South Omaha’s Jim Ramirez: A Man of the People
The name Jim Ramirez was vaguely familiar to me. I knew he was a highly respected figure in Omaha. I finally caught up with him a couple years ago for this profile. As this blog site will reflect between now and the end of the year, I have begin doing more and more writing and reporting on Omaha’s Latino and Hispanic community, and I will be posting more and more of these stories here. Ramirez has one of those pull-up-from-the-bootstraps life stories that rightly serves as an inspirational example to others. My story originally appeared in the New Horizons.
South Omaha’s Jim Ramirez: A Man of the People
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Moving from the kill floor of a packing house to the halls of academia, Jim Ramirez appreciates just how far he’s journeyed. Along the way he’s learned some hard and valuable lessons. That life’s not fair. That self-empowerment means taking control of your own destiny. That no one can put a limit on your capabilities but yourself. That giving back to your community is its own best reward.
For 40 years he’s used his experience to give people the tools they need for success. As a Latino, his focus is on kids from his culture, one he has deep ties to. A former Nebraska Hispanic Man of the Year and grand marshall of Omaha’s Cinco de Mayo parade, Ramirez supports his people as advocate, facilitator, community board member and bridge builder — bringing diverse people together to address problems and realize dreams.
When he was young Hispanics had little say politically or otherwise. “We did not have a voice, just as I didn’t have a voice. As I got more education I got more of a voice,” he said. He’s glad Hispanics showed up in force at recent public hearings in Fremont, Neb. to express opposition to punitive measures the city considered enacting against illegal immigrants and their employers. As Hispanics become better informed and educated, he said, the more they’re heard.
“I believe that education is power and power is money.”
This son of Mexican immigrants grew up in an era when kids with Spanish surnames were expected to fill the same blue collar jobs their folks worked. His dad Mike gutted cattle at Nebraska Beef. His mom Josephine sliced bacon at Armour. Aunts and uncles worked as packers, too.
His family was among thousands that supplied the army of workers employed by Omaha’s once immense packing industry, which formed at the turn of the last century alongside the giant livestock yards that operated in South Omaha.
The packing plants, led by the Big Four of Armour, Swift, Wilson and Cudahy and many smaller meat processors and food manufacturers, thrived for generations, offering Hispanics and blacks some of the best paying jobs then open to minorities.
With that background Ramirez “didn’t give it a thought” that as the oldest of four children he would follow his parents in the hole. “I didn’t know any better,” he said. That’s just the way it was then. Never mind the fact he was a bright student. If you went to South High, as he did, you were generally not considered college material, regardless of your abilities or aspirations. You were defined, as the school nickname reads, a Packer. Societal-educational norms deemed you unsuited for anything else, denying opportunities and crushing hopes.
“In those days counselors didn’t counsel us to go here or there or to prepare for this or that,” he said. “If you were from South Omaha and particularly if you were Mexican (or black) you were going to end up in the packing house, which is where I ended up. Or on the railroad.”
He put in 14 years on the kill floor at Nebraska Beef. He began washing carcasses for a $1.59 an hour.
“After being skinned and split we washed ‘em off. Then they were wrapped in a shroud and pinned — that’s how they get their shape,” he said.
He would likely have remained there if not for mentors who encouraged him to attend college. His first aborted try at higher ed came at the urging of his South High Spanish instructor Alice Giiter. She saw enough potential in him to recommend he apply at Northwestern near Chicago. It was too much of a stretch in his mind.
“When I graduated the best I could do to satisfy Miss Giiter was enroll full-time at then-Omaha University,” he said. “By then I had decided I wanted to be a coach and an elementary teacher.”
Coaching was a natural fit for Ramirez, who though small in size was a top athlete. “That was my life,” he said. He played competitive basketball into his 30s and fastpitch softball well beyond that. The Nebraska Machine fastpitch softball squad he played shortstop on and managed was dominant. Its star pitcher was Ramirez’s son Jim Jr., who was good enough to be invited to train with the U.S. national team in Colorado Springs, Colo. for the Pan Am Games.
Ramirez coached CYO ball for several parishes. He also officiated hoops and football contests, working everything from the Pee Wee leagues to state college games. “I loved it,” he said.
Strangely, he never played organized sports at South. He explained few Hispanics and blacks went out for school teams then — discouraged by quotas and attitudes that made clear they were unwanted. Today, the predominantly Latino Packer soccer team is “the glory of the school.”
Back then, however, discrimination was wide-spread and often overt. After one semester at the university he said a clearly biased education professor dissuaded him with an insult: “Ramirez, I think you ought to change your major — there aren’t too many of YOU people in teaching.” The comment would merit suspension or dismissal today and prompt a complaint by Ramirez. But he was a teenager then and the older educator represented an authority figure he deferred to.
