Photo courtesy of The Huffington Post

by Vince Bushell

Before memories fade I would like to remember Juan Carlos Ruiz. My recollection has been aided by former colleagues who worked or volunteered at ESHAC in the mid-1990s.
Many of you will still remember what 1994 was like in Riverwest, what some of the issues were at the time, and how
ESHAC and community organizer Ruiz addressed those issues.

After working on Latino and immigration issues in Maryland for a few years in the early 2000’s, Ruiz, a native of Peru, returned to Milwaukee to work on a broad range of community and health issues. His last organizing action was most likely the Madison “Day without Latinos” rally in mid-February of this year. He was recognized as a dedicated community organizer in the Latino community both here and nationally in the 21st century.

In the mid-1990’s, Ruiz played a significant role in our neighborhood as a community organizer at ESHAC (East Side Housing Action Coalition) — a major community organizing nonprofit here in Riverwest and in the city at large. Under lead organizer Rita Cannestra, Ruiz helped form a neighborhood group, the Riverwest Leadership Council (RLC) which was comprised of resident volunteer members. I was a member of the group and a green leader at that, having been elected as the President of the ESHAC Board of Directors.

Photo courtesy of The Huffington Post
Photo courtesy of The Huffington Post

The RLC organized neighborhood clean ups, started a neighborhood watch program called “Watch on Wheels,” and conducted a neighborhood housing survey. The belief was that improving quality of life issues: clean streets, safe streets, and quality housing would result in a better place to live, work, and play. Ruiz helped develop these programs with a zeal for activist organizing principles which he carried through his entire life. Being an “activist” also put him in a role of leader and sometimes he became a targeted personality in the political theater that is urban living. Target or not, he was never shy in front of a camera.

The concept of power gained by organizing people and money continues today. An organized people is the power that Ruiz wanted to use to lead toward specific goals. This can be controversial. Ruiz did not back away from controversy.

Mike D’Amato was doing economic development assistance at ESHAC. After becoming the director of ESHAC in 1995, D’Amato soon would be elected Alderman of the Third District (1996–2008). Ruiz thus had close contacts with the neighborhood and City Hall.
A topic dear to my heart illustrates Ruiz’s methodology as an activist organizer. The Milwaukee County Parks Department had begun evaluating its facilities and began closing swimming pools. Gordon Park had a large pool that was in disrepair with dwindling usership. It was an early target for closing. Under Ruiz’s leadership, we staged marches and protests to keep the pool open. We ultimately lost the fight, but I do think the fight led to more attention and a detailed community plan for the future which you now see in Gordon Park, with a new pavilion, splash pad, and trail connections.

Before ESHAC met its demise in 1998 (1970-1998)—due to financial woes mostly related to its large housing portfolio—Ruiz had left the organization and struck out on his own. He continued to be an activist and lobbyist for health and Latino causes for the rest of his life. Locally and nationally he led the charge against lead paint and the risks posed to children exposed to this common material in older homes. In 1999, then Wisconsin Congressman Thomas M. Barrett recognized him in the US House of Representatives for having earned the nation’s most distinguished citation for community health leadership: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Community Health Leadership Award.

Ruiz was preceded in death by Annette Maki, the mother of his children, and leaves behind their two grown children, Roberto and Paulina Ruiz-Maki. A memorial was held for him on March 10 at the Astor Hotel which was attended by hundreds of people, including Mayor Barrett, several aldermen, his sister who came from Peru, and many others who were affected by and grateful for his work.