ETHAN: Are there any aspects of your parents that you see a lot in yourself?
RUBY: Yeah, I think I'm shy like my dad and very passionate like my mom. I think if my mom and dad would have had the same opportunities, I don't know what they would be doing. In researching my family history, I know there's a creative seed in both sides. When I went back to research my dad's side, I have a great-grandmother that used to paint her cupboards, and my grandpa was a sheepherder (this is my dad's dad), and even though he wasn't formally educated he was into poetry. His wife would write down his poetry. And his brother was a sheepherder, too, and he used to draw. On my mom's side, my uncle used to play the guitar, and I have an uncle that used to paint all the time, but none of them were formally trained, but I know that maybe my mom and dad would have had some of that. They probably could have been creative, too, but they didn't have the same opportunities I had, so I think I probably got that from them.
LUIS: How did you decide what you wanted to be in your life?
RUBY: Well, like I said, I decided I was `gonna major in art when I found out that I could, 'cause I knew that that's something that was always in my life. But I didn't really decide that I was gonna be an artist until my nephew died. And the reason why, I think I mentioned that I was a bit passive in my education, but the first time I started questioning how my identity was formed and how our stories were told was when they printed articles about my nephew surrounding his death, and I couldn't believe the stories that they told about my nephew. They printed pretty much gossip of the neighborhood, but they printed it as if it were fact. I remember having family members come by and tell me to be careful of the media because they would say things that weren't gonna be true. Sure enough, I didn't really understand until it actually happened. So they said things like my sister was gonna defend the guy that killed her son, in court, and I was so angry at that. And that was the first time I started questioning—these people don't even know who we are and they're telling our story and everybody's believing it. So that's when I decided I was gonna use my skill as an artist and tell my own story through painting, through visual arts. And that's when I decided I was gonna go talk to my grandfather, who was still alive, and ask him about our history, about his story. That's when I got to know my father's story, because I was just really sick inside about what was being told about people I loved, and about a child who was three years old… Everything surrounding his whole identity at three years old was like just horrific, and that's when I decided I was gonna be more active and be an artist and really use my skill as an artist.
JOSUE: How do you see yourself now?
RUBY: How do I see myself? Oh, you guys ask really hard questions! I don't know. I guess I just am. I think it's really important for my family that I identify as an artist and I am who I am, the label part of it, because we're really proud. But for me, I just try to live on a daily basis. I can tell you now that I feel like I have a lot more options. I feel like there's a whole world of possibilities that I never thought I had.
I feel like anything is possible… Now I've been to places that I never thought I'd ever go. I mean, I'm a kid from Salt Lake City, Utah. I'd never even gone out of the state until I was a teenager, and now I've been to Asia, Central America and several states of the U.S. I never thought I would be able to go to different countries or different places, never thought that in a million years, and I feel like now there's a lot more possibility out there. Whatever I put my mind to, I can do. I feel like I really want to not let my mind put limitations on myself, because I think it did that growing up. I know how to do that, so I feel like I have spent years trying to train myself not to do that because it's never served me. And I just want to tell you one story about the first time I realized how powerful the mind is. When we were really, really young we decided that we were gonna do everything opposite from what we learned. And so what we did is we used to make collages, and we'd put up images of how we wanted our life, nothing negative, just what we wanted. And we also put quotes of inspiration everywhere in our house. I remember the first time I saw things that were in my collage coming into my life. It was really strange, and that's the first time I realized, oh, my God, what I put inside my mind is very important. So now I just try to live my life not allowing negative things to come into my mind and not interpreting the world that way, because you really have a choice on how you want to see the world. You really do. I didn't think I did, but I know now because of the stuff that has gone on in my life and the stuff that I've accomplished—stuff I thought I could never do and I have done. And so on a daily basis I just try to be—it sounds crazy or corny probably—but be one with myself and center myself every single day, and just approach the day with love. And no matter what the situation is, the people I interact with, whatever, to approach the situation with love, knowing that everybody has love inside them, because you can always see the negative part of people.
LESLIE: The losses you've had—there have been many of them—how have you turned them around? Your art seems to play into this, too.
RUBY: I think it's the same idea—with love. I mean, I feel really weird about talking about it, 'cause love can be a very loaded word but at the same time a very empty word, you know what I mean? I don't know. But I don't want to underestimate how difficult it is to have someone that's really close to you, [and] you lose them. I'd never want to wish that upon anybody; it's just the hardest thing. But I think what's really helped me is what I've done with that pain. I feel like when I paint my sister and I paint my brother, I paint them based on how I feel for them. And I think it's kinda helped me through my grief, but at the same time it's something that I really can't even put into words. It's almost like when they were alive, I had moments with them when they were clean and not clean, right, and it was challenging. But when they died it took some time, of course, to accept it. But [during the painting] I almost felt as if we're having conversations together, like we're closer. It sounds crazy, but like we're closer and I talk to them and I'm painting them, it's like I am giving them a new life, the life that I feel for them, through the love that I feel for them in my paintings. It's really hard to describe. It's like I have a new relationship with my brother and sister and my nephew. I don't know if what I said makes sense.
