Latino Lion Still Roaring

That old lion of Latino affairs in Nebraska, Marty Ramirez, 73, still has plenty of roar left in him.

 

Though retired from a long career as a University of Nebraska-Lincoln counselor and psychologist, he remains active as a voice for disenfranchised peoples. He holds workshops for Nebraska Appleseed and advises individuals and organizations on matters of bias and access. The respect he’s earned gives him entree to elected officials and the heads of nonprofits, universities and corporations.

 

Ramirez, who lives in Lincoln with his wife Connie, has been

recognized as a change-agent, most recently by the Nebraska Latino

American Commission.

 

He was previously honored with the NEBRASKAland Days’ Hispanic Man of

the Year  Award in North Platte

and the National Hispanic Man of the Year Award from the League of

United Latin American Citizens’ (LULAC).

 

Additionally, he’s the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award

from Chadron State College and the Melvin W. Jones Mentoring Award

for inspiring individuals and promoting diversity in community

leadership.

 

He began his counseling career at Boys Town before joining the staff

at UNL, where he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees. He

advocated for more inclusion on campus.

 

His life has been informed by the experience of growing up in the

barrio of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, seeing combat in Vietnam and

awakening to his Mexican-American identity in the Chicano Movement.

 

Ramirez was reared to take no grief from anyone.

 

“I learned from my Mexican immigrant parents to stand up and not be

pushed around,” he said.

 

His father worked for the Union Pacific and Burlington railroads.

 

“He was a wise man who negotiated with the railroad to work nine

months so that he could go home and work in beet fields in the summer.

That’s how he made money.”

 

Marty, the youngest of 11 children, worked in those same fields to

help pay his way through college.

 

One sibling died shortly after birth. All the rest graduated high

school, thus fulfilling their father’s wishes.

 

“During the Great Depression my father worked alongside educated white

men and he learned the value of an education.”

 

Marty took his first stand at 9 protesting unequal treatment of Latino

students by white  teachers. But without a support system to assert

grievances and to demand remedies, Latino voices went unheard.

 

“Chicano leadership hibernated for many years. We had no leadership

because we were too busy struggling and surviving – trying to be

American. It was engrained in us you’re Mexican, you’re expendable,

you’re not going to amount to very much, and we believed it because

nobody was there to dispel the myth.”

 

His awakening occurred in stages.

 

“Certain significant events happened my life. like going to college,

being drafted and fighting in the Vietnam War.”

 

A Gering, Nebraska bank president, the late Eldridge Scriven, took an

interest in Ramirez.

 

“This white businessman saw something in me and began to mentor me

when I was 14.”

 

Ramirez and Scriven’s son played together on the 1960 state midget

championship team.

 

“After graduating high school n 1963  I played Legion ball – thinking

I was going to join the military. About three weeks before school

started in the fall, Scriven convened a meeting with my brother Isabel

and my coach Bud Murray, who knew the baseball coach at Chadron State.

So, all of sudden, I was off to college. I had no preparation for

college life. But traveling to Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and

South.Dakota took care of the homesickness. The mentoring and

confidence I gained helped me adjust to college.”

 

From ’63 to ’67 the war intensified and Ramirez resigned himself to

being drafted. Military service was a rite of passage for the men in

his family. His father fought in the Mexican Revolution with Pancho

Villa and his brothers served stints in the U.S. military.

 

Ramirez said he and his peers “didn’t question being drafted, didn’t

question why we were there – we were just supposed to fight

Communism.”

 

He and elements of the 199th Light Infantry he was assigned to arrived

in-country during the Tet Offensive.

As his platoon’s radio man, he lugged 70 pounds of gear on his back

traversing jungles, rivers, mud, and hills.

 

“I usually was second in line. My life expectancy was not high. In the

evening we would eat rations, dig foxholes. There was little time for

sleep and rest. We were out in the field 100 days straight, living

with heat, rain monsoons, rats, snakes, mosquitoes, leeches, trying to

gain the trust of the Vietnamese people,” he wrote in a published

reminiscence of his wartime experience.

 

Enemy attacks were a nightly occurrence.

 

He said he only later learned that his outfit was considered the

Army’s “SWAT team, so that when the shit started to happen they would

pick us up in helicopters and dump us in the fight zone.”

 

Ten days before being rotated off the front, he got hit while

defending a bridge, falling some 50 feet to the ground. He remembers

yelling for a medic, He recovered from his wounds and injuries.

 

Back home, he and fellow veterans were not greeted with parades or

thank-yous but indifference and disdain, as the war had grown

unpopular. The young men who served after him in Vietnam openly

questioned the war.

 

“We learned there was a thing called Mexican Americans Against the

Vietnam War. There were massive anti-war demonstrations in Texas and

California because Mexican-Americans, blacks and poor whites were

getting drafted and put on the front lines while privileged whites got

deferments or exemptions.”

 

Of the 22 Chicanos in his Scottsbluff High School graduating class, 14

were drafted and sent to Vietnam. Of that same 22, a dozen went on to

get higher education degrees, which Ramirez calls “phenomenal” and a

clear result of an emboldened Chicano mindset

 

Returning to Scottsbluff, he viewed the unchanged conditions from a new lens.

