by Amanda Ong
The voices of a community are an incredibly vibrant thing, and nearly impossible to hold in your own hands and distill into words. But this is what Seattle-based poet Ricardo Ruiz does in his new poetry collection, We Had Our Reasons/Teníamos Nuestras Razones, which has recently been released for publication by Seattle publishing house Pulley Press.
We Had Our Reasons is a conversation between generations, between community members, between family members. But in some ways it is also a conversation between the migrant communities of Eastern Washington and people everywhere with similar experiences — especially in its reflections on Ruiz’s new home of South Seattle.
Printed in Spanish and English side by side on facing pages (in the print edition), We Had Our Reasons was born of interviews Ruiz conducted with members of the small rural migrant community he comes from in Othello, in Eastern Washington. There, many people immigrated from Mexico and other places in Latin America to work in the various agricultural fields that make up the economy of the area. These intergenerational interviews have been transformed under Ruiz’s hand into poetry and have now made their way into print.
“[We Had Our Reasons] is a study on migration and the effects of it within a household,” Ruiz said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “The goal of the collection in a way is to create conversation within families within the community. … There are conversations that don’t take place within households. Be it the cultural barriers that happen between parents and children, between language and the fears that come with immigration status and documentation. These stories aren’t talked about because you have to be careful.”
Ruiz’s parents immigrated to Eastern Washington, where Ruiz was born, in 1972. There, many members of his community were first-generation Americans or migrants, and while his parents received legal permanent resident status before he was born, many members of his community were undocumented. Ruiz’s parents initially worked in the fields, but for most of his childhood, they worked in the potato factories, which manufactured french fries and hash browns for major fast-food chains.
“My mom was working 12 hours a day, four days a week; they took all the overtime opportunity to try to just enhance themselves economically and provide for all of our needs,” Ruiz said. “When I was really young, they would still work out in the fields on the weekend.”
This meant Ruiz was taken care of by his older brothers, but he often got himself into trouble and he didn’t finish high school. However, his life changed when he decided to enlist in the military in 2009. There, he earned the rank of staff sergeant, was deployed multiple times to Afghanistan as an infantryman, and left the military after seven and a half years of service.
“After traveling the world serving, it gave me a global perspective that when I came home, I was really able to see my community and the grander scope of the world,” Ruiz said. “This was 2016, so the former president had policies that really affected the community, especially a community of migrants, many of them being undocumented.”
Ruiz returned to Eastern Washington and went to Big Bend Community College, where he was vice president of the Associated Student Body. But his mental health suffered as he dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled with transitioning into student life.
“My mental health wasn’t in good shape,” Ruiz said. “But I found my outlet to be able to process my emotions in poetry. So then I came to [the University of Washington] and studied English and creative writing.”
It was also at the University of Washington that Ruiz took a Heritage Speakers Spanish course. Ruiz grew up speaking Spanish with his family, and the class was one of the first times he was told that using “Spanglish” was okay — that it was not a lack of language ability, but an intersecting point of two cultures. That moment later informed his decision to release the book in both languages.
“There was intentionality with releasing the book translated in both Spanish and English side by side, having the spine work as a border, dividing those languages,” Ruiz said. “My mom speaks English and can read English, but I’ve never seen her do it for herself. So now the ladies who provided their stories, the señoras who helped raise me, truly have access to it. … For that access to be there for them in their language, being able to keep the stories within the community, it was paramount.”
While finishing the book last November, his father passed away after fighting cancer for over 20 years. Ruiz both came out of his grief feeling even more strongly about the book’s importance for his kids, who he knows will want to know these stories one day, and also realizing that the stories he was telling had broader connections beyond his family or even his community in Eastern Washington.
“I wanted to try to just record these stories for [my family], but as it turns out, these experiences aren’t unique to just my family,” Ruiz said. “They’re not unique to the community, but in the greater aspect, they hold a similarity that so many people who migrated to this country for whatever reason can relate with.”
The result is a collection of poetry that is both proudly Eastern Washington and universal to many migrant experiences, and the cover art was created by Christie Tirado, a Mexican American artist from Yakima. Ruiz says his Eastern Washington community has been incredibly supportive of the book. When it went out for preorder, the community pushed it to the top of the Amazon Hispanic American Poetry list.
“It’s easy to forget about Eastern Washington,” Ruiz said. “If you look at how voting works in this state, the west side makes the decisions because it’s so heavily populated. The workers that make our food, my parents, my family, my friends, they’re forgotten about a lot of times.”
Now, Ruiz is based out of Beacon Hill. Since coming from Eastern Washington to Seattle, Ruiz has worked to make community here and find underrepresented communities and voices within the city itself. In looking for reflections of Eastern Washington here, Ruiz finds that South Park in particular helps South Seattle feel like home to him with its panaderías and delicious conchas.
“There’s a semblance of my own community in Eastern Washington [in Seattle],” Ruiz said. “People aren’t working in agriculture, where you have people who came here trying to do day labor, but they all just do what they can to survive. But in South Seattle, the culture and the color and the vibrancy. I love it. It feels like home in so many ways.”
“The collection hopefully is a place to create dialogue,” Ruiz said. “It’s not a be-all, end-all. It doesn’t say everything that needs to be said. But hopefully it’s a starting point.”
We Had Our Reasons is available for purchase online.
From We Had Our Reasons:
Five Guys Burgers Reminding Me
Where I Come From, Good Looks†
“Today’s Fries come from Easterday Farms, Pasco, WA.”
I went to high school with the child of the owners.
My best friend growing up is the head mechanic at that farm.
The Factory where those fries are made provided for my family.
The soil in which the potatoes were grown was tilled by my parents.
Those fries and I come from the same farm ground.
We have both been on a journey from the Eastern Washington
land in which we started.
Now they sit on my table. The work of my friends, the work
of my family.
Five Guys Burgers me recuerda
de dónde vengo, qué chido
“Today’s Fries come from Easterday Farms, Pasco, WA.”
Fui a secundaria con el hijo de los dueños.
Mi mejor amigo de la infancia es el jefe de mecánicos de la granja.
La fábrica donde se preparan las papas fritas ha mantenido a
La tierra donde se cultivan las papas fue labrada por mis padres.
Esas papas y yo somos de la misma tierra de cultivo.
Ambos hemos hecho un viaje partiendo de la tierra del este de
Washington donde empezamos.
Ahora están en mi mesa. El trabajo de mis amigos. El trabajo
de mi familia.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: “We Had Our Reasons” is a book of poetry in Spanish and English by poet Ricardo Ruiz, sharing the wisdom, experiences, and sacrifices of Mexican and Latinx farm workers in Eastern Washington. Cover illustration by Christie Tirado.
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