Rachel speaks with author, advocate and social entrepreneur Rudy Ruiz about his most recent neo-western horror novel, The Valley of Shadows (2022). Born in Brownsville and later graduating from Harvard University, Rudy shares how his fronterizo experiences shapes his writing, and the importance of community stories.
Rudy Ruiz is an American author, advocate and social entrepreneur. The son and grandson of Mexican immigrants, Rudy Ruiz was born in Brownsville, Texas and raised along the US-Mexico border, living in Matamoros, Mexico for extensive periods of time. He did not speak English until he entered school at the age of five. Once in school, he excelled and dreamt of growing up to be a writer, an entrepreneur, and a contributor to the wellbeing of immigrants and minorities, as well as to positive relations between diverse cultures and nations. He earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Harvard. Ruiz now resides in San Antonio with his wife, Heather, and their two children, Paloma and Lorenzo. To learn more about Rudy and his other published works see, https://rudyruiz.com/
Dr. González-Martin is a Folklorist and an Associate Professor of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies. She is an active affiliate faculty member of the Center for Mexican American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and the Latino Media and Arts Program at the University of Texas. She holds a PhD in Folklore and Ethnomusicology from Indiana University, where she completed her dissertation titled, “Dreaming in Taffeta: Imagining an American Quinceañera” (2014). Her M.A. explores Mexican, Mexican American, and Chicano masculinities and verbal dueling among Mexican descent men through artistic insults known as “albures”. She is a Woodrow Wilson Early Career Fellow. She does research across the United States, and Mexico.
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This Episode was Mixed and Mastered by Rayna Sevilla
- Rudy RuizAuthor
- Rachel González-MartinAssociate Professor of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at The University of Texas at Austin
[00:00:00] Karma Chavez: You’re listening to Latinxperts, a podcast of Latino Studies at the University of Texas at Austin Latin Experts features the voices of faculty, staff, and students, as well as friends and alumni of the Department of Mexican, American and Latino. Latino studies, the Latino Research Institute and the Center. Mexican American Studies. Join us for this episode of Latin Experts.
[00:00:41] Rachel: Welcome back to Latinxperts. I’m your host for today, Dr. Rachel Gonzales Martin, and today we are very lucky to have our guest who is author, social entrepreneur, and advocate, Rudy Reese. Rudy, welcome. Thank you for being willing to chat with us a little bit about your work.
[00:00:58] Rudy: Thank you Rachel. Thank you for having me [00:01:00] here.
[00:01:00] Rudy: Absolutely. We’re excited. We’re always looking to amplify the voices across Texas, across the world and hear about the work that you’re doing. So we are here to talk about first felicidades! You have a new book out. The Valley of Shadows just recently came out. Now, as a Latina who’s really first gen, higher ed and stuff.
[00:01:19] Rachel: How do you feel? I, I always wanna know how people, how people are doing with the emotional slash celebratoriness of having, what is this? Is your third large scale book publication. We had, you had a collection of short fiction a previous novel, and then in 2020, The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez, and then 2022, The Valley of Shadows all published by Blackstone Publishing. So how are you feeling? That’s where I wanna go first.
[00:01:46] Rudy: Sure. It’s feeling good. It’s a lifelong dream and journey involving a lot of learning and a lot of persistence and hard work.
[00:01:56] Rudy: And really just, it’s wonderful to after [00:02:00] many years of working on my writing and trying to break into the publishing world to get my stories out there because they’re really stories steeped in our culture, our heritage, our history stories that I always felt very compelled to share and to write and sometimes I was worried like I would not be able to succeed in getting them out there.
[00:02:24] Rudy: so to finally be gaining some momentum and putting these stories out there, like you said, it feels like it’s part of that process of having our voices heard.
[00:02:34] Rachel: Awesome. Well, I know our listeners would love to hear about where you come from, like your background. I know the immediate background trained at Harvard, which is lovely , which we, you know, we’re always very proud of. But where are your roots or where’s home and how does that impact the work that you’ve done at least so far?
[00:02:50] Rudy: Thank you. Thank you. Well, my roots are in the Rio Grande Valley. ,I was born and raised in Brownsville, Texas, and my family on both sides of my [00:03:00] mom and and dad was from that region for a very long time both sides of the river. I loved growing up there. It was a very bi-lingual bicultural, binational experience.
