In May 1997, a struggling San Antonio artist named Joe Lopez was battling a severe case of stage fright. It came as he was preparing to take the podium at a press conference at the Houston Heights store called Casa Ramirez.
Facing a crowd, cameras and reporters, Lopez froze. "I don't know about this, Macario," he whispered to store owner Macario Ramirez, who'd put the media event together.
"Just enjoy the ride, Joe Lopez," Ramirez replied. "Sit back and let me do my thing."
Ramirez's thing, as Houstonians have come to know, is to fight anywhere, anytime he believes he sees rights being trampled. In Lopez's case, it was the huge Ernest & Julio Gallo Winery trying to shut down the artist's line of Puro Gallo products, a name derived from slang for a pure, stud fighter.
But it could be anything, as LULAC's Johnny Mata shows, reeling off the causes Ramirez has taken on: "Police issues, the need for a health clinic, immigration, schools, hate crimes -- we've worked so many issues together."
Ramirez also has manned lonely picket lines -- sometimes very lonely -- against battlefield re-enactments at San Jacinto State Historical Park showing the massacre of Mexicans; against hip art galleries displaying what he believed to be profane distortions of Hispanic religious art; against Heights business groups he thought were too yuppiefied and were discriminating against the area's pawn shops and secondhand stores.
"I just don't like to see people be shit upon," he says. And at 70, even though he's been fighting for more than 50 years, he's not slowing down. If you think he sometimes looks clownish, a lone guy with a hand-painted picket sign marching outside HISD headquarters on a steamy August afternoon, then you don't know the effect he's had on people.
"He changed my whole life," Lopez says. "He got me doing things I never dreamt of doing. There are people who talk and there are people who do, and Macario is not a talker, he's a doer."
"Macario for me represents an individual who deep down inside just has a sense of justice that he continues to fight on for," says Lorenzo Cano, associate director of the University of Houston's Center for Mexican-American Studies. "He's getting up there in age now where people don't go out and picket and do things. He hasn't lost his drive."
Ramirez, a San Antonio native, traces his passion back to a day long ago in Big Spring, traveling with his father as a migrant worker to fields in Lubbock. "We stopped in this little place for Fritos and a Coke, and the owner just says, 'Get out of here -- we don't serve no dirty Mexicans here.' My dad said something, and they beat him up. There were some sheriff's deputies sitting right there, but they didn't do a thing."
His father never let him forget the incident. Ramirez ended up graduating from St. Mary's University and heading to Washington, D.C., to work for a minority-interest group. In 1971 he came to Houston and hasn't been far from a picket line since.
His father influenced him in one other key way, however, talking during their travels about Mexican culture and opening a small artifacts store in San Antonio. In 1985, Ramirez opened Casa Ramirez in Houston, initially in the old Mercado del Sol development in the East End.
When that city-backed project collapsed a few years later -- and don't get Ramirez started on how then-mayor Kathy Whitmire could have saved it -- he moved to 19th Street in the Heights. From there, he almost single-handedly has revived in Houston the tradition of creating ofrendas, or altar shrines built to honor departed relatives in conjunction with Day of the Dead.
When he first started, the sugar skulls that typically are used in ofrendas were a bit misunderstood. "People would come into the store and run out, saying 'Oh, God, it's a bunch of satanists!' " he says. "So I started teaching about it."
Americans don't do a good job of honoring their dead relatives, he says. "Americans are in denial about death; in Mexico people celebrate their ancestors," he says. On one of the first ofrendas he made, honoring his father, he placed his dad's favorite breakfast, some photos and an old shirt the patriarch often wore.
His classes on ofrendas are sometimes 90 percent Anglo. "I've sort of become the guru of all this," he says. "Now it's gone national. I'm very pleased; I saw something dying on the vine and did something to save it."
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The store -- recently expanded, and finally ready to make the leap to the Internet -- is packed with Mexican art and artifacts. Ramirez, ever the teacher, also regularly rotates exhibits on the culture; he's about to install one on vaqueros, whom he calls "the original cowboys."
There's one other collection, in the back room -- a group of the signs he has toted through the years. Some are there for nostalgia ("San Jacinto Committee -- Would You Re-Enact the 'Atomic Bomb Over Hiroshima' Victory?"). Others are always ready for use (like the blown-up report card giving HISD failing grades, although that's stored pending a honeymoon period for the new -- and Hispanic -- superintendent).
It's likely the collection will grow. "There are so many causes, a lot of improvements that need to be made," Ramirez says. "But there's still that monster lurking: people's attitudes. Latinos and Latinas in Houston feel insecure and threatened, but they don't know what to do about it.
"I say, 'Shit, I'm a citizen. I can do something.' "