By Maria E. Garcia
As we sat down to do our interview, Jesse Ramirez opened the conversation saying “I am a product of the Great Depression. We had to put food on the table so we did everything we could to make money”. He had many stories and memories of various events in the period between the 1930s and 1940s.
Jesse was born on April 22, 1926, in Houston, Texas and raised there. During the Depression he and his brother did various things to “put food on the table”. They sold newspapers and shined shoes to earn a few pennies. He sold the Houston Chronicle for three cents. He says the big thrill would be if someone gave you a nickel for the three cent newspaper and told you to keep the change. On Saturday nights they would stay up late preparing the Sunday paper for delivery.
Shining shoes was more profitable since a shoe shine cost ten cents. Sometimes you would receive a tip for shining shoes and all the money went to putting food on the table. As I listened to Jesse talk I was reminded that this story is the same story we heard from the boys from Logan Heights during that time period, over a thousand miles from Houston.
Jesse’s father had several sayings about supporting yourself, one of them being “no work, no dinner.” His father would take the boys fishing with the purpose of putting food on the table. On one of their fishing trips and after Mr. Ramirez told his sons “No fish, no dinner” they filled a gunny sack full of fish.
The fish was shared with all the neighbors. Helping your neighbor was a lesson that Jesse took to heart and was never forgotten. He remembers neighbors supporting each other during that difficult period in our history.
Jesse’s second oldest brother worked for an Austin delivery service. Jesse had been able to save all of three dollars and purchased a “skinny tire bike.” This bike was a worthwhile investment, enabling Jesse to earn a dollar a day delivering packages and even mail. With great pride Jesse says they never begged for anything. He says his dad had instilled the Mexican work ethic in him and all of his brothers.
As Jesse entered Sam Houston High School the talk of war was starting to be heard throughout the United States. Jesse’s brothers, like many young men throughout our country, enlisted in various branches of the service. Jesse wanted to join too and was constantly bugging his father to sign the necessary papers that would allow him to enter the Navy at the age of sixteen. Jesse finally wore Mr. Ramirez down and he agreed to sign the necessary paper to allow him to enlist.
In Mr. Ramirez’s words he said “Para que no estes fregando.” (So that you’ll quit bugging me.) Jesse’s next stop was Navy Training Center (NTC) in San Diego. He remembers that in those days Harbor Drive was a barren sandy area and that the YMCA was the tallest building downtown.
From boot camp he was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania and was soon on his way to the Aleutian Islands. He says that he has never been as cold as he was in the Aleutian Islands. In the dark the battle ships looked like huge buildings. On the ship the bunks were stacked five bunks high. This means there was someone sleeping over or under your bunk.
They invaded two islands, bombarding them with cannons from the ship. The Japanese, however, had fled the islands. On shore, all they found was a little dog that had been abandon by the Japanese. The little dog was taken aboard ship and became a member of the crew. Later the men would give the Commander a small fire hydrant to commemorate the effort and the rescue of this little dog. From the Aleutian Islands they headed to Pearl Harbor for some R&R.
It was there that Jesse learned that his brother Michael had died in the invasion of Guam. Another sailor had a copy of the Houston Chronicle, the very newspaper Jesse had delivered as a boy. While reading the newspaper he came across an article with pictures of his brothers Ignacio and Johnnie. The article spoke about Mr. and Mrs. Felipe Ramirez having four sons fighting in the war and that a four star service flag hung in their home. One of those stars was gold, representing a service member killed in action.
Seeing the gold star comment shocked Jesse. He went on to read that Michael had been killed. Jesse remembers running upstairs and crying. Jesse communicated with his family through U.S. mail but the shocking news of Michael’s death had not reached him. He was devastated at the news of his brother’s death.
His experiences in the Navy were varied and at times very dangerous. Jesse was also a part of the crew that was on the Bikini Island where the nuclear bomb had been tested prior to being used at Hiroshima.
In 1943 Jesse was in Oakland, California. There was a strip of Mexican bars where the sailors would go to dance with the local girls. It was at one of these bars, the Hiqui, that Jesse met Mary Juana Lujan Ramirez, his wife and partner for the last 67 years. Jesse says he knew from the first day “she was the one”.