[00:03:13] Rudy: I was fortunate. Yeah, I was fortunate that Spanish was my first language. we spoke it at home. I didn’t start learning English and speaking English until I started at kindergarten at age five, which was kind of the norm, back then and then I was very lucky that in those days the border was this very, different place where moving back and forth across the border felt very seamless and natural.
[00:03:38] Rudy: My maternal grandmother, who was like a second mom to me, she led her whole life on the Mexican side of the border. And so pretty much every day we would go over to visit with her to spend the afternoons in their house so I would hear these wonderful stories growing up of her upbringing, of the life that she and my grandfather had lived.
[00:03:56] Rudy: She was born in the year 1900 and had lived through the Mexican [00:04:00] Revolution.
[00:04:00] Rachel: Oh wow.
[00:04:01] Rudy: All these different eras and so she had fascinating stories. And so from that early age, I think I just became enamored with storytelling and just trying to understand who I was and who I am, and who they were, my parents and my grandparents, these people I love. And then trying to build upon that, not just record it like in a memoir type of way, but I’m a creative person and I’ve always been a creative writer.
[00:04:24] Rudy: So I was very inspired by this upbringing on the border. And these stories I heard as a child. To be a storyteller myself and to weave these kernels of truth and history together into also works of fiction that built upon that world.
[00:04:38] Rachel: Absolutely. No, it’s so interesting to think about your creative process as linked to generations of storytelling, right?
[00:04:45] Rachel: And then recast in your own way, right? As a creative yourself. So two lines of questions I wanna ask. One, I know that, your latest work Has this innovation around genre, and I’m a folklorist by training, and so genre is something we’re always thinking about and poking at, you know, how [00:05:00] to classify and how troubling it can be when something fits into multiple categories.
[00:05:04] Rachel: Right? So one I’ve been calling your book a neo western border lore, and I don’t quite know if that’s accurate. The neo western part. I read formally somewhere, but I was like, I was just interested in thinking one, you started talking about this, what stories did you grow up with?
[00:05:18] Rachel: Right. Were there these recurring stories that you heard that you now as this experienced author and professional and intellectual, right, you’re now putting a different spin on?
[00:05:29] Rudy: Yeah, I love that. Neo western border lore. I just wrote that down because
[00:05:33] Rachel: Cite me! You can have it! It’s yours.
[00:05:35] Rudy: I like it . I like it. I will. I like what you said about the genres. And I was so excited to speak with you because I had read about you being a folklorist and that is something that fascinates me as well. I think growing up with some of these traditions of storytelling, some of these genres that have almost iconic or legendary narratives and archetypes in them.[00:06:00] It was interesting for me, I think when I first started writing, I naturally embraced a lot of those. And then the more I’ve been writing, the more you start wanting to kind of poke at them, like you said, and.
[00:06:11] Rudy: Figure out if you can flip ’em and turn ’em on their head and absolutely do different things with that. So Neo Western, my idea there was. . I grew up in a time where, my father he had been born and raised on the border. He was the first generation American born in his family .
[00:06:26] Rudy: And he was a big fan growing up of the old westerns, the American Westerns. So when I was growing up, he shared those with me. He would come home after work and he would say, Hey, kids, can you put on something with cowboys on the tv and we’d sit and watch a Western.
[00:06:41] Rudy: And interestingly, many years later I looked back in reflection and thought interesting as I gained perspective that the heroes in those westerns were always the John Wayne type of characters and the Mexican, Mexican American and Native American types of characters either didn’t exist or they were [00:07:00] just marginalized sidekicks or, comic relief or the villains.
[00:07:07] Rudy: So I thought it’d be very interesting to explore the idea of a Western where the people of color would really be the heroes and heroins and to sort of imagine how the course of history might have differed had there been people of color in positions of power to shape its flow.
[00:07:26] Rudy: So that was really the central idea behind exploring the Western genre. And another part that helped me do that was that, you know, there’s two sides to every coin. And unfortunately my dad didn’t only expose me to the American Westerns, but he also loved the old Charro movies.
[00:07:42] Rudy: Ah, yeah. Mm-hmm. from Mexico, which is a big influence in my last novel, The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez, where the protagonist sings a lot of the old boleros that are from Mexico’s golden age of music and cinema. I grew up also watching those Pedro Infante movies and [00:08:00] Jorge Negrete and so forth, and seeing the Mexican charro as this heroic character.
