Life and death in the shadows of Seattle
Seattle’s invisible underclass tries to get the city to see.
Seattle Times staff columnist
“Alvaro Ruiz!” shouted the man at the front. “Presente!” shouted back about a hundred Latino immigrants one foggy morning last week.
Alvaro Ruiz was not really presente. He was murdered three weeks ago in Sodo. The crowd was willing him spiritually into the room. But there also was a note of pleading: Does anybody in this city notice that he’s gone?
Ruiz, 54, a Mexican immigrant, was a popular figure at the Casa Latina day-labor center on Seattle’s Jackson Street. On Sept. 28 someone walking in the concrete thicket of walkways and overpasses next to Safeco Field found him lying under a blanket on the sidewalk. Ruiz had been beaten to death.
What happened next didn’t sit right with the mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants who knew him.
Five days passed before police notified the public there had even been a homicide, and they didn’t include his identity. Though Ruiz was killed three weeks ago now and was carrying an ID, his name has not been reported in the news.
King County finally listed him in its regular accounting of deaths last Wednesday. But otherwise nobody would know Alvaro Ruiz was ever here, let alone had been murdered.
Live in the shadows. Die there, too.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt there’s a hierarchy of who is valued in society, and these guys are at the bottom,” says Emily Gaggia, who helped give Ruiz English lessons.
“It’s not like Seattle has 300 murders a year,” says Hilary Stern, who runs Casa Latina. (Seattle has had 20 homicides so far in 2013 — Ruiz was number 18.)
“If it was me or you who had been killed, wouldn’t it be all over the place?”
We all know the answer to that. Ruiz was both homeless and in the country illegally. Though he had three daughters and a son back in Mexico and was regarded as a diligent, hard worker, there’s no doubt the news of his killing, had it been broadcast, would have been greeted with a civic shrug.
Instead he wasn’t mentioned at all.
“It makes me so sad that anyone in our time and place could die this nameless, faceless death,” said one of his teachers, Araceli Hernandez.
In the Casa Latina meeting hall the other day, Ruiz’s fellow day laborers gathered before the start of the workday to prove he wasn’t invisible after all.
They listened to his favorite song, John Lennon’s “Imagine.” They told how he loved to practice English by reciting Beatles lyrics (apparently “love me do” just doesn’t translate). A band played music from his home state of Veracruz.
A bucket was passed to raise money for his family back in Mexico. The indigent crowd deposited what seemed a huge amount, $790.
“Alvaro is bringing out the love in the workers,” Hernandez said.
The police wouldn’t tell me much about Ruiz’s death. Stern said detectives have told her they think he was killed by at least one other homeless person. She does believe police are putting effort into the case, for which she is grateful.
After the dawn memorial service I went down to the site where Ruiz was killed. No one had painted his name on the pavement, as often happens at murder scenes. In fact, some homeless men had set up bedrolls right where he was killed.
They said they’d never heard of Ruiz. Or that anyone had recently died there.
Presente. It seems a basic thing: To just count in the roll call of life.
But nothing comes easy in the shadows. In the end, it took a hundred strong to answer “here!” on behalf of Alvaro Ruiz, so that his city would know he existed.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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