Remembering the Namesake of the Irene H. Ruiz Biblioteca de las Americas

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

She Enriched an Entire Community

When Irene H. Ruiz wrapped up a 20-year career with the Kansas City Public Library in 1996, she wanted no farewell ceremony. No big fuss.

That lasted five years. Ruiz was a pillar of the city’s West Side as an educator, librarian, and advocate for its heavily Hispanic population. In meetings and by petition, the community insisted that the Library name the new branch it was opening there in 2001 after her. Its board of trustees ultimately concurred, and the West Pennway location became the Irene H. Ruiz Biblioteca de las Americas – then and still the only facility in the KCPL system named for a former employee.

Irene Ruiz while working as a teacher at Southwest High School, 1965
Irene Ruiz while working as a teacher at Southwest High School, 1965.

Ruiz died Saturday, September 3, 2023. She was 102 and leaves a legacy of devotion and service evidenced by far more than her name on a modest sign outside the Ruiz Branch. It extends to the cultural richness of the collections inside the library, to dozens of invaluable oral histories that Ruiz gathered from early West Side settlers, to the enrichment over decades of an entire community.

"In the neighborhood – in pockets of it because it has gentrified so much – she is still revered as someone to look up to, someone to (point to and) say to their kids and probably now their grandkids, 'You can do this, too,'" says Julie Robinson, who grew close to the retired Ruiz as a librarian and then manager at the Ruiz Branch for 11 years. "Very few Hispanic people have buildings named after them, and even fewer women do."

"The fact that this building is named after her," Robinson says, "is a true tribute."

The Kansas City Star joined the rally 22 years ago to affix her name to the branch, noting in an editorial that “Ruiz has been more than just a librarian doing her job. Members of the community recognize that.”

Ruiz at the 2001 opening of the Library branch that bears her name
Ruiz at the 2001 opening of the Library branch that bears her name.

Irene Hernández Ruiz was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1920 and grew up there. Her father Antonio "Tony" Dorado Hernan was a Mexican-born restaurateur. Her Tejano mother, Maria de la Luz Vela Benavides, managed rental properties, a beauty salon, and a household in which six daughters studied languages and practiced for piano recitals.

Conversant in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, Ruiz interrupted her studies in her early 20s to work as a translator and phone monitor for the U.S. Office of Censorship during World War II. She would listen in on calls between the U.S. and Latin America.

Education became her passion after the war. Ruiz earned a teaching certificate from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio and taught at various schools in Texas. She married a fellow educator, Francisco Ruiz in 1956, and both went on to further their education in language studies.

Teaching opportunities brought the couple to Kansas City in the 1960s. Irene taught Spanish and social studies, and Francisco oversaw the school district’s language programs. In 1969, Irene enrolled at Emporia State College to pursue library studies while continuing to teach. She was hired as a full-time librarian in 1976 at the Kansas City Public Library’s West Branch, then located in West Junior High School.

There, Ruiz dedicated herself to preserving Kansas City’s Hispanic heritage.

Following the branch each time it relocated – to a retail area at 902 Southwest Boulevard in 1988, then to 525 Southwest Boulevard in 1995 – she was instrumental in creating a bilingual collection to better serve the West Side neighborhood. Its Spanish-language literature collection became one of the best in the city. Ruiz also served as a de facto archivist for the Mexican American community, conducting 60 oral history interviews with longtime residents and first-generation immigrants, many of whom had lost family records in the flood of 1951.

The Hispanic Oral History Collection is now permanently archived in the Library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Ruiz quietly retired from the Library in October 1996 but continued to volunteer as a reader for children’s story time. She remained a presence at the Ruiz Branch – "she was always there if something was going on," Robinson remembers – until she was nearly 90.

Irene Ruiz with staff of the Ruiz Library, 2011
Irene Ruiz with staff of the Ruiz Library, 2011

Her husband went on to teach at several local colleges and universities and publish the literary magazine Entrelíneas (Between the Lines) before his death in 1993. They are survived by three sons.

Now manager of the Library’s Refugee & Immigrant Services & Empowerment (RISE) outreach initiative, Robinson sees the branch’s Spanish-language collection as Ruiz’s signature achievement. "It wasn’t an easy thing. … She was buying books from Spain because nobody in the U.S. was publishing books in Spanish," Robinson says.

"We had the Bible in Spanish, and there were men who would come in from the CAN (Community Action Network) Center and sit and read it. Those are important things that I think get overlooked sometimes. It sounds like a minute thing: Oh, we bought books in Spanish. But you don’t understand what that did for our community, what it did for the people who lived there who actually felt they were included in this library. They were part of it."

"That is her legacy."