LESLIE: I think it makes sense.
RUBY: And I just count my blessings [for] the times that I did have with them, it's the only thing I have, so I feel like I can't think of it as something—I mean, of course, I do feel loss. But
I can't always keep my heart in loss because if I do, then I can't move forward.
ETHAN: So how do you see yourself as like a community leader or an activist, or what you are in the community?
RUBY: I try not to see myself through the public's eye. I feel humbled a little bit when people do know me, and they come up to me. I feel actually just really humbled because, you know, I'm still that chola back in the day when I was 15, 16 years old. I'm still that girl, and I,
of course, never had people treat me the way they treat me now. I feel like people treat me better, but now I don't really need that. What I need is for me to love me, but anytime I give a talk, anytime I'm interacting with the public or whatever, I interact in a way that's kind of whatever is important for them, because I don't really see myself any different than you or you guys. I know that it's really important for my mom, my role in the community, she's really proud so she likes to say a lot of things, so I give that to her, but at the same time to me it's humbling. I don't really like to think of myself as separate, I mean I think when you call yourself a leader or whatever, I think that separates you from somebody else, and I don't feel separate from anybody, so I don't identify that way. But I know other people identify me that way, and so I accept that because I think, like my mom, I think that's what she needs. I don't know if what I'm saying makes sense to any of you guys…
LESLIE: Everything you're saying makes sense.
RUBY: Okay. But I just see myself as a regular human being, like you. I think people get a little pissed off at me—the people I love get a little bit annoyed because they think I should flaunt things a little more, and I don't like that. It's a way of separating myself from people. I don't like it. So it's two-fold. On a personal level, I don't see myself as a leader; on a people that love me sort of level I know that it's important to them so if people need to identify me that way then I'm fine with it. I'm fine with it. Does that make sense? I don't know.
LUIS: So how did Mestizo come to be?
RUBY: Mestizo came to be because of the stuff I was finding out about my family and the stories that I was finding out. I started to notice there were no public spaces that told a dignified story that showed images that represented us, and so we formed Mestizo to do just that, to give people a space where they could tell their own stories in a dignified perspective through art. It was a lot of work, too, I mean it's still a lot of work, it really is. But I think it's very important for the community because I think there's not gonna be any healing unless people are allowed to tell their stories, unless they have a voice, and so that's the reason why Mestizo exists.
JOSUE: Who came up with the name Mestizo?
RUBY: I think it was my husband and I.
JOSUE: Why that name?
RUBY: I'm trying to remember—back in the day, we just wanted to make sure that we embraced every part of our identity, our native side as well as the Spanish side, even though it is kind of a messed-up history, being a colonized people through the Spaniards. But it's our history, it's a reality, it's the real picture. And also because the Mexican muralists redefined the term Mestizo, and I now know that Mestizo was part of the system the Spaniards placed where they tried to identify people through a caste system in order to push out people with darker skin. But then there's this empowerment: we have the ability to change and redefine our identity, and Mestizo means "mixed," and so we have that mixed history. So that's why we chose that word. Also, I think most people in the world are Mestizo. I think that's the best answer I can give you.
JOSUE: Yeah. That's good.
ETHAN: Would you say Mestizo is really successful in what you wanted to do?
RUBY: I don't know. The first time we started Mestizo it was right after 9/11 and the Olympics were here and it was really hard financially to keep it going. Now, when we opened it again, the recession hit and it's been a real big struggle. I think it's successful with the tools that we've had. You know we've had no funding, almost no funding; it's been really living off the love of the community, the volunteers who really believe in it. So it is what it is, but I would like it to do more. I think if we had resources that we could do a lot. So I guess it depends on what you mean by success. I think from the tools it's had, it's been very successful.
LESLIE: What's the feedback that you get on Mestizo, Ruby, from the community?
RUBY: You know, when we first opened, I think people really loved it and, of course, they feel like it's a space of belonging, people feel really great there. And that was our intention, to create a space where people felt like they belong. But at the same time, the criticism we did have in the very beginning, we don't hear this much any more, was that we're exclusive. I think what people meant was that it's not a space for white people. It's not true because we've actually had a mix of exhibits with all different backgrounds, but I think what happened is that people's fears started to come into place when they weren't used to seeing a space from a brown lens, even though, based on our mission statement, it's not about race or ethnicity at all. It's about having artists engage the community through their work and [who] are from underrepresented communities. And that's where communities of color and sexual orientation and whatever that means to people [come in], as well as artists who use art as a tool for social change. So that can be anybody, but I think because the art asks as lot of questions, and sometimes those questions are uncomfortable, I think that was a reactionary response. Now we don't get that as much. I'm not sure why. Maybe people are getting used to it, accepting it. But in the beginning I think it was uncomfortable for some people that weren't used to having a space from a brown lens.
LUIS: What kind of art does Mestizo have?
