Parallel lives: Alejandro Murguía reanimates life of North Beach dancer Maclovia Ruiz

“Secret history has been the subject of my research for a long time,” said poet and educator Alejandro Murguía by way of opening a conversation about Maclovia Ruiz, the internationally acclaimed dancer from another era with roots in North Beach.

Sprung from the stages of what was once The City’s Latin Quarter, Ruiz arrived to North Beach with her family in 1914 as a 4-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico.

“They wouldn’t let her enroll in dance school or perform because she was Mexican,” explained Murguía, who has researched the Ruiz archives at The Museum of Performance + Design and is developing a play, “The Latin Quarter: Maclovia Ruiz and the Missing Beat,” based on Ruiz’s life.

“One of the first places she performed was at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, right there on Broadway,” he explained. “From very humble origins, she became a superstar, one of the most well-known ballet dancers in the world.”

Murguía is an artist well-acquainted with the rigors of racism and has lived his own version of Ruiz’s story. Descended from a father from Mexico City and a mother of Mexican heritage from New Mexico, Murguia’s immediate family has roots here that pre-date California’s statehood, with undeniable ties to the Native and European explorer populations.

“The forty-niners displaced and murdered those who were already here — the Native Americans and the Californios,” he wrote in his memoir, “The Medicine of Memory: A Mexica Clan in California.” In another passage he writes, “my Gold Rush heritage is that Chicanos are foreigners in their own land.”

Murguía was barely 2 when his mother died in a car accident, leaving his father to raise him and his brother at a bracero camp in the San Fernando Valley. Along with the discrimination he experienced as a child, he, like Ruiz, experienced North Beach on his own terms as a Beat-inspired poet looking for work. In a flash of overlap, he and Ruiz once shared the same employer.

“It turns out that way, way, way back in the day the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act in the early ‘70s would hire people, poets like myself, to teach in the Mission,” he recalled. Unemployment was particularly high at the time, and unbelievable as it might seem today, artists were in line for jobs in their fields.

“It was my first job as a poet, and it was Maclovia Ruiz’s last job to teach seniors and people with disabilities the art of dance at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House,” he recalled. “I remember people talking about this fabulous dancer being hired, but it faded in my memory until this project came up.”

After multiple rejections on her way up, Ruiz trained at the Peters Wright Dance School. From the age of 15, she worked the vaudeville circuit and became the first woman of color to dance with the San Francisco Ballet. Along the way, she also learned Flamenco dance and became an in-demand performer throughout South and Central America, Spain and in Hollywood. She lived in the Bay Area until her death in 2005 at the age of 95. Her New York Times obituary noted the high note of her career was the lead role in “Carmen,” performed at the Metropolitan Opera House under the direction of legendary choreographer George Balanchine.

Murguía’s young life and professional training were similarly hard-won and ultimately honorific, though his early memory of his family adobe house in the orange groves of Southern California were not particularly sweet. “If despair has an odor, it must be the smell of those labor camps,” he wrote.

Seeking freedom from the system, literally and figuratively, higher education wasn’t on Murguía’s radar until an interested teacher encouraged him to enroll at Los Angeles City College. It was the height of the Chicano student organizing movement of the ’60s and he became directly involved in El Movimiento and the efforts to create an ethnic studies department inclusive of non-white histories and cultural expressions. Observing the student strikes and actions unfolding at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, he left L.A. under cover of night, heading for The City in 1971.

“It was obligatory to go to City Lights Books, it was obligatory to go to Caffe Trieste,” he said, recalling his life as a young poet. “I met Richard Brautigan hanging out. It was a totally different time.”

Working at the aforementioned CETA poetry gig, he became entrenched in Mission life and culture in the ‘70s. He co-founded the literary journal “Tin-Tan” and the Mission Cultural Center. Politically, he swung radical, going as far as Nicaragua to soldier with his friends fighting to overthrow the Samoza family regime.

Eventually, Murguía would work his way through San Francisco State, earn his masters, become a professor at the university and publish with City Lights. In 2012, he was the first Latino to be named San Francisco Poet Laureate. He continues to advocate for multilingual and literary education, and for the preservation of San Francisco’s literary cultural heritage city-wide. Still, his heart belongs to the one-time working class strongholds North Beach and the Mission.