“Young and dumb. What the hell did I know about institutional racism at the time,” Ramirez said. “So I didn’t go back the next semester.”
Instead he returned to the kill floor. He didn’t tell anyone what had happened. “Nobody knew. It was something I just carried inside of me for years,” he said.
He’d never stepped foot inside the plant his father worked in until the day he started there. Everything about the place was an eye-opener. The harsh conditions. The rough-edged men. Their smoking, drinking, fighting, carousing. A more than mile-long stretch of Q Street featured bars, pool halls and gambling joints. As a boy he shined shoes inside Joe’s Pool Hall. Whorehouses were nearby. All in service of the livestock and packing trade.
“Oh, God, those were some wild days. The packing houses were thriving. It was very colorful and culturally diverse,” he said.
He learned every job on the kill floor, eventually becoming foreman. That meant the young Ramirez supervised his father and other grizzled men twice his age and size. His most harrowing job was as a knocker, which entailed swinging a 5-pound sledgehammer between the eyes of cows.
“Every now and then you’d hit a cow and think it was dead and then it’d get up and start running all over the kill floor, guys scattering because they’re all carrying razor-sharp knives, and here’s this crazy, half-dazed cow on the loose,” he said. “To this day I can’t kill a fly or a mouse.”
The worst job was his dad’s — gutter.
“Sometimes we’d kill old cows and some of them had cancerous stomachs and you’d go and rip open the front of the belly and, whoosh, your face would be full of puss,” he said. “That happened probably once or twice a week. You didn’t know what you were getting into when you opened that beef.”
In truth, every job on the kill floor was a nightmare.
“I wish I had a nickel for every cut I got I on my hands and on my legs from working there. It was dangerous. It was brutal. This was before OHSA in a small, non-union plant. Very primitive. Drive the cows in, hit ‘em in the head, hang ‘em up by the hind legs, rip their throat till they die. Ihen lay ‘em on the ground, rip ‘em open, skin ‘em, hang ‘em up again and gut ‘em. You’re walking in blood ankle deep.”
He hadn’t intended on working there long but, he said, “I stayed and stayed and stayed and stayed,” and before he knew it years had passed.
“Once you start getting that nice paycheck,” he said, “it’s hard to say, ‘Well, I’d rather go to college.’” Still, some did try. “As a UNO counselor I ran into many South Omaha kids that didn’t survive because of the lack of preparation. It was always Plan B for them to go to college…” They’d invariably drop-out.
The prospect of being at Nebraska Beef until he was a broken down old man got him thinking about his future.
“I was beginning to learn a little something. I would look at Dad and say to myself, I don’t want to be here when I get his age. Because he was up in age already.”
He finally went back to school at the insistence of social worker Alyce Wilson, who ran a southside community center called the Woodson Center. After getting on at Nebraska Beef he worked part-time at the center, where he was able to fulfill his desire to work with kids in athletics. Wilson suggested a field of study she thought he’d be a natural at — social work. He couldn’t grasp what that entailed until informing him she was a social worker. Sociology became his major and for six years he worked for the Boys Club — first in North Omaha and then in South O.
The more Ramirez studied the more he saw injustice around him and the more he wanted to make a difference.
“I started to see the world through clear glasses instead of the rose-colored glasses I grew up on. My eyes were really opened to racism and how it still exists to this day, only more subtly.”
It took years of night classes but he got his bachelor’s degree in sociology in ‘71, whereupon he entered the education field. He added a masters in guidance and counseling from UNO in ‘74 and his Ph.D. from UNL in adult and continuing education in ‘84, all achieved while attending night school. He believes he was the first Omaha Hispanic to earn a doctorate. His folks lived to see him do it. “We had a big bash at Our Lady of Guadalupe Hall. The whole community celebrated,” he said.
Along the way he dedicated his life to being an advocate for minority students — bound and determined to ensure Hispanic kids get a fair shake.
“I was motivated by what the system had done to me — telling me I couldn’t be because of what I was. I thought this is bullshit because some of our kids want to be doctors or lawyers or engineers or whatever but they’re steered this other way where there’s no chance. I just told myself that as long as I’m alive I’m never going to let that happen to another young student.”
His careers as a Boys Clubs unit director, as a University of Nebraska at Omaha instructor/counselor and, later, as a Omaha Public Schools human/community relations specialist put him in contact with thousands of students over the years.
Although now semi-retired from the district, he continues looking out for the interests of minority students today at age 74. He’s an advisor, a resource, a friend and a liaison for many. He’s launched both a minority student support group at UNO and a minority student recognition program at OPS.
As OPS Minority Activities Committee chair he’s still involved in the district’s recognition program. He’s pleased that Hispanic students’ standardized test scores are on the rise in OPS and he enjoys feting high achieving kids and their parents.
“The leadership I see in our youth is astounding,” he said.
