On Jan. 22, Nashvillians will go to the polls to settle—we hope—one of the most divisive issues to face the city in its recent history. That issue is the notorious "English Only" charter amendment, which would make English the city's official language for municipal services. Intended, say its proponents, to trim government and force the city's swelling immigrant population to assimilate faster—like, now—its effect on Nashville's civic workings would be largely symbolic. Critics point out, rightly, that if passed it would abolish bilingual services that Metro does not actually offer.
But other English Only opponents say its actual effects are more insidious. Civic boosters say the amendment sends an unmistakable message to overseas tourists, foreign investors and lucrative service-industry conventions: Go away. Still others argue that at the time Nashville needs money most, the special election will suck away an estimated half-million dollars. The sharpest criticism has come from the people the amendment targets: spokesmen for Nashville's many immigrant communities, a steady supply of cheap, uncomplaining labor, who take the suggestion that they're lazy ingrates as a slap in the face.
One, just one, of the many people fighting English Only is Gregg Ramos. An attorney with the firm of North, Pursell, Ramos & Jameson, with an office that overlooks both the heart of downtown Nashville and the city across the river, Ramos has used his nimble legal mind, his formidable knowledge of the law, and his experience as a second-generation American to attack the proposal from every angle. On the eve of this city-defining election, the Scene is proud to recognize Gregg Ramos as its 2008 Nashvillian of the Year.
Now here's the surprise: That's not why Ramos gets the honor. Not entirely, anyway. If fighting English Only were all it took to be Nashvillian of the Year, we'd quickly (and gladly) use up the city's reserves of trophies, plaques and engraving. The coalition gathering against the amendment can be said to encompass three basic groups: those with the most, those with the least, and those in the middle. Their ranks include university presidents and college custodians; pastors of every denomination and their parishioners; the mighty Chamber of Commerce and little-funded neighborhood organizations. Not for nothing is their broad movement affiliated under the name Nashville for All of Us.
Nor does Ramos get the nod because he's the single spokesperson for a monolithic bloc—"the face of Hispanic Nashville," or some such nonsense. Latinos make up a large segment of Nashville's population, to be sure, and growing every year. But within that "community" are factions and fractures along countless lines. Even on an issue as galvanizing as English Only, there has been disagreement among Hispanic Nashvillians over how best to oppose it, according to Nashville Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Yuri Cunza—who says he himself has respectfully butted heads with Ramos over tactical matters.
Indeed, what makes Ramos our Nashvillian of the Year—and ironically something of a representative, however reluctantly—is what he brings to the city as an individual. The son of a Mexican immigrant, Ramos works tirelessly to make Nashville a better place for people of all races and backgrounds—whether through active participation in nonprofits as wide-ranging as United Way and the Tennessee Justice Center, or as recent board president of Catholic Charities, the humanitarian organization that helps everyone from senior citizens to immigrant newcomers, regardless of nationality.
His story makes him doubly compelling, as a man and as one single, solitary, specific member of a group frequently demonized en masse. Gregg Ramos, as you will find, is just your average baseball-loving, country-music-playing fluent English speaker—more fluent, in fact, than some English Only proponents we could name. He has woven himself into the American tapestry, so much so that Ramos, whose father initially spoke no English, has raised two college-educated children who speak little Spanish—a fact he admits with regret.
"He would shudder to hear this, but he's blazed trails for Hispanic people in Nashville," says District 6 council member Mike Jameson, Ramos' law partner and an ally in the fight against English Only. "He pulled up stakes and came here in a lowrider with chain for a steering wheel and successfully entered the practice of law in Nashville. That's not something you would have predicted in 1985."
When notified by the Scene, Gregg Ramos' response was typical. His first inclination was to say he didn't deserve the honor. His second was to spell out, in no uncertain terms, how much he detests the Scene's weekly online "Ask a Mexican" column, which he believes only reinforces the same stereotypes and prejudices as English Only. His responses told us pretty much what we'd already heard: that he's self-effacing, he has strong opinions, and he doesn't blow smoke.
"I was really not trying to feign humility," says Ramos, 53, who comes across as disarmingly soft-spoken and Eagle Scout earnest, almost to a fault. "It's just that this opposition to English Only represents the entire coalition, and it's really bigger than one individual. And the last thing I want to do is put the face of one individual on it."
From his 18th floor office, a panoramic window gazes upon downtown Nashville, the city Ramos has called home for the past 24 years. But the wall is dominated by a large print of the Phoenix skyline, an ever-present reminder of his home state of Arizona. Near a spindly cactus, overlooking a desk filled with his son's copious English Only casework, sits a framed photograph of the late Luis Ramos.
