As a young girl in Sonora, Mexico, Rita E. Urquijo-Ruiz did not care much for playing dolls. Instead, she took on the role of teacher, turning discarded magazines and newspapers into “notebooks” for the other neighborhood kids to write in. Before class, she even broke pencils into smaller pieces for everyone. Seeing this, her father would remark, “Vas a ser maestra,” or, “You’re going to be a teacher.”
Today, Urquijo-Ruiz is the first Latina at Trinity to begin at the University as an assistant professor and move through the ranks of promotion to become a full professor.
“I am honored to make history at Trinity,” says Urquijo-Ruiz, who started in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures in 2004.
For Urquijo-Ruiz, the milestone is significant for a number of reasons. Once the only Latina faculty member in her department, she is now one of several. And while this achievement is “historic,” it also underscores the importance of recruiting and promoting faculty of color at the University, she says.
Helping Trinity become a more diverse learning environment is a top focus for Urquijo-Ruiz, who mentors colleagues working to attain tenure and to become full professors. In addition to reading curriculum vitae and self-evaluations, she also draws from her experience on Trinity’s promotion and tenure commission to help colleagues improve their dossiers, especially for women of color. In fact, she and Norma Cantú co-created the Women Faculty of Color Group to facilitate this mentorship.
A wide range of backgrounds—both at the head of the classroom and within it—makes for an optimal learning experience, Urquijo-Ruiz says.
“What does it mean for my students to have me as their professor? It means I am going to bring in someone who is of Mexican descent, a member of the LGBTQ community, from a working-class background, someone who is first-generation-everything—first-generation college student, master’s student, Ph.D., author, full professor,” Urquijo-Ruiz says. “There is power in learning from underrepresented people. There is power in learning from and about those other stories, cultures, economies, and politics.”
Preparing students to understand a diverse set of worldviews is at the heart of a new major, Global Latinx Studies, that will launch this fall. Urquijo-Ruiz will serve as its inaugural director.
The major takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying Mexico, the Americas, and the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). To explore the Latinx experience, students will take coursework in literature, religion, language, anthropology, economics, and history, among other subjects. The major is geared toward students who are interested in the MAS (Mexico, the Americas, and Spain) world and could use that knowledge to jumpstart a career within it.
Urquijo-Ruiz, who served as the interim director of the MAS Program last year, says Trinity is ideally situated geographically for this major. “How wonderful would it be for our students to incorporate themselves into the San Antonio community, but also into the international community?” Urquijo-Ruiz asks.
She points to the course Inventing Mexico, one of the First-Year Experiences, that introduces first-year Trinity students to the diverse people of Mexican descent in the United States and in Mexico, as well as the two countries relationships through history, culture, geography, and politics. Urquijo-Ruiz, who team-teaches Inventing Mexico, is a member of a faculty cohort currently planning a long weekend trip to Mexico City this fall as part of the course.
Although this pilot will not be available to every student, the idea leverages Trinity’s proximity to Mexico to immerse students in the culture. This adds to existing study abroad opportunities in the MAS world, from semester and summer-long internships in Madrid to special topics courses that takes students to Cuba or Nicaragua.
In May, Trinity recognized Urquijo-Ruiz for her distinguished University, community, and professional service. In addition to her work on the MAS program, she has also mentored students in the McNair Scholars and Mellon programs and helped create Trinity’s first Latinx Leadership Institute and Class, where students attend classes and workshops about leadership development in the Latinx community.
Looking toward the fall, Urquijo-Ruiz is excited as ever to get back to the classroom, where her upper-division classes regularly take the form of a circle.
“The circle is a symbol of community building, of participation and inclusivity, and that is what my classroom offers,” Urquijo-Ruiz says. “It becomes a symbiotic relationship of sharing knowledge, and so for me, I consider myself extremely lucky to have the chance to be in front of the classroom or in that circle.”