In stark contrast to when he was a teen, South High now has a Latino Leaders student organization and a Spanish liaison. He’s a South High Hall of Fame inductee.
He’s assisted scores of undocumented immigrant families navigate the educational system by helping register their children in school. A decade ago Ramirez and others began lobbying the Nebraska Legislature to allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition in the University of Nebraska system.
He once brought bus loads of students to Lincoln to tell their stories. Maria Olvera was among them. The Central High grad was an honors student but her lack of a social security number nearly denied her the chance at a college education. It took Ramirez’s intervention to get her into UNO and to stay there when her nonresidency status was discovered. She had to be reclassified a foreign student despite having lived in Nebraska for several years. Financially, it’s a struggle.
It was only in 2006 the law changed to make illegals, who still can’t receive federal financial aid, eligible for instate tuition; few such students could afford the much higher nonresident rates. Ramirez supports a dormant bill in Congress, the Dream Act, that would make such students legal permanent residents after two years in college. Minus such protections he fears many will lose any hope of college.
Ramirez is widely known as someone people in the community can call 24/7 about immigration questions/issues. If he doesn’t know the answer he’ll know who does.
Aware how vital it is that students of color have counselors and teachers who look like them, something he never had in public school, he helped found a minority intern program at UNO to increase the number of minority educators.
“Five of my former students at UNO became interns with OPS and have done well,” he said like a proud papa. “I brought them all on board.”
For 20-plus years he’s actively recruited new Hispanic teachers where they’re most plentiful — in the Southwest. Each spring he makes a circuit through Texas and New Mexico at teacher fairs to try and lure new education grads here.
“I’ve gotten probably about 15 teachers out of there to come to Omaha,” he said. “It’s very competitive because they don’t want to leave the Sun Belt. They’re very close to their families and we don’t pay worth a damn.”
He said districts in other states not only pay higher starting salaries they offer singing bonuses. “We don’t offer anything like that. So it’s hard,” he said. “I consider myself a good salesman to Hispanic teachers because I sell them on the opportunity to move up and become an administrator.”
This fall three of his recruits are in new administrative posts in OPS: Robert Aranda, Bryan Middle School principal; Ruben Cano, Norris Middle School assistant principal; and Rony Ortega, South High School assistant principal. Ortega is just one of many Latino staffers at the school today.
“We’ve come a long ways from when I graduated from South,” Ramirez said. “We couldn’t become janitors.” Much less teachers or principals.
Ramirez looks to fill gaps impacting Hispanic student achievement. Some years ago he and the former Chicano Awareness Center — now called the Latino Center of the Midlands — approached South High about having volunteer Hispanic counselors there. Ramirez was among the first. “Sometimes the traditional counselors overlook our kids for whatever reason,” he said. After resistance, the school provided a room, a phone and access to students.
“We sent out letters inviting parents and their kids to meet with us because we wanted to work with their sons and daughters to prepare them for college or to improve their status academically,” he said. “That grew and grew and grew and was institutionalized by the Chicano Awareness Center and the district. Some of us were housed in the center.”
Eventually paid counselors were put in place, with the center sponsoring tours of area universities as a way of acclimating or orienting kids to college life. Hispanic college students now host those visits.
“And today there are Hispanic counselors at South, Central and Bryan,” he said.
His impassioned concern for fair treatment landed him on the City of Omaha’s Human Relations Board under Mayor Gene Leahy, who was a friend. He’s remained involved with the board through several administrations. He counts as friends a number of past mayors as well as current Mayor Mike Fahey.
He still has the ear of decision-makers as a University of Nebraska President’s Advisory Committee member and as an OPS consultant. In his self-described “watchdog” role he monitors how the university and the district address minority student needs and talks to chancellors, superintendents, lawmakers and other movers-and-shakers about policies and legislation affecting minority students.
All the while, as he’ sgone from just plain Ramirez to Mr. Ramirez to Dr. Ramirez, he’s kept in mind what happened to him as a student back in the ‘50s. “God, if they’re doing that to me,” he said he thought, there’s no telling what they’re doing to others. “And they’re still doing it,” he said. Most kids attending inner city schools today, particularly Hispanics and blacks, come from blue collar backgrounds where college is not a first choice.
That’s why, he said, “as I moved up the ladder in terms of contacts with chancellors-principals I made sure that they knew what my concerns were — the way our kids are treated in our high schools and, now, middle schools.”
“I’ve been blessed to be in a position to say to the presidents of UNO-UNL, ‘There’s something wrong here. You don’t have enough minority faculty. You don’t do enough to recruit students of color.’ And they pretty much listen,” he said.
From its inception in 1972 he’s also served on an advisory committee for UNO’s minority scholarship Goodrich Program, which has produced more than 1,150 graduates, including some of Omaha’s most distinguished Hispanic leaders. He asks pointed questions of program officials to make sure students are being well served. It’s all part of holding institutions and programs accountable.
