By Cheryl Smith Kemp
Joseph Ramirez turned the Army down when officers tried to keep him on at the end of 1945, asking him to serve six more months in World War II, at the promised rank of Sergeant.
Ramirez wanted to go home.
“I was certain I would be able to get a job in the Engineering Department,” he said, referring to Armor Institute of Technology, now Illinois Institute of Technology, from where he’d graduated before the war.
Every time he went by the department head’s office, however, his secretary would tell Ramirez her boss was in conference. Then one day, Ramirez ran into the department head outside of his office.
“And I stopped him. And I told him, ‘I’m sorry to have to stop you, but I want to hear from you why every time I go to apply for a job with you … they tell me you’re in conference.’ He said, ‘No, don’t waste your time. We do not hire Mexicans in the engineering department.’”
Ramirez ended up getting a job instead with the Illinois Central Railroad Company. Later, he went back to U.S. Steel, his part-time employer from his Institute days, doing heavy labor until he injured his spine in 1951.
From then on, he worked mostly as a home repairman. He also got married, to Mary Martinez, a girl from his old neighborhood, in 1959.
Soon after, Ramirez bought the house he still lives in from the Chicago Housing Authority. It had been left vacant and broken into. The thieves even took the toilet, he recalls.
“This house is no good. No damn good,” the lady next door told Ramirez, peering through a chicken-wire fence.
She softened up, however, after seeing Mary, who happened to be an old classmate.
“Oh, hi Mary,” Ramirez recalled the woman saying. “Ok, you want to go in the house. Go ahead. I’ll open the door for you.”
So they went inside.
“She said, ‘There’s a lot of work here,’” Ramirez recalled. “Little by little, we fixed it.”
Ramirez came to the U.S. as a 7- or 8-year-old in 1921, when his family left Mexico in search of economic opportunity and stability. He remembers encountering snow for the first time somewhere during the clandestine journey from Mexico City to Juarez to El Paso, Texas, and, finally, to San Antonio.
They weren’t in the Alamo City long, however, as the Ramirezs’ became migrants, eventually ending up in Detroit, Mich., Aurora, Ill., and, finally, Southeast Chicago, where Ramirez’s entrepreneurial father, Anacleto Ramirez, made a career out of buying old apartment buildings and fixing them up. Back in those days, Anacleto was one of few Chicago-area landlords who would rent to Latinos, said Ramirez’s step-granddaughter, Madonna Vargas, during a phone interview. Anacleto also started up a coal company, selling much of the coveted heat resource to neighbors, Madonna added. Typical of those times, Ramirez’s mother, Dolores Palos Ramirez, ran the household.
As a teenager, Ramirez graduated from Bowen High School, at which point he received a $500 scholarship to the Institute. He recalled the man at the registrar giving “me a damn hard time.”
He didn’t let that discourage him, however, working his way through college from 1932-1939, and earning a civil engineering degree.
“I used to come home at night after 10 o’clock,” said Ramirez, recalling his job at South Works Steel Mill, which later became U.S. Steel, as well as washing walls at the Institute for 25 cents an hour and running the elevator there.
Although Ramirez graduated, he says he wasn’t allowed to claim his diploma because he had a $79 balance at the time.
“To this day, I have not received my diploma from them,” he said, adding that at some point after finishing school, he went back and paid what he owed.
Then, in 1942, Ramirez entered the Army. He recalls being inducted in late October of that year, at the age of 29.
After basic training in Cheyenne, Wyo., he became a radio operator with the Army’s 16th Headquarters Troop. Among other accomplishments, he says his unit was among the first to land at the Philippine Islands, and that General Douglas MacArthur soon followed.
“The only thing I have to say is this: When I was in the Philippine Islands, the cargo trucks were deep in the mud, muddier than the dickens. And here we were wading, and I got a letter from the Mexican embassy in Washington, telling me to fill out a questionnaire because they were going to have a big meeting there and they wanted to present the number of Mexicans that were serving in the United States Army,” said Ramirez, when asked at the end of his interview if he had any closing words.
“Those Mexicans can [be] really, really, really good soldiers,” he’d noted earlier, after getting queried if he’d run into any other Latinos during his four years in the Army.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, he’d answered with a laugh, practically all of them were Texans.”
Mr. Ramirez was interviewed in Chicago, Illinois, on March 11, 2004, by William Luna, with the help of Margarita Magaña.