`Self-starter' guided city's Hispanic community

Jose Orlando Ruiz 1950-2006

December 08, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Jose Orlando Ruiz became known throughout Baltimore's Latino community for a brand of tireless advocacy he brought to the administrations of two governors and two mayors.

But for Mr. Ruiz, who died Tuesday at age 56 at Good Samaritan Hospital of complications from pancreatic cancer, nothing was more important than guiding Hispanic youth through the mentoring and tutoring organization he founded with his wife more than two decades ago.

Since being appointed as the city's first Hispanic liaison in 1979 by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, Mr. Ruiz was a familiar - and persistent - figure to policy makers and the grassroots alike for his dedication to the Latino community in Baltimore and beyond.

"I have been amazed at how many lives he's touched in Baltimore," said Pamela Bohrer Brown, a friend and board member at Education Based Latino Outreach, the youth organization Mr. Ruiz founded in 1980. "This is a real loss for the community, it truly is."

"Jose Ruiz initiated so many programs that increased the educational and business opportunities for Baltimore's Hispanic population," said Mayor Martin O'Malley in a statement. "In many respects, Jose was instrumental in the growth of Baltimore, particularly Baltimore's Hispanic community. ... We have all lost a friend."

Born May 29, 1950, in New York, Mr. Ruiz was the middle child of five. His father, a Korean War veteran, and his mother, a homemaker and teacher's aide, left Cayey, Puerto Rico, in the 1940s for New York's Lower East Side.

As a child, Mr. Ruiz developed a love of music, particularly the classic salsa of his parents' generation, said his wife of 28 years, Claire Hollister. After completing high school, Mr. Ruiz showed a knack for community organizing, working for a neighborhood food co-op and advocating for better housing conditions, said Ms. Hollister.

He was also a free spirit, who during the 1970s spent a year traveling through Puerto Rico playing congas in a band, she said. In 1977, Ms. Hollister, a Dundalk native visiting New York for vacation, met Mr. Ruiz, congas in hand, during a jam session in New York's Washington Square Park. "His amazing good looks, that was the first thing I remember," said Ms. Hollister, 53. "And his sense of humor, his passion for life. He's just warm and genuine. He was the best man I've ever met in my life."

A year later, Mr. Ruiz moved to Baltimore, the couple married and had a daughter, Alba Lucia Hollister-Ruiz. Ms. Hollister said Mr. Ruiz was a devoted father to Ms. Hollister-Ruiz, as well as to his daughter from a previous relationship, Rachel DeCrescenzo, who grew up with her mother in New York. In Baltimore, Mr. Ruiz noticed a mushrooming Latino community but few translation and outreach services to help guide the new residents. He became an addiction counselor at the Hispanic Apostolate of Catholic Charities, linking people in need with services and providing translation for non-English-speakers.

Through his work, he became active in neighborhood associations and known to local elected officials. In 1979, Mr. Ruiz approached then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer about a job as a Hispanic advocate, and Mr. Schaefer hired him.

"One of the things he was best at was making something out of nothing. He was never afraid to ask for something," said Ms. Hollister. "And he could get what he wanted, because he really had the power of persuasion. He was persistent."

When Mr. Schaefer became governor, Mr. Ruiz was appointed director of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs. He worked for Mr. Schaefer's successor, Parris N. Glendening, and later came back to Baltimore to work for as Mr. O'Malley's Hispanic liaison from 2003 to 2005.

In Baltimore, Mr. Ruiz organized business summits, homebuying workshops and the 26-year-old LatinoFest, which benefits his organization, Education Based Latino Outreach. He also reached out to Korean and Jewish groups, said Ms. Hollister.

"Jose was passionate; he was all about creating opportunity for folks who came to Baltimore," said Izzy Patoka, director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods. "He was a self-starter. ... He was the originator of ideas. He didn't wait around for someone to say, `Hey, Jose, you ought to do this'."

Mr. Ruiz shared his love of music with Baltimore on the airwaves with Fiesta Musical, a bilingual Latin music program airing Tuesdays from 9 p.m. to midnight on WEAA 88.9 FM.

"Jose is this incredible walking encyclopedia of everything in the salsa world," said Ms. Brown. "He knew all the old artists, who they played with, where they came from. And he was able to bring many of them to Baltimore to perform."

Ileana Luciani, executive director of the Latino Providers Network, said Mr. Ruiz's love for music mimicked his enthusiasm for life.

But Mr. Ruiz's biggest passion was the mentoring and tutoring program he founded with Ms. Hollister in 1980 and returned to in 2005 to be executive director. Known as EBLO, the organization began with five volunteers tutoring a handful of students on Saturday morning in an East Baltimore library. Years later, the organization settled into its present home on South Ann Street in Fells Point, offering youth programs, Spanish and English classes to adults, computer classes and cultural events.

"There just weren't any resources for people who spoke Spanish," said Ms. Hollister. "A lot of these families couldn't speak English, and these kids were really lost in the shuffle."

A memorial for Mr. Ruiz is planned for 1 p.m. Dec. 17 at EBLO, 606 S. Ann St.

In addition to his wife and daughters, Mr. Ruiz is survived by his mother, Alba Ruiz, of New York; two brothers, Ozzie Ruiz of Pennsylvania and Armin Ruiz of New York; and a sister, Magaly Vasquez of Charlotte, N.C.

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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