As a kid living near Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project, Ray Ruiz would strap a two-piece fishing pole to the handlebars of his bike and pedal to the Lincoln Park Lagoon. "I was in harm's way the entire ride," says Ruiz. "There were gangs and drugs all over, but the lagoon was awesome. I'd catch bass, bluegill, and crappies." Ruiz learned outdoor skills from his father, who grew up hunting squirrels with a slingshot in Mexico's state of Jalisco. Today, Ruiz passes on those skills to new generations through his outreach job at the DNR, where he works to increase fishing participation among Minnesota's Latino residents.
Q |What early memories do you have of fishing with your dad?
We'd go to the Kankakee River south of Chicago and shore-fish and have cookouts. When I was like 7, I was standing in the middle of the Kankakee with my legs spread out for balance, and a 10-pound catfish swam right between my legs and down the current. It was so cool, and my dad was there to see it. I fell in love with fishing that trip.
Q |How did you end up in Minnesota?
After high school I went to the University of Minnesota and majored in Chicano studies.
Q |Did that make you want to work with Latino groups?
I actually worked in the beer industry for a long time, for a wholesaler. But the company made cuts and I got laid off. Rather than go back to the beverage industry, I created an online informational fishing platform in Spanish. The platform focused on Latino residents in the Twin Cities. I made videos about how to get a license, how to tie basic knots, things like that. So many people don't know the basics, and I felt it was important to build awareness. That was two years ago.
Q |Is that how you connected with the DNR?
I reached out to the DNR to get some information for my website and they liked what I was doing, so they asked me to come in and run their I Can Fish! program. Eventually, they hired me on full time in my current role, where I work with nonprofits like Casa de Esperanza to not only get families out fishing, but to help those organizations start year-round fishing clubs.
Q | So your DNR job is sort of an extension of your website.
Yeah, I'd say so. Again, the mission is to build awareness. I talk to so many Spanish-speaking people who think they can't get a fishing license in Minnesota because they need a driver's license. You don't! There's all this misinformation out there. I tell folks they can use things like their ITIN [individual taxpayer identification number], passport, or foreign ID. I spend most of my time giving people accurate information so they can feel confident and empowered in the outdoors.
Q |How do you gauge the success of your outreach efforts?
When you approach organizations like the ones I work with, the mistake that a lot of government agencies make is they come in with an agenda. My approach is to listen, ask questions, and find out if their agenda matches the DNR's. That's been really successful for us. That said, talking about how to reach different audiences can be uncomfortable. But agencies need to get uncomfortable. That's how you move the needle.
Q |Have you had any memorable moments while teaching families to fish?
I led a trip to Lake Rebecca in Hastings. We were on the dock there and this little girl caught a huge bluegill. She yelled, "Mommy! Mommy! I caught a fish!" and then accidentally slapped her mom in the face with the fish. The mom's cheek was covered in slime. It was great.