Book Review: We Had Our Reasons: Poems by Ricardo Ruiz

I never know where or how I’m going to come across good writing about the Pacific Northwest. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I was walking through the book fair at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle when I found myself in conversation with a young man who had just published his first book of poetry, titled We Had Our Reasons. I asked him to tell me about it and liked both his subject–the lives of migrant workers–and his demeanor, so I bought a copy.

Poet Ricardo Ruiz

It was only when the writer, Ricardo Ruiz, had signed the book that I noticed the workers he wrote about lived in Eastern Washington. He had already told me his book was really a collaborative effort. He had interviewed workers of Mexican descent and fashioned poetry in different forms and voices from what they told him. Some were legal immigrants, some were undocumented, some had been born in the United States, and one was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

It wasn’t until I was on the bus home and read the first few pages that I realized what a treasure his book is. In verse that has the accessibility of a Billy Collins or Mary Oliver but channels a very different world, Ruiz presents the struggles, hopes, and sometimes dangerous experiences of a group of people for whom the United States is both tentative home and too-often-tarnished dream.

His book is divided into sections that represent the different parts of the migrant worker experience: The Arrival, The Fields, Deportation, and Joining One Gang or Another. An introduction of sorts shares the book’s title, We Had Our Reasons, and the book ends with a final section called Collaborative Poets, in which Ruiz tells us about the lives of the people he interviewed, as well as his own, and includes fragments of his interviews with them.

Here’s a poem from the Arrival section called “Silent Crossing, Sleeping to the Other Side,” in the voice of a mother thinking about her young son:

you slept for two days
over-drugged by the coyote

I gathered all the sounds
you should have made

placing them inside the leather bag
upon my shoulder

when my steps strained
I opened the satchel and listened

                                   each night

I held your sounds
and know your future's here

And here’s one from the Deportation section titled “Can’t Trust Them”:

My dad traveled to Detroit in 1924
To answer this nation's call:
Leaving Monterrey, Mexico to work on
The railroad. His labor was needed
Until it wasn't. Forced out, fired
Because his job was given to
A white man in 1930. Repatriated

Again, the US came calling Mexican men.
To help the war fight, he returned.
He knew the job, he knew the railroad.
The war ended, yet he wasn't allowed to go home:
Locked up in Union Gap for answering
The call. Interned with 150 others
For being brown.

He walked home to Mexico,
his one true home,
Vowing never to return.
I told my dad I'm going north.
He sipped on his café con leche.
He didn't stop me;
He closed his eyes y me dio la bendición,

With the warning,
Don't ever trust America.

Other poems talk about being taped into a sleeping bag and stored for transport “like a gray balloon…where the trucker kept the chains,” or a mother serving “foil burritos still warm in the dented green Thermos” out in the fields “on our own Bring-Your-Kids-to-Work Day.” One poem ends with these simple words:

In court, a judge filled in the form:

NAME:       PATTY (LAST NAME HERE)

STATUS:   Immediate Deportation

AGE:           9

What Ruiz has given us is a portrait of an entire community that is generally overlooked and, if noticed, depersonalized or demonized. Yet here, in evocative writing, are the yearnings, the family connections, and the terribly hard work–in apple orchards, blueberry fields, potato factories–of people who dream and make mistakes, who love and live in fear of those who have power over them, merely because of their skin color.

We Had Our Reasons is published by the little-known Pulley Press, an imprint of Clyde Hill Publishing in Seattle and Washington, D. C. Buy this book (at only $18) and let it open your eyes and your heart to the hard but meaningful lives of the people in it. In doing so, you’ll expand your vision of what America is and at the same time help a promising young poet.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ricardo Ruiz is a multi-dimensional writer of poetry and prose. The son of potato factory workers, Ricardo hails from Othello, Washington. His work draws from his experience as a first-generation Mexican-American, and from his military service. Ricardo holds an Associate Degree in Business and Accounting from Big Bend Community College, where he was recognized as Student of the Year in both Business and Economics, and English Composition. He also holds a Bachelor of Art in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. While in the military, Ricardo earned the rank of Staff Sergeant while serving on four deployments, two to Afghanistan. He is passionate about elevating marginalized voices from rural communities and takes pride in being a conduit for cultural connection.

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