He would write Mary regularly but his letters were intercepted by her mother and never reached Mary. Jesse says her mom was concerned that a sailor would have a girl in every port and wanted to protect her daughter. Interestingly enough Mary’s mom did not destroy the letters but put them aside. Today the letters are in the possession of Jesse’s daughter Celia.
After the war Jesse returned to Houston and attended Sam Houston Institute of Technology which Jesse refers to as SHIT. His big problem was that he missed Mary and he soon informed his family that he was going back in the Navy. His explanation for his reenlistment was simple. “I wanted to go see Mary”.
In 1948 Jesse and Mary were married and lived in Oakland. Their first apartment was a room under the stairs of a house in Oakland. Jesse says the apartment was so small that they only had a small cot and the majority of the time he slept on the floor.
His Navy career advanced and he and Mary lived in various places including San Diego. He remembers the discrimination he faced while in the Navy. Jesse had several leadership positions throughout his Navy career. At one point he checked his file and saw two letters, one stating that Chief Ramirez was designated to receive a letter of commendation, and the other stating that he was to receive a letter of achievement.
Those letters never came. Jesse explains it this way, that he grew up in Texas where he was used to experiencing discrimination. As much as he would have liked to receive the letters he wasn’t surprised that he never did.
He says he even experienced discrimination when he applied for Navy housing. He had requested that he be granted housing in an integrated community. He had his eye on the beautiful housing he saw near the NTC. When they were given housing it was old Navy housing located between Chula Vista and National City. He said that the majority of the residents were people of color with a few Anglos but basically a segregated community.
At one point in his Navy career he was put in charge of a group of Cuban exiles. Jesse describes the group which he trained in landing craft and swimming skills as “hot headed” . This group had the belief and the hope that they would return to “liberate” Cuba. Jesse said he got this assignment because he spoke Spanish. There was a variety of assignments throughout his Navy career. His last command was Vietnam.
By this time the family was living in National City and Jesse, now a civilian, was working in community programs as well as organizing and volunteering within his church. He pushed for a PTA at Kimbrough School in National City even though the principal did not want a PTA. He organized parents and before long a PTA was established.
All of these tasks enabled him to become a very good organizer. His philosophy was that you lead and then step back when others take the leadership and you are no longer needed, a practice that is always cited as the trait of a good leader.
While still in the Navy he worked in what he calls poverty programs. His sense of doing what was right became his gauge for what he became involved in. He credits the Navy with giving him leadership skills. He also has another saying “ask why and if you don’t like the answer fix it.” This is what Jesse did the rest of his life.
Jesse went to work at the MAAC center when it was Called Mexican American Advisory Committee. At that time the director was Larry Montoya. Jesse served in various capacities, including administrative assistant. Jesse says that at MAAC he learned about managing programs.
When Chicanos were picketing San Diego Gas and Electric because of a “frito bandito” type of advertisement, Jesse took pan dulce and coffee to the picketers, serving them from the back of his station wagon. At times he had leadership roles and at other times he was a worker bee.
In 1969, Jesse became director of the Chicano Federation. At that time the Chicano Federation was in its infancy. It played an essential advocacy role for any and most issues in the Chicano community. It was on Jesse’s watch that many of the programs that helped and supported Chicanos came into being. If Chicanos were picketing, protesting, learning or developing programs the Chicano Federation was there.
Jesse remembers that when negotiating for the park and the building under the Coronado Bridge in what is known as Chicano Park, he developed the ability to “predict” the future. A group of people had been negotiating for both the park and the building. It was then discovered that the City had leased this property to the California Highway Patrol. As part of a resolution to this issue Mayor Curran had agree to meet in his office with a small group of about fifteen.
The word miraculously spread that there was a meeting with Mayor Curran. A group of about 200 people went to that meeting. I was one of those attendees. Mayor Curran was furious and asked that everyone go down to the council chambers in order to accommodate those individuals that had come to the meeting. Jesse believes this was a ploy so that the mayor could sit at his designated place and look down at the attendees.
A July 21, 1970 newspaper article describes the meeting as follows: Curran expressed surprise at the large crowd which forced the meeting to be moved into the council Chambers from the Mayor’s office. “I thought you were going to come with a small group so we could sit down and delve into these problems one by one” he told the group leader [Jesse].