RUBY: It has all kind of art. Mainly, as far as the gallery is concerned, we've been exhibiting paintings and photography. So we've had emerging artists, new artists, established artists, graffiti artists, photographers, and it just depends on the artist, because we want to make sure that the artist's voice is heard. So it's really important for us that we don't define the space in what the artist is trying to say. The artist has the voice on what they want to say and how they're going to say it, and whether it's uncomfortable or not uncomfortable.
ETHAN: If you could think back on your life and change one thing, what would that be?
RUBY: Wow! [Laughs] I wish I would have had the courage to tell my counselor where to go. Honestly, I think everything happens for a reason, so I probably wouldn't change anything, 'cause I'm really happy where I'm at now and am so grateful for the family I have. If I changed anything, [who knows] what would have changed now? And I wouldn't want that to change. Other than tell my counselor where to go, I guess, I don't know.
LESLIE: Ruby, I'm wondering if you could take a little time to describe your art. I mean, your paintings, even just the scale of them, are very dramatic and large. Could you talk about the scale that you're working in?
RUBY: Yeah, I saw this documentary on the Native American artist Allan Houser, and he talked about how he would sculpt these incredibly-large over-scaled sculptures of his people, so people would be forced to look up to them. And that really stuck with me, so that's why I love doing large scale, 'cause it's that idea of like, you have to look up to my ancestors, you have to look up to the people that I love. The people that maybe you might pass on the street and not glance at them or even maybe fear them, but in this painting you have to look up to them, and to me, hearing what he did with his work was really powerful for me. So I emulated that idea.
LESLIE: Are you continuing in this mode, or are you going in a different direction?
RUBY: Well, the [community] murals have taken me that way. I've trained myself so much to do those large paintings that I have to now move my whole arm and my whole wrist to paint. It's hard for me to do those little tiny paintings; it's like a small little voice, you know what I mean? I have a hard time doing really small scale. Consequently, my paintings are getting bigger and bigger with the murals I'm doing. And now that I've found myself through my family and my ancestors, I feel like I can connect and also learn about the community and what their story is about, and I feel that's very fascinating to include into a design and murals. Really, learning about other people now helps me learn about myself. Before I couldn't relate to other people's stories because I didn't feel like I knew who I was. But now I feel like now that I've kind of done that self discovery, self research, I feel like I'm really more fascinated in learning about other people, and so that's how I do the murals. We engage a lot of community and ask questions and create a design based on that information.
LUIS: So how do you feel about how your life has turned out to be?
RUBY: I feel very fortunate, very grateful, very privileged, very just, I feel very fortunate. I don't know how else to explain it. I feel very good about how things turned out. If you would have told me that when I was a little kid that I was gonna be where I'm at today, I probably wouldn't have believed you, but I'm really happy. And I look forward to what's gonna happen in the future. I'm ready for any adventure that comes my way.
LESLIE: I know one of the things that these young guys care about, some more than others, is the issue of the undocumented, and I know you guys have been working with that, too. Maybe you can say a little bit about what Mestizo has been doing with that.
RUBY: Well, we provide the space for people to organize and that's another group that uses the space. But it's the same. We repeat history so much! The discrimination that happens to undocumented people is the same discrimination that happened with Mexican-Americans that were deported in the '30s. But it's that whole thing of who's telling the story; you know, we want to label a group of people as criminals by the term "illegal," right? That has a powerful impact on the psyche, that's just a horrific thing that happens to a lot of families and then the separation of the families. And that whole thing is really emotional to me 'cause when I heard my father's story about Mexicans weren't able to serve the public, and my aunt remembers being the first Mexican to serve the public, it's happening the same way—maybe a bit different. They're using the law as a way to push people into the shadows, the same way they pushed minority groups before the law was changed. And we can't see how we're repeating the same thing. It's frustrating. I think the biggest story that impacted my family and that is impacting undocumented immigrants now is about depending on which immigrant group you're from and how it's told. So like the Mormon pioneers who came here in 1847—well, they came here, but this was Mexico until 1848, so they were the first immigrants to come to another country, not documented. When this became the United States, a lot of the land deeds that were promised to the people that were already here through the Treaty of Guadalupe de Hidalgo were invalid because they were in Spanish, and so the people that were here were pushed out of their land and pushed out of the schools and pushed to speak English only. Now we have another wave of people that are coming from other countries, and we're telling a story about them, but it's the same story: they're coming just like the Mormons came. I guess that's one of the reasons why Mestizo exists, too. One myth we have is that we need to rely on our so-called leaders to change things. Mestizo says you don't have to be a so-called leader to make any change. You can make the change—you know what I mean? And you don't have to have a college degree or you don't have to be an adult. You can be a young person, and you can still make change. You can make change yourself. I think that's important. Mestizo exists to say that you are important and you can make change yourself.
LESLIE: That seems like a great place to stop. We thank you for your honesty and your willingness to talk about difficult things. Thank you so much.
RUBY: Thank you and thank you for inviting me to talk.