Ricardo Ramirez, retired bishop of the Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico, recently published a book titled, “Power from the Margins: The Emergence of the Latino in the Church and in Society.”
Bishop Ramirez, the only bishop I feel comfortable addressing by his first name, and I have been friends since the 1980s. Then, as a newly minted bishop, he invited me to become the coordinator of the U.S. branch of the Commission for Historical Studies of the Church in Latin America, of which he was the administrative secretary.
For the next two decades, he and I often traveled to Latin America for the meetings and symposiums of the commission. Then when he was the bishop of Las Cruces, a diocese he founded, I visited many times.
In a nutshell, the book is about the unique power of the poor. He gained that insight as a missioner of the Congregation of St. Basil in Mexico. “What I discovered there was a sense of the richness that only the poor can bring to others. No matter how deep the deprivation at the margins, there are always gifts that the poor can give,” he reflected.
The book is in large measure a chronicle of the contribution of the Latino poor to the church and to society. Bishop Patrick Flores, the first U.S. Hispanic bishop, ordained in 1970; Cesar Chavez, the founder of the United Farm Workers; Bishop Ramirez himself; and many others — lay, professed and ordained — rose out of poverty.
Bishop Ramirez opens each chapter with an autobiographical vignette. The first says: “Because my parents’ marriage did not work out and ended in divorce, my mother, my brother Pete and I lived in the home of my maternal grandparents in Bay City, Texas.”
He describes how his grandparents died at home because they had no affordable health care; his grandfather died from cancer in great pain “because we could not afford the strong painkillers” and his grandmother suffered from diabetes that made her blind and bedridden.
Nevertheless, Bishop Ramirez wrote that his childhood years working in the garden alongside his grandfather were also the happiest in his life. And he concludes:
“After my grandmother died, I thought my mother would never be happy again — that she would never recover from the loss of her parents. Then one warm summer evening, my mother said, ‘Children, let’s go to get some ice cream.’ As we walked to the creamery in the middle of the empty street, my mother suddenly looked up and said: ‘Look, children, there are still stars in the sky.'”
It is that strength to not lose heart that comes through in the entire book, not least in his own life. In his acknowledgments, he wrote, “Soon after I began work on this project, I became quite ill and underwent two major surgeries.” Then he — thanks to those who were at his side, cared for him and helped him– completed the book.
Since his diocese is on the Mexican border, Bishop Ramirez gained vast experience with immigrants in the 30 years he was the bishop. In a chapter titled “Crossing Borders, the Moral and Legal Challenge,” he wrote:
“Immigrants are special people. Those who migrate are courageous, intelligent and willing to sacrifice the comfort of their homeland, their native language and human support system; and they uproot themselves in search of a better life for themselves and their children. They are highly motivated; their family bonds are exceptionally strong.”
Now, and always, immigrants have been a boon to the nation. As the late Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote in his passionate history of Spain and the Spanish-speaking peoples of the Americas, “Cultures only flourish in contact with others; they perish in isolation.”