Because of the 14th Amendment, Luis Ramos was born a U.S. citizen. It would be years before the Mexican-American border became the politically charged hotbed of barbed wire and police patrols that it is today. In 1924, the dividing line was a scuff on the dusty road between El Paso and Juarez, and Luis Ramos just happened to be in El Paso when he was born.
Instilled in his family was the universal human desire to put food on the table, and while doing so, to somehow provide their children the kind of life where they could succeed instead of merely survive. Luis knew he couldn't do that in northern Mexico, where he grew up. So he made the trek to the land of opportunity, through Texas and New Mexico, then eventually to Phoenix.
Luis Ramos was proud of his new country, even though he didn't yet know how to communicate with it. The road to fluency was rough and didn't happen overnight. When the Army drafted him in the final years of World War II and shipped him off to the trenches in France and Germany, Luis liked to say he learned his first English word as enemy bullets whizzed past his ears: "Duck!"
"My dad would tell me that even during the time he was learning the language, he suffered a lot of humiliation," Ramos remembers. "People would make fun of him, people would think that he wasn't intelligent, and my dad was one of the smartest men I've ever known. He only had a third-grade education, by the way, and he could have done much more if he had had the opportunity for an education, but he didn't. He instilled in us the importance of education."
Just how important, his son would learn firsthand. The lesson came one summer when Luis was suddenly laid off from his construction company just before his pension plan went into effect. Not coincidentally, the same thing happened to the other Mexican employees. To make ends meet, the whole family had to work picking potatoes and onions in the blazing Arizona sun.
"We started at 4 a.m., and it was backbreaking work," Ramos recalls with a wince. "It gave me so much respect for the people who do it. That was maybe the most important summer of my life, because I realized that a person with an education has no limitations."
Luis settled into a long career as a postal worker, and his son followed a keen interest in political science to Arizona State University, earning the first college diploma in his family. He continued on to law school, graduated, and spent the next four years chalking up trial experience as an assistant city prosecutor. Until 1983, Gregg—the extra "g" on the end of his name, incidentally, was an arbitrary addition by his sister—had never ventured east of the Mississippi.
Ramos might never have left Phoenix if not for his wife Sandy, a country songwriter who fronted a regional act called Sandy & the Sweetbriar Band. Gregg was the drummer, and together they gigged across Arizona to pay their way through college. One day Sandy told her husband she wanted to pursue her long-held dream of making it big in Music City.
It's a gamble that almost never pays off. But Ramos had faith in her talents. Soon he'd come home from a full day in court to study for the Tennessee bar exam, while his 1-year-old daughter Melody, named for their appreciation of music, played alongside. On year four of a five-year plan allocated to the pursuit of her dreams, Sandy struck gold with a Gene Watson single, then managed to land an album cut called "Let 'Er Rip" with a trio of newcomers. You know them today as the Dixie Chicks.
Ramos, meanwhile, practiced civil litigation with Philip North and later joined him to found North, Pursell & Ramos in 1991. He says he "put his nose to the grindstone" in those early years to provide economic stability for Melody and newborn son David.
In those days, Ramos says, Nashville was an inclusive and welcoming place. The couple arrived before the waves of Latinos in the early 2000s, and it wasn't uncommon for people to mistake him for being Middle Eastern. Connections happened naturally, especially for someone so outgoing. When the lifelong baseball fan and tenacious shortstop joined a competitive recreational league, he made a crucial contact in Father Charles Strobel, the revered Nashville homeless advocate, who befriended Ramos even though he played for another team.
"We'd go out after the games and relive all the plays we made—greatly exaggerating our skills, of course," Strobel says, chuckling. Strobel's charitable efforts brought him in contact more often with Ramos, who began to allot more of his time to local nonprofits. To cite just one example, Ramos served as a board member of the Tennessee Justice Center, which fought to reinstate deserving low-income residents who had been arbitrarily kicked off the rolls of TennCare.
Today, the roster of agencies Ramos has helped reads like a directory listing of local charities. Many already accomplish through compassion—and hands-on street-level work—what English Only means to fix with legislation. One is Conexion Americas, founded to respond to a local Hispanic population that more than quadrupled during the '90s. It connects the newly arrived to resources that will help them find a job, start a business or understand a rental agreement, so that they can become productive members of society.
More direct still in its missions of mercy is Catholic Charities, on whose board Ramos has served since 2002. Following the teachings of Deuteronomy to give solace to strangers in a strange land, it's often the first contact that refugees from war, rape, starvation and genocide have with their new country. Its staffers, who recognize that complaints about language skills are pointless for people without coats, shelter or the prospect of a next meal, say Ramos has been an exemplary board member.
