Empowering Communities Through Storytelling: The Work of Author Rudy Ruiz

American author Rudy Ruiz was recently awarded the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction. His latest novel, Valley of Shadows, has received a warm welcome both at home and internationally. 

The novel is a magical-realism, neo-Western horror story set in 1883 West Texas. When the Rio Grande shifts course, the Mexican town of Olvido is left stranded on the US side of the border. Solitario Cisneros, a reclusive ex-lawman has resigned himself to living a life of solitude, after losing everything he once held dear. His wife, his hometown, and his badge are now remnants of a forgotten past. A vast expanse of desert separates his world of ghosts and creaking floorboards from the town of Olvido, but not for long.   

A series of gruesome murders has shaken the town, and its mix of Anglo, Mexican, and Apache residents are left screaming for answers. Cisneros is faced with a choice. Should he answer the town’s pleas for help, or should he let sleeping dogs lie? The mesmerizing plot follows Cisneros on a journey of discovery and soul-searching reflections, accompanied by Onawa, a beautiful Mexican Apache seer. 

Many of the incidents in Ruiz’s latest work of fiction are inspired by real-life atrocities that took place along the US-Mexico border. The Porvenir massacre of 1918 was one significant event that tainted the history books of America. Texas Rangers and local ranchers, with the support of U.S. Cavalry, killed 15 unarmed Mexican-American boys and men. It took nearly a century for the crime to be acknowledged, leaving generations of families without closure.   

Once again, Ruiz accomplishes the rare feat of weaving a web of stories to arrive at a greater truth. Valley of Shadows, like many of his previous literary works, addresses important issues of social justice – touching upon immigration, ethnic prejudice, and economic rivalries. Ruiz considers his writing to be “socially engaged fiction” and talks about how literature can help readers gain different perspectives on pressing issues negatively impacting marginalized communities in America. “Whether it’s Latino immigrants, the border, or the refugee crisis on the border, I want to humanize some of those issues for readers,  Often news coverage of these topics is very politicized and negative,” he says. “I want to build bridges, not walls. Look at people with hope instead of fear. If my work can inspire readers to feel greater empathy for others, then I’ve accomplished my goal both as a writer and as a human being.”

Valley of Shadows does precisely that. It highlights the tensions between the Mexican, Apache, and Anglo residents of Olvidos and is a reflection on the social injustice and disparity that existed between those communities. Born into a Mexican-American family with deep roots on both sides of the Rio Grande, Ruiz grew up in Brownsville, Texas, a small town along the US-Mexico border. He spent his early years traveling across the border to visit family in the Matamoros, Mexico. Those experiences led him to believe that even though cultural differences exist, there is much to gain from collaboration between the two countries. “I was always inspired by the idea of building bridges between cultures and between nations and between people. Since I’m not a construction worker or an architect or an engineer, for me, the way I like to build bridges is in writing and through ideas and building empathy,” he said. 

Ruiz has written short stories and novels highlighting the bicultural experience as well as immigration and acculturation issues. His fiction debut, Seven for the Revolution – a collection of short stories – revolves around the experience of seven characters after they immigrate to the United States, while his novel, The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez, follows a son of immigrants striving to succeed in America. Ruiz also wrote a short story, Vexing Gifts, which imagines a world where Trump’s border wall is built, and xenophobia spirals out of control. While the San Antonio-based author has been fascinated with storytelling since childhood, his writing is also driven by a greater purpose – lending a voice to the voiceless. 

Besides using his abilities as a wordsmith to enact change through literature, Ruiz also puts his skills to use through his advocacy marketing agency, Interlex. Co-founded in 1995 with his wife Heather, the agency works on addressing social issues in which multicultural communities are often disproportionately affected – such as public health, the digital divide, financial literacy, access to capital, and educational attainment gaps. “My advocacy marketing work is interrelated to my fiction writing,” he says. “However, it taps a different part of the brain. It’s the strategic part of the brain, working closely with clients to help bring about social change.”

Together with his wife, who is a graphic designer, Ruiz has been creating culturally relevant communication campaigns for over 28 years. These campaigns have helped countless government and corporate clients achieve important milestones in areas including the effort to eliminate the digital divide, increasing childhood immunizations, improving access to healthcare for seniors, and even turning the tide of the COVID pandemic.

His unique life experiences have often allowed him to bring an important ingredient to the table for his clients – authentic perspectives from people living in multicultural and traditionally underserved communities. “Sometimes when decision makers are far removed from a place or an issue, the instinct is to take the most expedient path. That approach can lead to bad outcomes for everyone involved.” Bridging the gap between his clients and the communities they are catering to “can help organizations make choices that serve their goals, while being rooted in empathy, understanding, and a positive approach that uplifts and empowers people and communities of color,” he says. 

Throughout his life, Ruiz has remained steadfast in his belief that storytelling can help break down walls of resistance that keep us from finding ways to progress together. 

When asked, Ruiz sum’s up his life’s work as both an author and a communicator with a quote from one of his favorite writers, James Baldwin:

“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world… The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”


Article Editor

Pamela is a television journalist, humor writer and novelist. Her first novel, Allegedly, was released in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. The book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She and her husband, Daniel, have a 3-year-old son, Carter.

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