[00:08:06] Rudy: And so in Valley of Shadows, the central protagonist is basically a Mexican Charro who together with his hometown of Bordertown named Olvido ends up stranded on the U.S. Side of the Rio Grand when the river shifts course. And so he ends up losing everything.
[00:08:25] Rudy: He loses his badge, he loses his country, he loses his beloved wife and retreats into just hiding. And eventually there is a series of terrible, horrific crimes and kidnappings in the town. The town leaders, the Anglo settlers reluctantly try to pull him out of retirement because he’s the only person in the region that has any kind of training or experience in trying to solve these types of, mysteries and bring the perpetrators to justice.
[00:08:53] Rudy: I was very excited in exploring this neo western idea to have that background and be able to pull not only [00:09:00] the classic American Western genre, but pull from the Mexican Charro myth.
[00:09:05] Rudy: Absolutely no, I think about the rural royalty, right?
[00:09:08] Rachel: This idea of the Charro, right? And the development of this really this national hero character, right? That again resonates across the border. And again my father grew up in El Paso and so not the rgv, but the border, right? This extension of that border identity. And he also is enamored by these westerns growing up, right?
[00:09:30] Rachel: These heroic Western stories. And so to me it’s really interesting, right? This kind of shared connection to a kind of storytelling to these particular characters. And now this narrative of, well, what can I do when I play with these characters, when maybe when I offer them depth, right? Mm-hmm.
[00:09:46] Rachel: And it’s funny when you were talking about saying, Well, you know, what would’ve been like if certain different demographics of people were in charge, but what if people just wrote the stories down of people that were living lives that just [00:10:00] had different stories to tell, right? That were allowed to have this visibility, right?
[00:10:04] Rachel: Mm-hmm. . So there’s something really interesting and almost like memory metaphysical, right? Of thinking about could you go back and extract the stories from the past that aren’t necessarily they’re not really fiction, right? They really could have happened or they really did happen.
[00:10:17] Rachel: That was at a time when the voices of those communities were not being amplified and no one was interested in those stories. Yeah, that’s really fascinating to me. Right. This is really cool. Thinking about the sort of play with genre. It sounds like it’s sort of a freedom, but is it also pushing back at the confines of western publishing? Like how do you fit into a particular box?
[00:10:36] Rudy: For sure because what really got me into writing professionally was my love of Magical Realism. Which was really inspired by reading Latin American authors when I was in college like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Carlos Fuentes and Laura Esquivel.
[00:10:56] Rudy: And when I first read Magical Realism not having been [00:11:00] really in the typical Texas high school curriculum. I was like, Wow, these are my people! This is my culture. I get this. I wanna write this way. And so I really got into it. I’ve come into writing I think from that perspective of magical realism, The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez is very much a magical realism novel. And so it’s Valley of Shadows, except that in Valley of Shadows, it really blends magical realism with this sort of neo western dimension and actually some horror and mystery as well.
[00:11:31] Rachel: I read that as well and I was interested in thinking about if you were influenced to growing up with certain kinds of horror or supernatural legend sort of texts from the border that also influenced bringing in those genres.
[00:11:43] Rudy: I think that one reason I connected so strongly with magical realism was that growing up in in the border was not only a very sort of religious, experience in terms of my family, but Sure. But also goes beyond religion into that spiritual realm [00:12:00] where I think maybe it comes from the blend.
[00:12:04] Rudy: This is probably right up your alley of
[00:12:05] Rudy: I’m actually teaching this class right now. Right. .
[00:12:08] Rudy: Right. In terms of the blend of the pre-Colombian indigenous beliefs,
[00:12:13] Rudy: mm-hmm.
[00:12:14] Rudy: Practices as they got synthesized with the Catholicism and the Catholic faith, some very interesting kind of hybrid views of spirituality seemed to have, been born of that Right.
[00:12:27] Rudy: Absolutely.
[00:12:28] Rachel: Yeah. No. syncretism, we call it syncretism. It is. And the hybrid spirituality and practices that emerge in our communities. They become the most powerful pieces. I mean, even memories from childhood and thinking about the things we remember. One of the greatest things I remember my grandmother, was born in Coahuila but was raised partially in Weslaco in South Texas and.