Ruiz’s story, with its history of North Beach, the disappearance of its Latino families and the largely forgotten history of the Latin Quarter was a natural for a secret historian like Murguía. Using her personal oral testimony, archived at the Museum of Design + Performance, “I have her intimate story,” he said. For the purpose of his telling, Murguía chose to begin with the origins of North Beach.

“I went back to Juana Briones, the first person to build a house in San Francisco and she built it in North Beach,” he said. “San Francisco really began with a Mexican woman.”

Juana Briones is yet another name on a roll call of pioneering women who are not entirely familiar to local students or adults. As scholars dig deeper and correct the historical record, the stories of women of color who shaped our region are beginning to emerge. Briones, originally from the Santa Cruz Mountains, came to Yerba Buena in the 1920s and is considered a founding mother of the area for her land acquisitions, her hospitable farm lands and her skills as a midwife, among other abilities. In 2014, the California Historical Society recognized her contribution to modern-day San Francisco with an exhibit that conserved a wall of her Palo Alto home, saving it from complete demolition.

The history of North Beach’s Latin Quarter — a designation that simultaneously isolated and segregated Italian, Spanish and Latin American immigrants to the area while fostering cultural arts — eventually fell away entirely from most historical accounts. But Ruiz’s personal effects, especially her scrapbooks, became Murguía’s way into his deeper look at the period.

“There were all kinds of ads for Latino night clubs on Broadway and Columbus, Bay Street and Van Ness. There was a whole circuit,” he said, remembering a few of the district’s remnants.

“There was still La Sinaloa and still a bit of the Latin Quarter visible until the mid-’70s,” he said. It’s probably safe to say with the moving of Cesar’s Latin Palace from North Beach to the Mission in the late ‘70s, the dissolution of the Latin Quarter was complete.

“The changes are disconcerting for sure,” said Murguía, who has seen his share of disruptions in The City, including the early 21st century dot-bust.

“Everything is changing and North Beach is also changing. It’s not the Italian neighborhood I knew, it’s more of a tourist neighborhood. Where are the Italians? I’m not sure,” he said.

His collaboration with the Museum of Performance + Design was a unique opportunity to bring forth not only the forgotten story of Ruiz and her life that straddled multiple cultures, trends and historical epochs, but of the Latin Quarter and North Beach in a kind of trifecta of hidden histories.

But lest her innate talent be forgotten, Ruiz’s skill will be brought to life in attempted replication of her style by dancer Claudia Deveze in Murguía’s new play.

“I originally trained in theater in college, so this is my warm up to see if I can tell an interesting story in a more dramatic way than poetry or storytelling,” Murguía said.

Chances are better than average he will succeed.

I first heard Murguía read live at a tribute to Ishmael Reed, a writer of prose, poetry and plays which punctuate the underreported histories of African-Americans. Murguía’s spoken passage of Reed’s “Flight To Canada,” which tells the journey of a runaway slave, was delivered as compelling and darkly humorous as its author likely intended, though its uncontained rage shook the walls of the Mission District theater where it was read. I have since heard Murguía read his own anti-colonialist work on multiple occasions throughout The City and his presentations are uniformly unflinching.

“It’s a great marriage of artist and subject,” Kirsten Tanaka, the interim executive director of the Museum of Performance + Design, said of Murguía’s approach to making history come alive on the stage. The museum, established in 1947 to maintain a living record of the history of the performing arts, is open to the public in Dogpatch; it will maintain an exhibit of photos, costumes and other artifacts from Ruiz’s life throughout this summer. This week, the Ruiz live archive project gets its first airing with a workshop performance at the Brava Cabaret.

“We’re bringing the archive out of the stacks in the museum,” Murguía said. “Archives can be living moving things, not just dusty scrapbooks of photographs.” There is also a universality to the Ruiz story that is resonant beyond the Latino and North Beach communities.

“On the one hand, Maclovia’s story tells the story of all artists who struggle, of being accepted not just by an audience and by family but by breaking into an art form that’s not really open because they are black or women or LGBTQ,” said Murguía.“Without support, Maclovia makes an impression on everyone who sees her dance. Hers is the story of the struggle of an emerging artist, but also the struggle of a Latina artist who had to surmount even more obstacles.”

Ruiz’s story is clearly not one locked in time or place; rather, it’s a guidepost for the ways in which art feeds not only the artist, but the entire community that nurtures its artists.

“Hopefully, we’re able to spark memories, not only of North Beach and The Mission but of other neighborhoods going through rapid changes and to encourage people to find out about their neighborhoods and the people who contributed so much to The City.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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