“Do you recruit the same at South High School as you do at North or Central? How many Hispanic applicants did you get? How many did you interview? How many did you accept? Those are the kinds of questions I’ve been asking for 30 years in looking after my kids,” he said.
From Ramirez’s POV the Goodrich Program came about as “a result of UNO beginning to smell the coffee” in terms of reaching out to more “nontraditional students of color who are in financial need and academically maybe not as strong. It has just been a tremendous program because of the support parcels that are in it with faculty, with counseling and with study groups. It has produced some of our best Hispanic graduates.”
Little escapes his attention. For example, a recently announced UNL scholarship program targeting minority graduates of North High has him asking, “How about those kids in South Omaha? So sometime in the next few months I’ll get to talk to Jim Milliken (UNL president) and Harvey Perlman (UNL chancellor) and say, ‘Is this experimental at North High and are you going to expand it to South High?’” He always looks out for his constituency.
None of this would have happened if he hadn’t stepped outside the traditional role prescribed for him. He feels fate had a hand in his refusal to be limited or confined by some preconceived idea of what he should or could be.
“It’s a blessing in that respect because if I had stayed in the packing house I would never had been in a position to talk to Harvey Perlman or Jim Milliken or John Christensen (UNO chancellor). As an advisor on an advisory committee I have a little clout because I’ll call a damned press conference in a heartbeat to address something that is just wrong. I haven’t, because fortunately the universities have taken care of that issue.”
In a sense, every day’s been a blessing since suffering life-threatening injuries in a car accident as a teen. He broke his back and a leg. He skull was fractured. He was given the last rites. Seen in this light, even the kill floor was a gift.
He often draws on his own experience as a packing house worker who beat the odds and defied the stereotypes to find a way out.
“All of us counselors at UNO taught a one-credit class called Academics and Career Development. It’s a required course for anyone who enrolls at the university and checks the little box marked ‘undeclared.’ I taught probably three or four sessions. One of the first things I told students is, ‘What I don’t want you to do is break my record. I don’t want you take longer than 18 years to get a degree.’ Their eyes opened up then. And to this day kids will see me and they’ll say, ‘I remember what you told the first day of school.’ That sticks in their mind.”
He emphasized with students then and still does today that if he could make it through college, they can, too. He lets them know he overcame every supposed strike against him. That despite being from a blue collar immigrant family and working a full-time job and raising a family he managed getting three degrees while taking night classes. That’s why he doesn’t brook any excuses.
“That’s how I push my personal experience into this,” he said. “By telling them, ‘You’re 30-some years old now and you’re not one foot in the grave. There’s still time for you to salvage something.’ I remember a new widow from over in Iowa that took one of my evening classes. She started taking courses at UNO to try to survive with an education. She never got anything lower than an A. She graduated in engineering and is now with a big engineering firm in town.”
Ramirez, who divorced in 1979, is the father of three grown children.
He said older, nontraditional students “were my best students because they were taking care of business. There was not all this craziness in their mind about partying and doing stuff like that.” Ramirez may be an extreme example but he was the prototypical serious older student who kept his nose to the grindstone.
There’s another side of Ramirez though — one that loves mariachi music and Latino culture-art. In 1990 he co-founded the South Omaha Arts Institute or Casa de la Cultura, a nonprofit that began with a youth mariachi band, Estrellitas de Omaha, he helped support under the direction of Rosemary Flores. The Institute is home to music and dance touring groups and conducts classes in various arts disciplines.
In 1993 Ramirez assisted Magdalena Garcia in launching El Museo Latino in the Livestock Exchange Building. He still serves on the board of the museum, now housed in the old Polish Home. One of only 11 Latino museums in the U.S., it displays touring art exhibits, hosts lectures and classes and presents performances by its own “CHOMARI” Ballet Folklorico Mexicano troupe and by visiting artists.
By shepherding these two organizations Ramirez has helped enrich the dynamic new South Omaha that’s emerged the last two decades. This largely immigrant-led revitalization of the South 24th Street business district has turned “a ghost town into a thriving Little Mexico,” he said. Improvements go well beyond that festive strip to encompass Metropolitan Community College’s south campus, the renovated South YMCA, the new South Omaha Branch Library and the under construction Kroc Center and South High stadium projects.
Ramirez is enjoying this renaissance and not even recent open heart surgery can prevent him from keeping a hand in things. He could have left Omaha long ago but he’s committed to making his hometown a better place.
“I’ve been offered jobs everywhere because of my education, but I have stayed here. I never got too far from my roots.”
Even if he ever does retire he’ll always be the underdog’s champion.
“I’ve told people over and over and over that as long as I’m pumping blood if I see an inequity with our students I’ll act. I won’t fade away into the sunset.”
There’s no time to rest when you’re a man of the people.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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