[00:12:49] Rachel: She would tell me about this story of running into a ghost while she was running home late. The sun had already gone down and she was in trouble. And it’s one of the, you think about memories and what we [00:13:00] remember, what has an imprint on us. Um, and sometimes it’s these uncanny sort of connections between, Spirituality, maybe not so much horror, fear, but something that connects us with something beyond the material, right?
[00:13:13] Rachel: Yes. And there’s something about your work that, that, particularly this Valley of Shadows that has that piece to it that I feel like is very familiar from like a folklorist perspective. And so what, something I wanted to ask you, and this isn’t to say at all, that your work. Is narrowly for one audience, but is there a way you think that Tejanos in particular, or folks familiar with Texas history or really sort of devoted to Texas culture and history.
[00:13:37] Rachel: Do you think they’ll read between the lines in this novel? Like in some ways will they see things that other people won’t see?
[00:13:43] Rudy: Yeah, I think so. I think that that there’s no doubt about it. There’s aspects of our culture that I find universally appealing and elements.
[00:13:53] Rudy: That we can find different versions or iterations of in other cultures. In that sense, I feel [00:14:00] like that this story and this book can appeal to a really broad audience. But at the same time, of course, if you grew up on the border or in, or even just in Texas or in Mexico, there’s gonna be aspects here that I feel take on a very personal meaning to you as a reader. Whether it is some of the historical, elements, aspects of the story, like apparitions of the virgen, or seeing or feeling like you are accompanied by the spirits of your loved ones that even though after they’ve passed in real, Often I myself feel like I, I know what my grandmother would’ve said at this moment.
[00:14:38] Rudy: Or I know what my father would be thinking at this moment. . Yeah. It’s almost like they’re there with me.
[00:14:42] Rachel: They’re there with you visiting, right? Yeah. And that sense of belief and it’s when we think about something that we think about as, Mexican, American, Mexican, Latinx, these broader communities that we fit into or we’re nestled into this idea of how our communities transcend space and time.
[00:14:58] Rachel: Yes. You know, we think about how strong they [00:15:00] are. It’s not just about who is present with us co-president in the physical realm, but you know the possibility. Yeah. And when you think.
[00:15:07] Rudy: Yeah. When you think what our belief systems are rooted in whether the part that’s based in, um, the old indigenous beliefs or the part that’s based in the old Catholic faith, across the board, there’s a belief in that transcendence. And that life and death being almost like a continuous cycle in a way, rather than this black or white thing. And then when you live on the border and your whole life is basically about experiencing the poorest nature of borders and the back and forth across those borders.
[00:15:40] Rudy: Absolutely. Right. Then you think, Well if my culture sort of bridges these two countries and these two languages, why couldn’t our existence bridge the border between life and death?
[00:15:51] Rachel: Absolutely. Right. This comfort with borders or even a discomfort with being blocked, right? This idea that why can’t we be dedicated to this kind of [00:16:00] Possibility.
[00:16:00] Rachel: This kind of potential and of going beyond, what people say are these assumed natural markers or in this case cultural markers of separation. Exactly. Exactly. So tell me, this is my last big question, but I think it ties into everything you’re saying and I just wanna get your focused idea on it.
[00:16:17] Rachel: Why is storytelling so important on the border or in Latinx, in Latine, Mexican, Mexican American communities? Why don’t we just, be quiet, move on, take on what’s here and , assimilate like everyone wants us to. Why keep bringing up the past?
[00:16:32] Rudy: Yeah.
[00:16:32] Rudy: Some people do, you know. Whatever floats your boat as well. I have to say. That’s good. Yes. But you know, I think that it’s just too rich a history, it’s too beautiful culture, it’s too lyrical language. It’s too much a part of who we are at our core to just forget about it.
[00:16:51] Rudy: Right. To the contrary, for me life has been a journey about learning more about this heritage and this past and this culture, and [00:17:00] appreciating it further the more I learn about it. And so I think one reason that the storytelling so important is it helps perpetuate and protect our culture and pass it on to the next generation.
[00:17:12] Rudy: But it’s also a little bit about, in a way, trying to write the wrongs of history. Trying to reclaim our place within the narrative of American history. Like you mentioned earlier, Absolutely. There’s a lot of stories that have been forgotten. Not because they didn’t happen or because people didn’t make their contributions to their communities or their families, but simply because they got swept under the rug of history.
