By Douglas Luippold
Wearing a blue Marine Corps vest and VFW garrison cap, Clemente Ramon recalled how the skills and education he received over three years as a Marine Corps fireman after World War II enhanced his family, finances and education.
One of six children, Ramon was born in Refugio, Texas, on Jan., 27 1929, to Ysidro Ramon, a cowboy, and Inacia Lara Ramon, a homemaker. Speaking with great affection, Ramon described his parents as “simple people” with little formal education. With eight family members and a single, meager source of income, to say the Ramon family lived modestly is probably an understatement.
All six children were forced to quit school before high school so they could work. Being a teenager without an education or the prospect of receiving one, it appeared Ramon would spend his life as a low-wage ranch hand, similar to his parents; however, the United States military altered that path.
On Oct. 10, 1946, 17 year old Ramon enlisted in the Marine Corps as a Private. He was assigned to the 14th Recon Rifle Company and transported to California for Basic Training. After training at the San Diego Marine Corp Base and then at Camp Pendleton, Ramon was assigned to Camp Catlin in Oahu, Hawaii.
Because he enlisted in October of 1946, more than a year after the end of combat actions on Aug. 15, 1945, Ramon never faced any fighting. Instead, he was involved in logistical support, serving as a fireman at the Marine Corp Supply Depot. Both his formal training and subsequent, on-the-job education gave Ramon skills he would not have been able to obtain back home in South Texas.
On Oct. 24, 1949, Ramon was discharged as a sergeant, having earned Good Conduct and WWII Victory medals, as well as an Honorable Service lapel. He returned to Texas, settling in Beeville, where he still lives today. On Dec. 10, 1950, Ramon married Lillie Guzman, to whom he is still wed, and they began raising a family.
Thanks to his military experience, the Beeville Civil Service hired Ramon as a fireman, a job that allowed him to support all four of his children. They did not need to drop out of school to work as he did, he said, and all four completed high school.
“You never been poor, have you?” replied Ramon when asked what type of toys he had growing up; he and his siblings supplemented their lack of toys by playing with old tires, tops and marbles. After the eighth grade, Ramon said he quit school to work as a cowboy, "but not a very good one."
During his three years of Marine Corps service, Ramon recalled earning $3 a day, which significantly changed his family’s financial situation. Tearing up, he said he sent most of his money home to his mother, almost "every penny for three years."
By training him as a fireman, the Marine Corps continued to financially benefit Ramon after his 1949 discharge. He earned $35 a week in his South Texas Civil Service job; however, even with this newfound financial stability, he recalled experiencing economic discrimination in Beeville.
For example, after marrying Lillie, he said he was unable to get a mortgage for more than $5,000. And, when asked if it was difficult for a Latino to get a loan from a bank to start a business in Beeville, he said, "No, it was impossible."
Today, however, circumstances have changed. He expressed pride that his town holds many Hispanic-owned businesses, such as taquerias and insurance companies.
Financial security is a way Ramon evaluated success. In fact, when asked about his children and grandchildren, the first thing he said was, "they all have good jobs."
Ramon’s second brag about his children was that they all graduated from high school. The high value he placed on education was also evident when he later said that never having learned to read or write in Spanish was “[my] biggest mistake.”
Education is a powerful tool for Latinos to use in combating bigotry, said Ramon, who, overall, did not talk much about racism, but did recount a couple of related stories:
When returning from his service, Ramon’s bus stopped in Seguin, Texas, for a lunch break. Upon entering a restaurant, and despite him wearing his Marine uniform, he recalled the proprietor approaching him with an unfriendly face, promptly informing Ramon the restaurant did not serve “Mexicans.” Confused, Ramon said he left quickly.
He said he also experienced segregation in Beeville, as only one restaurant, The Blue Bonnet, served Hispanics. Additionally, Latinos could only sit in the balcony of the local movie theatre, and only “if they were well behaved.” The theatre only showed “Realtos,” films in Spanish, after midnight, he added.
Education is the best way to combat oppressors, said Ramon, explaining that the more one learns, the less scared he or she becomes, because “the truth doesn’t hurt you.”
With such an advocacy for education, one can understand why a giant grin spread across the face of this grandfather of three with an eighth-grade education when he revealed that one of his grandsons is completing a doctoral degree.
Mr. Ramon was interviewed in Beeville, Texas, on January 10, 2009, by Jesse De Russe.