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