By Frank O. Sotomayor, Guest Blogger
George Ramos wore many hats: college professor, mentor and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Ramos, a cheerful and outspoken man, took on another role with a solemn presence. Each Memorial Day, he led an observance to honor Americans who have died in war. He served as master of ceremonies at the Mexican-American All Wars Memorial at Cinco Puntos at the eastern edge of Boyle Heights.
Last Wednesday, dozens of military veterans joined journalists and public officials in honoring Ramos during a Celebration of Life tribute at the Eugene A. Obregon American Legion Post 804. Ramos died of a heart attack in July at age 63.
George was my friend for 30 years. In what was the career highlight for each of us, we were co-editors of a Los Angeles Times series that won print journalism’s highest award, the Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service. The award in 1984 carried great significance for us because Ramos and I and the other Mexican Americans on Times staff had come up with the story ideas and had written and edited the series, “Latinos in Southern California.”
George was admired nationally for his work as a journalist and teacher. He was also highly respected among Latino military veterans. As master of ceremonies for a decade at the Boyle Heights Memorial Day observances, he had gravitas and street cred, having grown up in a nearby neighborhood. He also had a polished speaking style, an ability that had once been on display as a host and commentator on KCET-TV.
In the Army, George had risen to the rank of Army captain, and he was wounded in action during the Vietnam War. After the war, he never stopped giving back to the veteran community, said Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, who spoke at Wednesday’s tribute. Ramos’ grandfather had won U.S. citizenship after serving in the military, Garcetti said, and George’s father had also served in the Army.
Giving Back to Veterans and to the Journalism Community
“George was always very supportive of veterans,” said Tony Zapata, a Boyle Heights resident who is commander of Post 4696 of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). In addition to being survived by his brother Dan, “George also had an extended family,” Zapata said. “He’s also survived by 122 fellow veterans who are members of VFW Post 4696.”
George also is being missed by hundreds of journalism colleagues and former students. At the Celebration of Life for George, journalist Minerva Canto described how Ramos, her journalism instructor at USC, had shaped her professional career. Professor Felix Gutierrez, of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, recalled the “authentic voice” in Ramos’ writing. L.A. Times columnist and KPCC host Patt Morrison told of Ramos tenacity in reporting his stories.
I spoke about our work in the Times’ Latino series. We directed a group of 15 reporters and photographers in producing nearly 30 stories assessing the status of Latinos in Southern California. We had been frustrated that Times stories tended to cover only one side of our communities: people who had gotten into trouble. Because such news media portrayals tended to leave a negative perception about Latinos, our goal was to present a more accurate and better-rounded picture.
As we planned our stories, George and I and other team members often dined on carnitas y frijoles at Boyle Heights’ La Parilla.
Through a first-person “Going Home” story written by Ramos and a community profile of Boyle Heights, written by Louis Sahagun, we illustrated that most Latinos were hard-working, dedicated family members who held similar goals to other Americans.
Ramos recalled his experiences growing up on Record Avenue, a street east of Boyle Heights in unincorporated East Los Angeles. “Life on Record,” Ramos wrote, “is as American as that in Kansas, and hopes are as resilient as tall wheat in the summer breeze.”
George wrote about the everyday routines of people of the Eastside, the stuff of life that rarely makes it into print. He lovingly described his grandmother, Felicitas Ramos. She made flour tortillas and beans from scratch, Ramos wrote, and was always asking her grandson if he was ready to eat. She dried her clothes on the oven door of her gas stove. And she could accurately recite the plots of popular soap operas although her knowledge of the English language was quite limited.
Chronicler of the Latino Experience in Los Angeles
To me, personal anecdotes help to show a common humanity among people, whether they live in ritzy neighborhoods or more modest surroundings. In combination with the other series stories, Ramos’ piece helped to inform all Southern California residents about their Latino neighbors.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said of Ramos: “A proud son of the Eastside, he intimately captured the Latino experience in Los Angeles and never lost sight of the human dimension in journalism.”
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, a regular speaker at Memorial Day ceremonies at Cinco Puntos, honored Ramos by having his “Going Home” story inserted in the Congressional Record. A representative for Roybal-Allard, Ricardo Mendoza, presented a framed copy of the Congressional Record pages to the American Legion post.
In a beautiful video (see above) produced for Wednesday’s tribute by journalist Sandra Gonzalez, Ramos said Mexican-Americans and other Latinos are “different in many ways.” But at the core, in a nation of immigrants, he would say: We’re just like everybody else.”
Sahagun’s story traced Boyle Heights’s history as an entry point for immigrants from around the world. He explained how multiple freeways had sliced through the heart and soul of the community. He wrote of the vibrant community groups and individuals working to improve the area.
A Nuanced Portrayal of Boyle Heights
The article also described problems, such as poverty, unemployment and crime, but put each element in perspective. The common perception of outsiders, Sahagun wrote, is that Boyle Heights “is a dangerous place to live.” Yet, records for the LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division showed that Boyle Heights and surrounding communities, on a per-capita basis, were then among the city’s safest.
Our Latino series provided an example of the type of news coverage needed to gain a better appreciation of all of our peoples nationwide. George and I both advocated for better coverage of Latinos and all communities through our work in two professional organizations, the California Chicano News Media Association (CCNMA) and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Both groups provide mentoring and scholarship funds for aspiring journalists, and CCNMA has set up a George Ramos fund to carry forward the work of the organization that he twice led as president.
After 25 years as a Times reporter and columnist, Ramos left in 2003 to head the journalism department at his alma mater, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. There he continued to challenge his students to produce quality journalism.
Ramos always believed in “telling it like it is.” In that spirit, it’s important to point out that George, as he was the first to acknowledge, was far from perfect. His salty language ruffled feathers; some people found his occasional brash manner highly offensive. I offer no excuse for such actions, but merely repeat one of George’s favorite phrases: “What it is, is what it is.”
George traveled around the world and received many awards but he still called himself, a “mocoso kid from East L.A.” In an interview with documentary filmmaker Roberto Gudiño, shown in Gonzalez’ video tribute, Ramos had said:
“I used to think East L.A. was heaven. You know, it’s my place. I know the neighborhoods, the street corners; it’s where I was nurtured, where I grew up. It wasn’t the perfect place, but [for] my parents, that’s where we started as a family.”
Later, in the same reflective tone, Ramos said: “The country has been good to me and my family. We’ve been able to live the American dream.”
George never forgot his roots, his heritage and his love for country.
Sotomayor, a former Times editor, is an adjunct faculty member at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He also took part in the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, which partnered with La Opinion to create Boyle Heights Beat.