bY dr. Cristina D. Ramírez
History, archival work, and document recovery help fill in the gaps of overlooked writers from our local communities. The historical work of the project “Barrio Rhetorics” lead by Dr. Cristina D. Ramírez uncovers the Chicana literary writer, Ramona González (1906-1995), who is also the researcher’s maternal grandmother. Ramona and her writings represent an important, yet unknown, early contributor to the Chicana/o literary tradition of the 1970s. Born in El Paso, Texas and raised in the city’s Barrio Chihuahuita, Doña Ramona, as she was often called, had early aspirations to become a journalist and writer. This dream would be deferred. Mexican American women in the early 1920s rarely attended college because of heavy-handed gendered traditions and lack of economic means. Shortly after graduating from El Paso High School (1924), she started a domestic life in Central El Paso in 1930. After raising a family and seeing her four children graduate from college, she would return to this dream of becoming a writer approximately in the 1950s-1970s.
Five of her Spanish-language short stories appear in the first of a four-part book series of the Chicano literary journal, El Grito. Book 1, titled Chicanas en la literatura y el arte (1973) focuses on Chicana writers. With these few writings, she was nominated in 1974 for the Premio Quinto Sol, a national literary award founded in 1970 for the most outstanding Mexican American fiction writing. She would not win the prize, but continued to write.
Doña Ramona’s dream of becoming a writer would not come to fruition in her young age. Although she never attended college, the collective experiences that she gathered throughout her long life contributed to the rich tapestry of writings that capture the essence of la gente of the El Paso communities in which she lived. Her multiple life experiences included raising a family of four, working as community cook and eventually opening and running a tiendita, González Grocery, during and after the Great Depression. In her role as cook and grocery store owner, her fame spread through the barrio in and around 619 Missouri Street in Central El Paso. “I’d give anything for Ramoncita’s tamales,” and “Have you tasted her soup?” were compliments heard through the households of the barrio.
In her role as community matriarch, Doña Ramona’s generous reputation in the community also grew due to helping numerous people in both El Paso and Juarez, Mexico with clothes and food. In González Grocery she hosted informal evening talks about politics, such as the encroaching World War II, and barrio culture. She tutored the children of the barrio in the English language and writing and welcomed many more informal talks or chismes with the women of the barrio. These life experiences led to an intimate knowledge of the people of the various barrios of Central El Paso that streamed daily in and out of González Grocery. (González Grocery was demolished in 1966 for the El Paso portion of Texas Highway Interstate 10). Combined with the gift of telling stories, this familiarity was later to be communicated in her writings.
Most of Doña Ramona’s writings were completed in Spanish with several writings also self- translated into English. A reader may ask: Where did Doña Ramona receive her education and literacy in Spanish? Naturally, she first learned Spanish living in and growing up the barrios of El Paso, and she later also had received some formal education as a high school student and as a member of the Spanish Club. However, it was through Doña Ramona’s membership and active participation in the Mormon Church in El Paso, Texas that provided her with a strong Spanish literacy background. She attended the historic Third Ward, the first Spanish speaking congregation of the Mormon Church in the world, which was established in 1952. (Today there are thousands of Spanish speaking congregations across the globe). She perfected her language skills by giving Sunday School classes every Sunday for many years in Spanish.
In the 1960s El Movimiento Chicano gained momentum in El Paso, Texas with an emphasis on Mexican American food, music, dance, and literature. Recalling the day to day moments and people of Barrio Chihuahuita where she grew up, Doña Ramona started to write. She unearthed memories from her childhood such as when she lived right along the Rio Grande and her time as a store owner that had lain dormant for over 50 years. Rich and culturally relevant stories streamed from her memory, to her fingers, to the typewriter, and onto the page.
Photograph of Ramona’s grandmother, (left) Severa Valles; Ramona’s mother (center), Asunción Rodriguez; unknown individual (right) (circa 1904) in Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico
Having lived on the frontera of the U.S. / Mexico border for 89 years, Doña Ramona lived in a bilingual and bicultural world, and her writings are a mirror of this experience. Doña Ramona’s knowledge emerged in Spanish language writings such as “El camotero,” “Por vida de estas santas cruces yo viví en estos barrios,” “Mi tendita,” and “Adios, Chihuahuita.” Many writings of this collection are geared toward a younger audience: children. She has a colorful collection of children’s poems, such as “A el niño,” “A la niña,” “Días de la semana,” and “La florera.” These writings, a total of 40 poems, portray a love for children in the barrio and an intimate understanding of literacy practices in her community. She collected over 200 pages of dichos or sayings from her family and the community members.
She writes in the introduction of “Picos y Tolondrones para todos los Preguntones”:
Entre ésta colección de dichos, se encuentran unos groseros y vulgares, sin embargo, tal colección se puede calificar cómo un arte y cómo principios para mejorar las costumbres, usando naturalmente, aquellos que comunican una verdad profunda o una regla establecida aceptada.
En la cultura y literatura que se quiere descubrir y desarrollar, es de interés e importancia para los chicanos, ésta colección de dichos, pues, nos ligará conscientemente con el propósito de no olvidarnos de nuestra individualidad y que somos de aquella sangre de hombres bronce, de blancos barbados y de los de “PATA RAJADA”.
“Among this collection of sayings, there are some course and vulgar; however, such a collection can be described as an art form and as moral principles for improving customs, by using naturally those which communicate a deep truth or an established rule.
In the culture and literature to be discovered and developed, it is of interest and importance to Chicanos. Therefore, this collection of sayings will consciously link us with the purpose of not forgetting our individuality and that we are from those men of bronze, from bearded whites and from those who are (full blooded Native Americans).”
It can be argued that Doña Ramona González captured the words and ideas of the El Paso Mexican American community from the 1930s-1970s. However, her writings are just now being rescued and recovered.
Doña Ramona’s profile as a community leader, businesswoman, and independent-minded writer appears in the American Bicentennial issue of Worthy Mothers of Texas (1776-1976) as one of only two Hispanic surname entries, a sign of Doña Ramona’s avant-garde position in feminist Chicana Border literature. In 2014 her oldest daughter, Dr. Norma G Hernández, recovered and brought to our family’s attention a cardboard box that contained files and folders of Doña Ramona’s writings. Upon closer investigation of its contents, we discovered an archive of more than 750 pages of typewritten writings with many pieces containing rich editorial marginalia. Hidden from our family’s knowledge for over three decades, this collection contains poems, short stories, fables, riddles, dichos, and creative nonfiction pieces.
A majority of these writings have been translated into English by her son-in-law, Dr. Neil J. Devereaux. These writings have since been donated to the Latin American Benson Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. Doña Ramona’s granddaughter, Dr. Cristina D. Ramírez, and her eldest daughter, Dr. Norma G Hernández, jointly hold the copyrights to these writings.
All photographs and writing with credits to Cristina D. Ramírez. Listen to Cristina talk about her grandmother and read her poetry:
Cristina Devereaux Ramírez, associate professor, is the Program Director for the Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English (RCTE) graduate program in the Department of English at the University of Arizona.