I remember Mayor Curran saying “this is bull shit.” Knowing he would not have used those words if the group had included Anglo women, I asked that the Mayor apologize for his language, which he did.
The following is a summary of how Jesse remembers the events of that day. Jesse says he was very blunt, telling the Mayor “you did a ‘movida’ behind our back. Up to this point we were negotiating in good faith but those days are gone. You have operated in bad faith. We want that building, we want that park. Negotiating stopped when you broke your word.”
Looking directly at the Mayor he added “I have the power to predict the future. We either get that building or you will be sweeping up ashes. I am predicting that that building will not be standing.” This really infuriated Mayor Curran and he accused Jesse of threatening him. In his quiet manner, Jesse explained he was not making threats but simply looking into the future. Once again he emphasized that the building would not be left standing.
Additional demands were also presented at that meeting. They included the use of the Ford building or another building in Balboa Park as a cultural/art center; establishment of a community review board to screen police officers; and that the 805 freeway be re-routed in the area of San Ysidro. The building under the Coronado bridge was ultimately leased to the Chicano Federation.
This was also in the days of the grape and lettuce boycotts. Along with other family members he picketed the Safeway in National City. One time he parked across the street from the Safeway and was crossing to join the picket line. A car was coming towards him as if it was going to hit him. The driver did stop but not before yelling at Jesse “you asshole.”
On another occasion his family joined other picketers in front of the National City Police Department. The National City Police had shot a young Latino accused of purse snatching in the back. The police department did everything in its power to justify the shooting but the fact remained that this young man had been killed after being shot in the back.
Some armed Brown Berets stood outside guarding his house. Jesse’s daughter Celia remembers coming home from a date to find the Brown Berets on one side of the street and the KKK on the other.
When issues came up with the Catholic Church, the Chicano Federation under Jesse’s direction was there to speak and to picket. Along with Católicos Por La Raza he picketed the bishop’s mansion in Mission Hills as well as on the campus at USD. This group of Chicano Catholics challenged the church for its lack of commitment to social, economic and political justice.
All of this involvement and leadership resulted in Jesse and the rest of the Ramirez family having to live under constant threats. At one point the KKK was across the street from his house picketing. Threatening phone calls came to both his home and to the Chicano Federation Office. There was even a man that parked across the street from his house with a rifle in sight trying to intimidate the Ramirez family.
To protect the family the Brown Berets took up residency in his house. Pillows and mattress were put on the living room floor directly under the living room windows where they could observe exactly what the KKK was doing. Some armed Brown Berets stood outside guarding his house. Jesse’s daughter Celia remembers coming home from a date to find the Brown Berets on one side of the street and the KKK on the other.
As a young man, Jesse did not graduate from high school–he received his GED while in the Navy. He left for war when he was in the ninth grade, with a formal education being the last thing on his mind.
Today he holds two Master’s degrees. His first is from National University in Public Administration. His second Master’s degree is from Pt. Loma University in Education with an emphasis in Counseling. In addition, he has a credential in college instruction for adults.
Jesse is the second Latino to serve on the grand jury. He did have two unsuccessful political campaigns when he ran for school board and for Mayor of National City. As a senior citizen, he became a Commodore for the National City Police Department, the very same police department he had picketed in the 1970s.
Today Jesse is surrounded by his family. His three children—son Jesse Michael Ramirez and his two daughters Mary Ramirez Valdivia and Celia Ramirez Jorgensen—all live in the San Diego area. In addition three grandchildren and four great grandchildren also enrich Mary and Jesse’s life.
At the Chicano Federation Unity Luncheon, in May 2015, Jesse showed the spunk and pride he still has today. As he walked towards the podium he raised a clenched fist and yelled “Chicano”. Those of us that knew the response he was looking for replied with “Power”!
At this luncheon Jesse received a plaque recognizing his years of service to the Chicano Federation. Jesse served as director twice: 1969-1971 and 1977-1978.
Jesse we thank you for your leadership and for making a difference in the Chicano community.
Editor Note: The original article was updated to clarify the information in the Houston Chronicle article cited.
Prior articles in the series Latinos in San Diego here.
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