By Maggie Weaver
On July 26, Monica Ruiz’s son will graduate high school.
At age 15, a young man traveled to the U.S., an unaccompanied minor seeking employment. He was a victim of human trafficking; he lived on a basement cot, worked 80 hours a week, and made $800 per month.
Eventually, the young man fell ill. His treatment, a daily medicine, required taking a two-hour bus trip from Monroeville to Lawrenceville. After his cousin refused to make this trip for the prescription, the young man was left to die.
So, Casa San Jose took action.
Casa San Jose (CSJ), located just outside of Banksville, is a community resource center for Pittsburgh’s Latino Community. The organization, as said in their mission statement, “advocates for and empowers Latinos by promoting integration and self-sufficiency.”
Ruiz is Casa San Jose’s current Civic Engagement and Community Organizer and recipient of the 2018 New Person Award from the Thomas Merton Center.
At the time of the young man’s near-death, Ruiz was an intern with Casa San Jose. The youth was a client of the organization, and they were able to connect Ruiz’s commitment as a foster parent with her now-son’s needs.
On July 26, Monica Ruiz’s son will graduate high school. Now, he speaks three languages, has an appointment to receive a driver’s license and plans to attend carpentry school.
As a primary contact with Pittsburgh’s Latino population, Ruiz is involved with a variety of CSJ’s programs. She works to better understand the needs of her community, providing direct services for issues dealing with legality, education, housing and more.
Her current position emerged from a Latino needs assessment of Pittsburgh.
“We realized we needed to stop putting band-aids on broken arms and think on a more macro level of what we could do,” said Ruiz. “ That’s when the advocacy and the organizing part came along.”
With the creation of her current position, Ruiz has been able to create new initiatives for CSJ. The organization has been able to campaign for a change of Pittsburgh’s policing policy and to develop programs to raise awareness of anti-immigrant bills. Often, Ruiz and her fellow advocates are called to action.
“About a year ago, PA State Rep. Dom Costa supported an anti-immigrant bill. In his mind, he believed that he was protecting the community, and I’m sure whatever he read on that paper told him he was,” said Ruiz.
“In reality, the bill would’ve allowed police officers to ask immigration status of folks that are reporting crimes,” she continued. “We were able to schedule a meeting with him, and myself and three or four of his constituents went into this meeting. We were able to talk with him about what this really means for the community. We were able to plead our case to the point that the very next day he publicly stated that he could no longer support this bill.”
Ruiz emphasizes the need for an educated community. For clients of CSJ, this takes a unique form.
The institution offers a variety of youth programs, working with about 60 students altogether. For the younger children, 13 and under, CSJ centers the curriculum on culture.
“Many of these youth, who are born here, start to lose their cultural identity. They don’t want to speak Spanish, they’re ashamed of where they came from, so we have a program that centers on Spanish speaking,” said Ruiz.
The high-school-aged group focuses on activism and policy education, engaging in local politics. CSJ acts as a space for the older youth to learn.
“I don’t want to say they have to carry the torch after I’m gone,” said Ruiz, “They have that torch and are running full speed ahead with it. I’m just in the background saying ‘a little to the left’ or ‘a little to the right.’”
For the surrounding community, education takes a very different form.
“Pittsburgh has not had many immigrants that are non-white looking,” said Ruiz. “Now that folks like me are here and we don’t want to blend in, we need to educate people that immigrants have always been here and that is what sustains this city.”
Ruiz emphasizes stepping out of your comfort zone, engaging with a member of the community who speaks a different language or who looks different.
“There’s just so much racism here,” said Ruiz. “ I cannot understand this. A lot of work needs to be done.”
Since her arrival in Pittsburgh, 11 years ago, Ruiz highlights the growth she’s seen in the Latino community.
“When I first got to Pittsburgh, I thought ‘what is happening here?’” said Ruiz. “I’ve never seen anything so segregated. I must have been here 6 months before I saw someone who is black. I was in shock.”
Ruiz finds encouragement in small victories, such as the results of the recent Pennsylvania election. “It shows that people want change,” said Ruiz.
“After the last election, it really came out that people wanted to support this type of work,” Ruiz continued. “It was to a point when I had so many people who wanted to do something that I didn’t know what to do with them. I never thought it would be like that. No change will happen until people are so fed up they take their anger and turn it into action.”
Ruiz is the 2018 Merton Center New Person Award recipient. Previous award winners include Carl Redwood (2017), a local housing activist, Tim Stevens (2016), a local social activist, and Jim Forest (2015), a peace activist.
Details on registration for this year’s award ceremony on June 26 are located in this issue of The NewPeople and on both the Merton Center and NewPeople websites.
Maggie Weaver is an intern with the NewPeople Editorial Collective.