 

“The barrio still had no regular street lights, no paving. it was

still a very racist environment. In this oppressed barrio we had no

voice. We were ashamed to eat Mexican food in the cafeteria, to speak

Spanish at school. That’s denying your identity, It’s something in

your mind and in your soul of who you are. That was the damage being

done unbeknownst to us. Nobody did anything about it “

 

Until activists like Ramirez spoke up at school board and city council meetings.

 

“I was like, you mean you send us off to war and this is how you treat

the Mexican people? I had become aware of the Chicano Movement

happening around the country., which was our own civil rights

movement.

 

“It was the Chicano Movement that empowered me –most definitely.”

 

Those woke by it like Ramirez would no longer accept less than or

blindly defend America.

 

While studying at UNL, Ramirez said, “I began to become very

politically active. I was truly conscious about was going on and I got

involved.” He co-founded the Mexican-American Student Association for

Latino students to share their culture, perspective and concerns. It’s

still active today.

 

Fellow MASA founder and UNL grad Ben Salazar has advocated for Latino

rights in the state as a journalist, attorney and organizer. Three

more Latino classmates have gone on to distinguished careers of their

own: Carlos Vallejo, Omero Suarez and Fred Rodriguez.

 

Ramirez pressed campus administrators and department heads for more

diversity, bluntly asking why their student-faculty-staff rolls and

curricula were so white.

 

“They were never challenged like that before,” Ramirez recalls. “I was

aware this is what it takes to make change and I had an idea of what I

was talking about. It was the right time in the right place for

somebody like me. I knew then I had a voice and that I could get

things done. I knew how to do it, too.”

 

Part of his duties entailed recruiting Latino students.

 

“I visited schools statewide and talked to Chicano students about

going to college. These were very high-risk students. My main message

was, ‘Look at me – if I can come from my background, a C student, and

do it, you can do it.’ I was doing advocacy on diversity, inclusion,

mental health, education – and teaching communities how to do it

themselves.”

 

His assertive style made an impression. He became a go-to resources on

Latino matters.

 

“My name was getting out there. Watch out for Marty. They knew what

they were getting into when they met with Marty.”

 

For all his academic credentials and access to power-brokers, Ramirez

remains a man of the people.

 

“In one day I can meet with the governor, the bishop, the mayor and

have a drink with the undocumented. That’s my range of life.”

 

For a long time he noted Nebraska lagged far behind neighboring states

in terms of progressive opportunities for Latinos in education and

employment.

 

“We really had nothing. The activists among us started moving the needle.”

 

Where before Latinos here were averse to take on issues “the Chicano

Way – with direct confrontation,” that became an accepted strategy.

 

“I was a mover and I was a shaker. We felt we had no time to waste.

There was never a dull moment.”

 

Over the years, the gaps have closed somewhat.

 

“Educators and community leaders began to make changes,” he said.

 

Latinos increasingly work in professions once denied them or they

self-selected themselves from. More now obtain higher education

degrees, open businesses, reach the middle class, run for public

office. His seven children all have college degrees.

 

He’s impressed with the crop of young Latino leaders emerging in Nebraska.

 

“They’re awesome. They’re all over the state. That’s very encouraging.”

 

Progress has been commensurate with an increase in Latinos voting in

local, state and national elections. With their numbers in Nebraska

and nationwide only expected to grow, Latinos are ever more a force to

be reckoned with when exercising their collective voice at the polls

and in the marketplace.

 

“Those are all game-changers,” Ramirez said.

 

But there’s much work left to be done.

 

“In many cases we’re still starting at the bottom and there are still

gatekeepers keeping us out. That’s one of the major challenges we’re

facing that we’re trying to address.”

 

Overall though, he’s pleased by the gains made.

 

“I take pride in what impact I’ve had in pushing some of these things

forward in Nebraska.”

 

It all goes back to that awakening 50 years ago.

 

“The Chicano Movement started this. We said, you’re not going to

define who we are. That’s the biggest change I see with the Latino

population. Through all this you’ve got to find your identity. That’s

been our challenge. That’s what I think about now.”

 

His work around identity even extends to consulting the Nebraska State

Historical Society on identifying historic Mexican adobe houses in

Scottsbluff.

 

A sign of these changing time is the mayor of Scottsbluff – Raymond

Gonzales. Even though the town is still predominantly white, it has a

Latino mayor – something Ramirez couldn’t have imagined 50 years ago,

 

“Having a Chicano mayor is historic and positive. At the same time, it

is the city council who elects their mayor. If it was a general

election, I’m not so sure.” said Ramirez, who served as master of

ceremony for a November 11 Chicano/Mexican-American military service

memorial dedication in Scottsbluff.

One thought on “Latino Lion Still Roaring

  1. This was so interesting, thank you for sharing! It brings back the way things were and still are in some ways, but thanks to those who fought for change have let us Mexicans/American Mexicans/Chicanos/ etc. have a better life. I lost my husband Bennie in 2015, a lot due to his two years in Vietnam. And I’m still angry about it. May his soul Rest In Peace now. I’m proud of Marty Ramirez and all those who fought for change.

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