Folk artist explores southern border issues

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Kickapoo folk artist Hector Ruiz has chiseled out the scent of memory and
the complex landscape of border life at his studio gallery, known as the
Chocolate Factory, revealing with eloquence the racism in America, and life
and identity for minorities.

Ruiz's exhibit, "The Truth of the Region: Recent Works by Hector Ruiz,"
tells the stories of the U.S. border from Texas to Arizona and tells a
story of America.

"I give a voice to the voiceless, keep an eye on border injustices and
watch the ever-changing cultural and racial issues in my back yard. The
minority in America is constantly asking himself who he is simply because
it is so difficult to know," Ruiz said.

With memories triggered by a simple toy or a street, thereby setting off a
chain reaction, Ruiz's work reveals the complex struggles of immigration,
conflicts of gender and sexuality and urban development.

Ruiz grew up in Texas and Arizona and spent summers with family in Piedras
Negras, Mexico. Now, he makes his home in Arizona because he said it is the
most conservative of the border states. This conservative climate is
matched by rigorous activism aimed at protecting Mexican immigrants, he
said.

"All my life I have lived in a border state. I have lived with the reality
of an ethnic, cultural and very real racial border between my people. In my
work, I explore the bicultural paradoxes and multiracial visions and expos
of the Eurocentric community and country I live in."

Ruiz described himself as Mexican-Indian, Kickapoo and, also, an American.

"I have the ability to play insider/outsider with status, and I am aware of
this in my work."

Ruiz said he feels a sense of responsibility to new immigrants from Mexico,
as they are crossing into a world that has a European view of superiority
over Native cultures.

"Culture is without borders, but once mixed with Western culture, it is
about change. Spending summers with family in Piedras Negras, Mexico, and
living in America, I have been exposed to blind materialism,
overconsumption and self-interest as the American way.

"I have watched politicians fight to make English the official language and
eliminate health care for children of 'illegal aliens,' and I have observed
the overall harshness of 'white' America toward its brown-skin neighbors."

Ruiz's Chocolate Factory studio and gallery on Grand Avenue in Phoenix, in
a former radiator shop which now has a sophisticated interior with Mies van
der Rohe furnishings, is described by Heard Museum curators as "a pulse
point of alternative contemporary art in Phoenix."

The choice of "Chocolate" to represent his work is not an accident. In
fact, Laura Esquivel's award-winning film, "Like Water for Chocolate," was
filmed in Ruiz's family's home community of Piedras Negras, Mexico.

Ruiz said his work, including racial oppression of indigenous culture,
reflects the world of minorities in America. He watches as this clash of
cultures plays out every day on the streets, and in the boardrooms, of
Phoenix.

With images such as Coca-Cola and Burberry plaid, Ruiz uses icons to
explore assumptions about identity in America. The titles of his mixed
imagery work include "The Border as a Laboratory, Not a Melting Pot." A
carved wooden sculpture of male heads, with candy foil, is titled "Don't
Blame the Man." He also depicts city life in carved, burned and painted
wood with papier-mache'.

"My work touches on religion as well as on the impact of political,
ecological and cultural upheaval in our modern world. Everything I do is
hecho a mano [made by hand.] Every cut, every hole, every print is done
entirely by hand. I am against the machine at all costs; its impersonal
marks, its unquestioned shortcuts, its blind speed and its time-saving
methods," Ruiz said.

"My pieces are a frustration for humankind, a celebration for the survival
of culture and a reflection of the inequity and divisiveness of the human
race."