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Eulogy for Don Ramón

April 26, 2018

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Ramón Guzmán Murillo was born on November 30 1933 on a small ranch in García de La Cadena, in Zacatecas. He was born into a world that is not too hard for us to imagine. The family lived in a small rural town and worked on a hacienda. Ramón  helped his father care for their animals and sold cheese to the rancho’s residents. He saddled up the family donkey and convinced residents to buy cheese by giving it to them on credit. It was through this labor that Ramón became schooled in arithmetic and became literate. Ramón’s mom cooked and cleaned and did laundry. The women, Ramón remembered, would laugh and talk and talk and laugh, “era pura risa.” This beautiful childhood was interrupted by his father’s death. Ramon had to grow up and he had to do so pretty quickly.

Ramón lived 87 years; 87 years that can’t be easily summarized. And yet, in listening to an interview I did with him 10 years ago, three themes stand out. The first theme is that of migration. Throughout his life, Ramón crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. He did so legally and illegally.  He moved throughout Mexico and lived in Zacatecas, Jalisco, and Mexicali. He lived near and along the border and as a retiree resided in both South El Monte and Santa Rosa, near Zapopan. In death, Don Ramón crossed the border one last time. He crossed in order to lay next to Leonor, on a hill just above the 10 freeway.

Ramón, like millions of Mexican males throughout Mexico, migrated to the United States with the outset of World War II and as the United States and Mexico created the quest worker program known as the Bracero Program. In the 1950s, as Ramón turned 19 and as his pueblo suffered from a drought, he migrated to the United States.

In one of his first jobs, Ramon worked in el traque (the railroad). Along with José María (aka Chema) and cousins and nephews from Zacatecas, he worked to replace worn out wood and rails. This was hard labor, but these young men enjoyed their time off and even got into some mischief. They knocked down some beers and frequented the cantinas. Don Ramón, in fact, was a sharp dresser. He went into a local tuxedo shop and told the owner, “I want a suit that when you twist it like this and then let it go, it’ll come back, like new, no wrinkles.”  With this 105-dollar baby blue suit, Ramón frequented the Tijuana Café in Oakland, California.

In our interview, Ramón fondly recalled one particular memory from his days on the railroad. Ramón regularly showed up to work at noon on Monday, per his agreement with his boss. One Monday morning, the migra showed up and took Chema and his other distant relatives and friends. “Se los llevo la migra,” he laughed fondly. La migra was smart, but el abuelo was just as smart. Before he had his papers he used a number of strategies to cross into the United States. I’m told by my uncles that he wore a suit, found and cleaned up a little puddle dog and walked it across the border as he said, “come’on Johny, come’on Johny.” In other instances, he would simply say I am U.S. citizen.

He also found legal ways to move unhindered across the border. When he worked as a mechanic in Calexico, his boss gave him a letter indicated that he had a job for him. Armed with this letter, Ramón visited the U.S. consul in Guadalajara and obtained a visa.

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“La mecánica me dio para todo.”

The second theme that runs through Don Ramón’s life is working under the hood of a car or truck. He worked as mechanic in Guadalajara, in Mexicali, along the border, in the front yard of the South El Monte home, and at the old Pontiac dealership on Valley boulevard in El Monte. He learned as he went, but he also learned by attending night classes in Oakland, California. According to Don Ramón, the first English words he learned were the names of tools.

The third theme in Don Ramón’s life is home. Perhaps, since his childhood was so precarious, he made owning a house one of his lives goals. In one of our many backyard conversations, he justified his most daring exploit by explaining that if it had succeeded he would have bought everyone a house. That’s another story, for another time though. In the 1960s, Ramón and Leonor drove throughout Los Angeles, until the 60 freeway and Merced Avenue connected them to the small suburban streets in quite South El Monte. They bought the South El Monte house for $33,000. Later in life, Don Ramón build a small apartment in the back, but he also purchased property in Santa Rosa, a small colonia in Guadalajara. After purchasing an empty lote he asked his friends to bring truck-loads of sand, dirt, and bricks. Together with his brother, they slowly build two homes. For decades, they lived side-by-side.

Our themes of migration, labor, and home are connected by Don Ramón’s love for his family. When he first migrated to the United States he worked hard to provide for his mother and his siblings. Later on, he worked to provide for Leonor and to house and clothe and feed his children: Ramón, Mini, Francisca, David, Ray, Liz, and Jared.  He succeeded in that and the South El Monte home remains a gathering place for the Guzmán family.

If you believe in heaven, you might imagine Don Ramón having a beer with Don Chema (no te agüites vale), reminiscing about Guadalajara with Nicolas, serving his brother Trini just a little more tequila, and dancing cheek-to-cheek on a dirt floor with Leonor. If you don’t, you can find solace in the fact that he is gone, but not forgotten. He lives in the backyard parties, the songs we listened to, and the time we spend together.

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All historical narratives are incomplete. Like an astronomer, a historian writes from their particular vantage point in the universe; from a distant and remote future the historian seeks to construct the past. This endeavor then is inherently flawed. All narratives contain blind spots and silences. This particular story is no different. There are adventures and stories and failings that I omitted. This story is also told from the perspective of a grandson, one who only ever knew Don Ramón as a grandfather with a full head of white hair. This story is also based primarily from an interview I did with him. By then, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease: years and decades overlapped, meshed into and on top of each other. This story is just a small slice of his 87 years on this planet.

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