[00:17:36] Rachel: Absolutely, yes.
[00:17:37] Rudy: And so if we can find those stories and bring them back to life I think we’re helping do justice to our ancestors and we’re helping also. For ourselves and for our children to reclaim a rightful place of honor and respect at the Table of America, you know?
[00:17:53] Rachel: Absolutely.
[00:17:54] Rudy: And so for me, one of the things that inspired Valley of Shadows was that is actually really based in actual [00:18:00] history, was some research that my father did in his later years, he passed away already in 2015, but in his older years when he was slowing down in terms of working per se, professionally. He spent a lot of time, working on the family genealogy and
[00:18:15] Rachel: Oh yeah. All right.
[00:18:15] Rudy: Learning about like the ancestors. He and his brothers and sister had grown up pretty poor on the border and always felt made to feel lesser than, if you will.
[00:18:26] Rudy: Mm-hmm. .
[00:18:27] Rudy: And then as he learned more about the history of the family, he realized that he came from people who had land and had ranches and, lost their lands and lost their place in society, when Texas became part of the United States. And when a lot of people of Tejano heritage were either, robbed of their land or sort of swindled them or what have you. Yeah. So a lot of that history got forgotten and so a lot of people grew up and have grown up feeling like they don’t understand where their place is in this [00:19:00] country, and part of that is because it’s not being talked to them in school and because nobody remembers it.
[00:19:05] Rudy: So I think for me, that’s been part of taking some of that learning, that was one of the final gifts that my father passed on to me and exploring it some through historical fiction, but bringing in , some actual real historical events. One of the historical events that also inspired me was that of the 1918 Porvenir Massacre in West Texas which also went forgotten largely for about a hundred years, as you probably know.
[00:19:29] Rudy: So there are some scenes and moments in the Valley of Shadows which draw from and pay homage to the people and families that died and lost loved ones in that tragic event back in 1918.
[00:19:43] Rachel: I think it, it’s really clear when you talk about it, right? That stories give life and sometimes they resuscitate and they resurrect as you’ve already said in your work.
[00:19:52] Rachel: So tell us what’s next. Do you have any themes or any ideas of where your next big project will take you? [00:20:00]
[00:20:00] Rudy: Well, yeah, I’ve got several projects in the works.
[00:20:03] Rachel: Of course. Tell us about your favorite. Favorite.
[00:20:05] Rudy: Right now I’m working on a book that it’s exciting for me because I’ve always written about the border and I’m still gonna keep writing about the border.
[00:20:13] Rudy: I have a couple of books that I’m working on that are set on the border, but I’m also working on one that is a reach for me in terms of going beyond the border. And it’s set in the future. And it is about three women who are librarians who are trying to save the last books left on the planet from destruction.
[00:20:36] Rudy: Yeah. In a world where books have been banned and burned to such an extent that, there are very few left. So that’s exciting. It’s really about, it’s really about freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and the freedom to read and learn. . And it’s also really fascinating to me. I’m not totally abandoning, my focus in terms of it also explores how books, are related to [00:21:00] memory and how books are essential to preserving culture.
[00:21:04] Rudy: Absolutely. As someone raised by a public librarian, I am all about this next project, so we’ll have to speak again. But Rudy, it’s been so wonderful to speak with you and hear a little bit about your work. We at Latino studies at UT are very proud to see your contribution in the world. Um, I know we can find your book all over the internet, um, but we like to promote our local bookstores.
[00:21:26] Rudy: Resistencia Books, Book Woman, Book People. And Valley of Shadows just recently came out in September. We’re very excited to keep promoting it. So Rudy, thank you so much for chatting with me and with all of our listeners. it’s been a pleasure.
[00:21:39] Rudy: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure being with you, rachel. All right.
[00:21:42] Rudy: We’ll talk to you next time when that new book is out, .
[00:21:45] Rudy: Okay. Thank you. Okay. Take care.
[00:21:47] =: Hi all. This is Ashley Navos, the communications associate AINO Studies. Thank you for listening to this week’s episode. Make sure to check out the Latino Studies Instagram page.
[00:21:59] =: [00:22:00] Follow us at Latino studies you teach to keep the conversation going.