By Nathan Ansell, Medill, Immigrant Connect
It’s another Sunday service at the Lincoln United Methodist Church. Between readings from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, lively musical interludes fill the pews with rhythm. Many of the church-goers play instruments or clap to accompany their singing.
One voice and instrument are clearly audible over the others. Both belong to German Ramirez*, a 47-year-old Mexican immigrant.
“He’s very loud,” remarked Cecilia Garcia, who identifies herself as an activist mother. She’s known Ramirez for over six years. “Because he’s always carrying his drum, he sporadically beats the drum and everybody gets quiet. He’s strong, relentless, and loving.”
“They say I’m crazy, but I guess I like being crazy,” laughed Ramirez.
Ramirez was born in Durango, where he lived for two decades alongside a large family. His brothers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents were only a couple of houses apart.
“It was hard,” remembered Ramirez. “Especially [leaving] my parents and sisters.”
He initially planned to transition into America with the help of his older brother’s friend, a Chicago resident, but his homesick brother wanted to return to Mexico within a week. He stayed stayed a couple of extra months. Ramirez was suddenly alone, without any education beyond eighth grade.
“I wasn’t good at school, so at 14, 15 years of age, that’s when I started working,” recalled Ramirez. “I was working on changing the bags of sand. In three weeks, I started working in a metal factory in Franklin Park.”
Outside of work, Ramirez struggled in his personal life, finding it difficult to maintain a relationship.
“It felt like people were thinking it was just to have my green card,” said Ramirez. “I’m not going to be with someone or have a partner for the papers. It’s going to be for love.”
Ramirez made frequent calls to his father, Jaime. He says his father asked him to return frequently, but since meeting Pastor Emma Lozano and other church regulars in 2001, they made him feel welcome and offered him the protection he needed. He has never attempted to seek papers, knowing that it would be even more difficult under the Trump administration’s policies.
“There’s fear, but I leave it up to God. It’s in God’s hands.”
Recently, Ramirez witnessed a violent far-right activist break the church’s front doors, apparently in anger over its sanctuary policies. Ramirez was in the basement and heard the man yell from upstairs, “This is a f***ing church,” then turn around and shatter the glass with a kick of his back heel,” Ramirez said. “I asked him if he was racist, and he said, ‘Yes, I am racist.’ And he left.”
The attack raised tensions among the entire community in Pilsen.
Ramirez is politically active himself, having visited Washington, D.C. and other cities more than ten times, he estimated, to protest with other church-goers, They’re chances to meet other immigrants, and make both his political and physical voice heard.
“They work together in this struggle, this fight,” said Ramirez. “They ask me if I’m always like this, because I’m loud. I always bring my drum with me, and people like that.”
Ramirez eventually re-entered construction work, following his work everywhere from Villa Park to Melrose Park to downtown. The work took a toll on his health. Ramirez’s stomach, gallbladder and knees deteriorated, eventually requiring surgery in 2010.
“I had a difficult time working in a job that has hard labor, but I did what I can, whatever odd jobs were available,” Ramirez said. “I felt 50-60% weaker.”
Just over a year ago, Ramirez’ father passed away from unknown causes. The death devastated Ramirez, who seriously considered returning to Mexico for the first time since leaving.
“He told me a week before he passed not to go visit,” said Ramirez. “He said, ‘If you’re going to come back to Chicago, don’t come.’”
In what he described as one of the toughest decisions of his life, Ramirez decided against going back to visit his family, fearing the minutemen and ransom-seekers at the border.
“If you already know it’s imminent, that he’s going to pass away, we thought it was too dangerous,” explained Garcia. “When you don’t have a status, to come back, to even risk coming back, the trek and journey is dangerous. There’s people by the borders that cause harm.”
Following the death, Ramirez says he’s tried to make a greater effort to talk to his mother, who doesn’t have a visa.
“I talk to her regularly,” said Ramirez. “Sometimes she feels good, sometimes she doesn’t. She felt good today.”
*Ramirez indicated he wanted his real name used in the story.