Profile Text: Hunter Kolbus Audio Profile: Joshua Woolcott
January 2016. Maria Ramos is writing down her answers to the United States citizenship test, hoping all the study sessions, tapes, and books finally pay off. Ramos had made a promise to herself that once she received her green card, she would never renew it; instead, she would achieve one of her largest goals: United States citizenship. This would mean no more living in the shadows or living in fear of what could happen to her if the wrong people found out she was undocumented. Her nervousness turned into rejoice once she heard she had passed the test. Now that this weight was off her shoulders, she could live her life freely. She and her husband, Fermin Ramos, were overjoyed. They immediately went to the ceremony to celebrate the momentous achievement.
Ramos has gone through so much to get to where she is today, and it all goes back to her hometown of El Venado in the state of Nayarit, Mexico. She lived there to age twelve, when she and her family moved to California. She looks back on it fondly and even has visited on a couple of occasions, reliving the days when she would run to the river that bordered her town to bathe in the fresh stream, or filling up buckets to do daily chores. Her father would hunt game for meals when they were younger, ranging from armadillo to various types of birds, while her mother would take care of livestock (to eat and to sell) for the family of fifteen. Ramos shared one of the meals she and her siblings used to have: three animal crackers and a tiny glass of milk. Despite these challenges, Ramos remarked, “I never say my childhood was horrible. Even though I was poor, that was all I knew.”
After twelve years in Mexico, Ramos’s family moved to a labor camp in California, where her parents hoped they could provide a better life for their children. The labor camp was occupied with immigrants, like her family, who had migrated north in search of work. Many of them found it through seasonal jobs. They had been sold a myth that in America all worries go away. They faced many obstacles. Moving from a small village in Mexico to a town outside of Sacramento is, in itself, a complete culture shock. Learning a new language, and their status as undocumented workers, challenged them on a daily basis.
Ramos and her family came into the United States undocumented. Though many describe this action as illegal, she has never considered her parents criminals for bringing them here. “I just hope you are never in the position where you have to run for a better life for your children,” she said. “Just be lucky that you haven’t been in a position to make that decision. I don’t think any parents want to be in that position, where they have to pick up their whole life to have a better life for their children, a luxurious life, which I don’t have.”
In 1991, Ramos’s parents, still working seasonal jobs, found out from a family friend about a town in Iowa that was offering full-time jobs for workers at a meat-packing plant. This offer would allow her parents to not worry about searching for work anymore. No more waking up early to travel to sites only to be turned down. Soon her family was off to Storm Lake.
When reflecting back on her first experiences in town, Ramos noted how different it was from the place she sees today. The challenges that accompanied her on her journey to the United States were some of the same ones that followed her to Storm Lake. Soon after their arrival, she and her husband experienced bigotry from other residents in the trailer park, and from customers at her first job.
Ramos also sees a larger battle in how immigrants are treated in American society. “Why do we have to continue talking about it?” Ramos asked. “Why do we have to continue explaining ourselves? Why do we have to continue educating about why we are here?” Despite all these challenges from her new community, Ramos and her family never lost hope, and her involvement within this community grew.
Until this year, Ramos worked at United Community Health Center (UCHC) as the human resources director and office manager, taking on multiple roles that kept the center going day-to-day. She had been involved in safety assurance, compliance, and mostly everything that went on in the clinic. She also saw that the workers at the clinic never lost track of their main goal: serving the underserved and providing healthcare to those regardless of the ability to pay. UCHC treats many different people of all walks of life, and Ramos also made sure that all of these people know exactly what their bills meant and what their insurance did and didn’t cover. She loved the position because it allowed her to be more than just an HR worker. It was a way for her to better serve her community. Recently, though, Ramos shifted her career direction, leaving UCHC to work as a human resources talent acquisition manager for AgState.
Ramos was one of the original members of the multicultural health coalition, SALUD!, a non-profit organization that supports the community through advancing equality in health and well-being. Diane Daniels, the founder of SALUD!, pushed Ramos to become who she is today and caused her to realize her own leadership, power, and the confidence in herself. “I owe it all to SALUD!” Ramos said when she looked back on her experiences in the organization, “because I was living in the shadows for a very long time.”
With the support of many residents, of SALUD!’s founder Diane Daniels, and of former police chief Mark Prosser, Ramos recently ran and was elected to the city council. Through this position, she hopes to empower more people to participate “because we live here. We decided to make Storm Lake our home, so why not be part of the decision making?” She also shared how eye-opening this experience has been for her and the learning curve that has come with it. From learning how to manage the city’s budget to understanding how every decision is made, she strives to better her community.
Ramos’s journey has been challenging, but she feels blessed by the opportunity her parents gave to her when they moved to America, by the leaders and mentors she found within Storm Lake, by her family, and by her ability to give so much back to the community that made her the person she is today.