Elia Salazar wakes up to a wall in her front yard, where there formerly was a garden. Her front yard is, of course, on the Mexican border with the United States.
While Salazar is a fictional character, the creation of San Antonio author Rudy Ruiz, she is meant to reflect the current situation affecting many real lives in both countries.
Though a frequent writer of nonfiction and commentary, Ruiz explained that what draws him to fiction is that “it gives me the opportunity to explore some of the cultural issues and human issues in a way that nonfiction wouldn’t. I can really go inside characters’ minds and try to expose the reader to the story behind the story.”
While national news media reports on clashes between migrants and border guards, the deaths of young children in U.S. custody, and the ongoing shutdown of the Federal government over these immigration-related issues, Ruiz aims in multiple stories to “help the reader bridge the gap between the news and … the human story behind it.”
Born in Brownsville, Ruiz also had family in Matamoros across the border. Growing up, he said, “it was a very fluid existence where frequently, in the same day, we’d go across the border to go to the market and come back.” His own experience has made him sensitive to what he sees in the news, as “I’ve always been particularly attuned to borders and what they symbolize,” he said.
Sometimes, Ruiz said, “in the current climate, when people watch the news they all too often make a judgment before they read or see the story. … Maybe fiction is a way to surprise readers, get them feeling emotions they wouldn’t allow themselves to feel when they’re consuming the news.”
Ruiz’s approach appears to be catching on. Kirkus Reviews praised his 2013 volume of short stories, 7 For the Revolution, for its “nuanced pictures of people seeking an impossible American dream” and “fresh perspectives.” That book also won several awards, including two 2014 International Latino Book Awards.
A graduate of Harvard University with degrees in government and public policy, the 50-year-old Ruiz also won the 2017 Gulf Coast Prize in fiction for his story That Boy Could Run, a complex family tale about what it means to be an American, and an immigrant, in these hostile times.
The story centers on former high school football hero and Vietnam veteran Bobby “The Rocket” Lopez, who has visited hardship upon himself and his family in part because of injuries suffered in both phases of his life. Other stories involve hot-buttonpolitical issues like forced assimilation, cross-border commerce, illegal migration from Mexico to “El Otro Lado” (the other side), and amnesty, but all in the form of characters who might seem familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of life along the border.
The Notre Dame Review recently published a new Ruiz story called Vexing Gifts, in which an abuelita with the gift of foresight sees an even darker anti-immigrant version of America looming on a near-future horizon. In an author’s statement accompanying the story, Ruiz writes that it is not difficult to imagine current policies “evolving into the deportation of innocent immigrants and even naturalized citizens who don’t fit the mold of those in power … because these things have already been taking place since I wrote the story” in 2016.
The slightly fantastical scenario of Vexing Gifts evidences the influence of noted “magical realist” author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “my biggest inspiration,” Ruiz said, as well as Ralph Ellison, who wrote Invisible Man, and poet Octavio Paz, who had a “magical way of looking at the world.”
This forward-looking but dystopian view of the future is also present in a short story from 7 For the Revolution, titled Inverted – in which circumstances shift to the point that Americans wind up seeking asylum in Mexico but are denied access at the border – and the forthcoming novel The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez, which explores “not just the physical border between two countries, but borders between life and death … and past and present,” he said.
The new novel is slated appear in 2020 via Blackstone Publishing, which has contracted with Ruiz for two new books, according to his publicist, Nelda Carrizales.
Though he sometimes veers towards the surreal, Ruiz said, “I try to be realistic as well. I don’t want to tell a fairy tale. Oftentimes in my writing, the characters will find common ground even though they come from disparate backgrounds.”
What he hopes to inspire in his readers is the same vision of America that inspired him as a border-crossing child, “a time when our countries were focused on building bridges not walls … an America that welcomed immigrants and embraced people from different cultures.”