Ramos' recent two-year tenure as president helped bring about two things. Under Ramos' board leadership, Catholic Charities was charged to manage the entire state's refugee resettlement program—$4.5 million federal dollars that gave homes to those fleeing war-torn countries like Somalia and Sudan. Perhaps even more beneficial to Nashville, though, is the relocation of Catholic Charities' Hispanic Family Services to the fledgling Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the largest Hispanic congregation in Tennessee. The move placed access to assistance—including preschool programs that help ease non-native speakers into Metro schools—in the center of the community and generated rent money for the church. In just over a year, the congregation paid off its debt and is now considered self-sustaining. And for churchgoers, having a place to meet strengthens cultural ties and aids integration.
"Gregg has always held a deep concern for those on the fringes of society, and I've always believed that when you find out a man's interests, you find out who he is," Strobel says. "The legal, religious and public constituencies are sometimes competing groups. It takes a special kind of person to move in and be respected in all those circles."
Sadly, just after 2000, Luis Ramos' health began to fail. Instead of focusing on the cancer that was ravaging him, he chose to communicate with his son using their shared passion: baseball. The die-hard Dodgers fans had long since switched their allegiance to Luis' hometown Diamondbacks. They talked all the time, reliving games and rehashing stats. For one last golden season, they watched the team barnstorm all the way to the 2001 World Series.
"My dad and I were on such a high," Ramos recalls softly. "It was so fantastic, it was almost magical. We went to a bunch of games before he got sick, and we followed the team religiously, and it gave us something to talk about other than the fact that he was slipping away." Just a few months later, in early 2002, Luis Ramos was laid to rest in a veterans' cemetery just north of Phoenix.
"That's where he chose to be a long time ago," Gregg Ramos says. "He was honored to be there in a cemetery that honored the people who served this country. I tell you, he just loved this country so much."
Whether he likes it or not, Ramos has become a go-to figure whenever social justice is imperiled. When Juana Villegas, an undocumented immigrant who was nine months pregnant, was detained last July for six days after a traffic stop—and gave birth in the Davidson County Sheriff's Office's custody, where she spent time chained to her bed—Ramos publicly denounced her treatment. Such stances haven't made Ramos popular at a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric is disturbingly common, and effective.
"He's not an immigration lawyer," notes attorney Elliot Ozment, who defended Villegas in her August hearing. "He risks a lot by taking on causes like that, even his own livelihood. It's not a very popular role to assume these days."
Nevertheless, in 2004 Ramos was handed a booming loudspeaker when his peers voted him president of the Nashville Bar Association—the sole minority leader in the organization's 170-plus years. Ramos now had a powerful forum to address a litany of wrongs, such as state Rep. Frank Buck's casual use of the term "wetbacks" during a legislative session. Since then, his reputation has made Ramos an essential component of the fight against English Only.
"It's consuming my life at the moment," Ramos admits, as he surveys the note-covered towers of papers and newspaper clippings that dominate the landscape of his desk. "Some people said, 'Gregg, this is an ineffective, toothless law, why are you against it?' And I said, 'Well, symbolic intolerance is also something people should stand up and fight against.' Sometimes you have to do something."
Ramos is one of a core group of civic leaders—including Mayor Karl Dean's on-leave senior adviser Jim Hester, former ECD deputy commissioner Mike Kopp, Loews Vanderbilt general manager Tom Negri, and recent mayoral candidate David Briley—helping Nashville for All of Us mount its fight on every possible front, from yard signs to possible constitutional challenges. Mike Jameson says that it's no wonder Ramos has been tasked with the movement's legal strategies.
"The common praise-slash-complaint you hear about Gregg is his attention to detail," Jameson says. "This is a guy who leaves nothing to chance. He can take a 50-page appellate brief and find a split infinitive in it." Another ally in the English Only fight says Ramos is so composed, "his hair never moves."
But wait a minute, an English Only supporter might ask. Isn't Ramos' own success proof that assimilation should be hurried along? The quickness of his response, and the passion it gathers, suggests he's heard the question before.
"I want to make it clear that I too encourage children and recently arrived families to not only learn English but to master it," Ramos says. "I want their kids to be lawyers and doctors and professionals and engineers. It's not enough to learn it; master it. I believe English is the common and unifying language of this country.
"All those things are the same things [English Only advocate Eric] Crafton is saying. But how do you go about it? Do you one day say, we are no longer going to communicate with you in a different language? We're going to erect artificial walls and barriers and in the process signal that you are unwelcome here unless you speak the language?"
In a May issue of The Tennessean, Ramos cited almost identical English Only rhetoric on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives—only it was from more than a century earlier. That time, it was Italians, Poles, Russians and Hungarians who were supposedly not assimilating into American culture. "That argument is no more valid now than it was then," he contends. "Integration happens. It's a natural process, but it doesn't happen overnight."
It's a truth that Luis Ramos understood well, in any language.