|Juan "Chuy" Ramirez is a 1980 alumnus and one of the University's 2012 Pillars of Success.|
But neither does Ramirez begrudge those experiences, choosing to view that period, as do his novel's central characters, as a testing ground. He calls it a "rite of passage" to which all immigrants and the first generation of immigrants are subjected.
"The book that I wrote focuses a lot on understanding the sweet and sour of that lifestyle. I remember great times but when I was interviewing people for my book, even the most strong-willed folks, once we got over the sweet, would recall what a tough life it was," Ramirez said.
The alumnus of then-Pan American University grew up in San Juan, where he still lives and practices law at the firm Ramirez & Guerrero, LLP.
Ramirez said his father was a "hammer guy" working in construction. His family picked cotton locally during the summer and did not migrate to pick crops until he was 11 years old - a job he described as "a lot of bend over work all day long."
His mother focused on making sure her children got an education.
"We never missed school until we became migrants. My mother always said 'You've got to focus on school,'" he said.
As a high school student at Pharr San Juan Alamo High School in the 1960s, he became a committed political activist and what he calls "a warrior."
"In the late 1960s and early 70s, we viewed political action as social change, We didn't know much beyond that, except all the faces that were in political power were not ours. That symbolism had to change," he said.
Ramirez helped organize the Mexican American Youth Organization, which pushed for bilingual education and an end to segregated schools. He was also an active supporter of Cesar Chavez and his farmworkers movement during the California lettuce strike and later Antonio Orendain's Texas union and edited the movement's newspaper, El Portavoz. He remained active as he entered college and assisted with numerous political campaigns locally, including the campaign of Los Tres, the first three elected Mexican Americans to city office in San Juan. He also helped organize the Raza Unida Party, a third party in South Texas, for which former Texas state representative Alex Moreno served as the first standard bearer.
"I didn't mind participating and addressing the issues," he said. "I didn't have anything to lose."
Ramirez, who married his wife Aida his first year in college, said it took him a decade to graduate from the University as he worked part time throughout to help support his young family. His wife, with whom he has two children and five grandchildren, attended Pan Am as well graduating in 1974 with a B.S. degree in elementary education and is now retired from her career as a teacher.
He said he can't imagine what the Valley would be like now if the University had not been available for students then.
"If it wasn't for Pan American College, I think it would have taken another generation to get where we are right now," he said.
His involvement at the University in a government seminar type program with the Lower Rio Grande Development Council allowed young students to work at city halls and become involved in local projects to improve the region's government services and facilities.
"My project assignment was to put together a park project for San Juan. We got the city's first swimming pool built during that time funded by the Texas Department of Wildlife," he said. "We were right in the middle of where the action was. It was really meaningful what we were doing, that's why it was successful."
He said he felt blessed to be a student at Pan Am during that era.
"It was the first generation of Mexican-American students who really had aggressive objectives - they wanted to be lawyers, CPAs, doctors," said Ramirez, rattling off the names of numerous local government and business leaders he went to school with then.
Following his graduation in 1980 with a degree in political science, he worked as San Juan's city manager. While there, he focused on developing a zoning plan and map, subdivision ordinances, building code enforcement and plans for thoroughfares and parks.
"Mostly what I was doing with my life then was pushing the ball, pushing the ball forward," he said.
Ramirez later worked as an administrator for Texas Rural Legal Aid, which further fueled the desire he said he always had to be a lawyer. He had no interest in criminal or civil rights law however, and chose to focus on commercial transactions and public finance.
"I did not want to be the stereotypical Mexican American lawyer. I wanted to be in a field that was unique and challenging," he said.
He graduated in 1982 from the University of Texas at Austin Law School, where as articles editor for the International Law Journal he published a note titled, "The Simpson-Mazzoli Bill: Altering the Policy of Neglect of Undocumented Immigration from South of the Border," a considerable accomplishment for a student. He was also a director for the Legal Research Board.
Now a bond attorney, he has represented most governmental units in South Texas in connection with their issuance of tax-exempt bonds. He is also currently corporate legal counsel for Lone Star National Bank, a regional Texas bank.
Ramirez said his book has been in the works for years.
"I'm always writing … it takes me many, many, many drafts to complete a piece," he said.
His book focuses on the relationships in a family where the father is a recent Mexican immigrant. Central to the book is the cultural changes that families experience from generation to generation to become Americanized and the clashes that result, particularly between parents and their children.
"On another level it is the U.S. vs. Mexico, it's the ongoing misunderstanding along the border, the ambiguity of who we are. That ambiguity is recreated every time a Mexican steps over," Ramirez said. "Does he continue being Mexican? Should he?"
The book, told in a series of short stories with many references to sights and sounds familiar to South Texans, has received a number of favorable reviews. It was published by Ramirez' company First Texas Publishers. He is currently working on a novel written in Spanish that he hopes will be published before the end of the year.
Ramirez said he was surprised, but very honored to be named a 2012 Pillar of Success earlier this year by the University, an honor it gives annually to its most distinguished alumni. He said many people have no idea how precious a resource the Rio Grande Valley has in Pan American.
"There are many people in South Texas who really believe in their heart of hearts that unless you go to an undergraduate university outside the Valley you aren't getting a good education. They are wrong," he said. "I can tell you that the University has to be doing something good to be able to produce the kind of leadership it has in all sectors of the country. It produces some of the best lawyers, political leaders and minds, writers, historians, physicians. It is kind of like having a great parent and never realizing that."