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From the mid-16th century, through the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773 and beyond, Jesuit colleges in Europe led the way in the arts, turning out famous playwrights including Joseph Simeon, Pierre Corneille, and Molière. In 2021, theater and the inspiration it provides for students in Jesuit schools continue to thrive. Imanol Ruiz’s story is a testament to the enduring legacy of these Jesuit contributions.

Imanol Ruiz finds the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee to be a source of inspiration. Ruiz says, “The Basilica was built by immigrants, so to me it is an example of what immigrants can accomplish and the limitless possibilities of what we can do with our lives. It also serves as a depiction of the beauty and magnitude, which is the Catholic Church.”

Ruiz, the son of a hardworking, faith-filled immigrant family and a ’20 graduate of Cristo Rey Jesuit High Milwaukee, grew up in the city’s historic Mitchell Street neighborhood. His parents, originally from Santiago Maravatío in Guanajuato, Mexico, immigrated to the U.S. in pursuit of a better life. He describes the life they gave him in Milwaukee and his education at St. Josaphat and Cristo Rey as “the greatest gifts.”

Encouraged by his theater teacher at Cristo Rey, Catie O’Donnell, Ruiz submitted an original work to the Milwaukee Chamber Theater’s Young Playwright’s competition and won. Ruiz was especially enthusiastic about the subject of his play, Armando Llorente, SJ, a Spanish-born Cuban Jesuit who taught and mentored a teenage Fidel Castro at the Jesuit’s El Colegio de Belen in Havana.

Ruiz exercises artistic license but for one micro-story. Castro, the revolutionary, is in hiding and is visited by Llorente, disguised as a farmer. In a dramatic moment Llorente, who was a father figure to Castro for years, pleads with him to abandon the revolution. Castro, offended and enraged, sends him away, leaving Llorente to pray for Castro’s soul. The relationship continues for decades, despite Castro’s expulsion of the Society of Jesus from Cuba in 1961. Later in life, in many situations, Llorente, who has since emigrated to Miami, humanizes Castro even as the world demonizes him. This conflict, imagined and animated by Ruiz, becomes the heart and the soul of the play.

Ruiz did not always see himself as an artist nor as a strong self-advocate. During his senior year at Cristo Rey, he worked on a project for his Advanced Placement research class titled Evangelizing Through Media. Ruiz interviewed Fr. James Martin, SJ, for the essay and realized through their pivotal exchange that he could build his own opportunities. His parents had, of course, provided the platform, and Cristo Rey provided the skills and community. As Fr. Bill Johnson, SJ, says, “Imanol sacar el jugo—he took advantage of every opportunity of his Jesuit education— heart, mind, and soul.”

While Ruiz enthusiastically credits every teacher and every mentor he has encountered on this journey, he credits his BMO Harris work-study mentors, Tricia Fitzpatrick and Mary Ristow-Dey, with teaching him critical life skills. Ristow-Dey, herself a practicing Lutheran, helped him to understand and tap into his faith more deeply. His transition to college has been supported by the All in Milwaukee program and by his mentors there, Bill and Sandy Haack. The Haacks say, “Imanol is a self-starter, mature beyond his years. We are hoping to help him achieve his potential.”

Currently a theater student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Ruiz is developing that potential. He hopes to widen his artistic repertoire by writing screenplays, working on films, and building his technical skills. Ruiz says that he is “elated by the thriving arts scene in Milwaukee,” and sees the area as an up-and-coming hub for aspiring artists like himself. Perhaps, like the European Jesuit colleges of past centuries which yielded notable productions, methods, and people, the drama programs of the Jesuit institutions of the Midwest will continue to inspire. Imanol Ruiz believes so!

Kristine Mackey is VP for advancement and communications for the USA Midwest Province Jesuits.

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