Educator, researcher, lobbyist, and Latino advocate, Dr. Henry Ramírez, is credited with the onset of the formal integration of Hispanics into the federal government. To him we owe the commencement of Hispanic Heritage Month.
“We Anglos have built an invisible wall of discrimination against Mexicans in the southwest; now our job is to knock that wall down, president Nixon said to me in the oval office. And that became my job,” Dr. Henry Ramírez told Eco Latino.
Richard Nixon knew of Dr. Ramirez because of his success at integrating Hispanic children to the school system through a novel program he designed in Whittier, California. In 1968 Ramirez was appointed chief of the Mexican American Studies Division of the US Commission of Civil Rights in Washington. Three years later, President Nixon brought him to the White House to lead the newly formed Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish Speaking People (CCOSSP). He then began the process of integrating qualified Hispanics into key policy positions in federal agencies bringing diversity and inclusion to the federal bureaucracy.
Ramirez’s book A Chicano in the White House will be released by the end of the month. He spoke with Eco Latino.
How did Hispanic Heritage Week begin?
In 1968 a law was passed that authorized the US president to proclaim a national Hispanic Heritage Week starting every year on September 16th (coinciding with the Mexican Independence Day). However, since President Lyndon Johnson was leaving the White House it was not proclaimed that year.
Soon after my appointment in August 1971, I wrote a memorandum requesting declaration of a National Hispanic Heritage Week. President Nixon signed it, and the proclamation was effective a year later. Federal and state agencies began to celebrate Hispanic heritage, and we also asked the School System to observe Cinco de Mayo and September 16th.
Tell us the most important contribution for Latinos that you accomplished in the White House.
In the 1960 census there were whites, blacks, and a few American Indians. Mexican Americans were invisible, unknown, a forgotten group of people, and for the first time in history, in the 1970 census during Nixon’s administration, we made them count. That was something Nixon and I accomplished.
And there were about 9 million in that census, right? How did they vote?
At that time, we didn’t know who were legal or illegal or who were eligible to vote. One day Nixon told me “I eat tacos, tamales and enchiladas, I wear sombreros and go to fiestas, but all I get is 5 percent of the Mexican vote. I want you to help me get a 15 percent. Very confidently, I said I would get him a 25 percent of the Mexican vote.” He laughed so hard! He said that I didn’t have an idea of what I was talking about. Then, laying a piece of paper on Nixon’s desk I said, you do these things and I can guarantee you 25 percent of the Mexican vote. In November 1972 Nixon obtained 27% of the Mexican vote.
What Were Those Key Things?
First and foremost was to include Latinos in the Federal government who could change policies, influence the existing culture, and help create jobs. Nixon made Ramona Pañuelos the US Treasurer and he established an unprecedented record of Latino appointments to high-level positions during his administration. It was the beginning of the diversity and inclusion process for Hispanics.
Which was the hardest part of your job as chairman of the CCOSSP?
It was to teach people in the government who we were. Mexican Americans came here in 1910 after the revolution in Mexico. Before that, very few came to live in the States.
In those days, almost every one in the White House was born and raised in Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Montana, etc. They didn’t know any Mexican Americans, personally.
The only president who grew up around Mexican Americans was president Nixon. Johnson knew about us but didn’t mix with us, Clinton never knew who we were. The Bushes found out about us when they moved from Connecticut to Texas, and Obama still doesn’t know us.
When the media calls us Hispanics, we become invisible… we are no longer Mexican, Salvadorian, Peruvian, we are no longer ticos or ticas…
Would you support amnesty today as you did in the past?
Of course. I believe in amnesty and so did Nixon who claimed amnesty for undocumented Mexicans. We worked for it and years later Ronald Reagan signed it into law later. We are talking about amnesty for just one nationality? It seems discriminatory…
For that matter, Cubans have had amnesty FOREVER since the days of president John F. Kennedy. Cubans enjoy a unique immigration status in the US. There’s a transportation company in Yucatan that every week brings Cubans from Merida in Mexico to Brownsville, Texas. There, at the border, once they put a foot down US soil they can stay in the US legally. That’s been going on for years and that’s called amnesty. Cubans get it everyday.
In the seventies you brought a large number of Latinos into the Republican Party. What is the GOP doing wrong today to be so unpopular among Latinos?
Just Latinos of European decent are represented in the Republican Party. Mestizos seem to have no room there. Nicaraguans, Salvadorians, Guatemalans, Mexicans, and Bolivians or whoever has brown skin are ‘not in’. That’s racist. European Americans made the mestizos their slaves. Now, the GOP is telling us when we can or can’t come to this country just because they came here first. They brought guns, suppressed the Indians and believed that they own the country.
What is there to be hopeful for?
The beautiful thing about this country is that it is becoming more Christian. This is a simple phrase but very true “love is God and God is love” and as long as we human being recognize that and reach out for that love, we’ll be better off.
Dr. Henry Ramírez has been recognized for inspiring his community and a whole generation of Latino leaders. He has championed the cause of minorities, fighting against discrimination for almost half a century. His book A Chicano in the White House will be released by the end of the month.))