By Charlotte Aguilar
For The Leader
Longtime Heights resident Macario Ramirez, whose passion for his culture and heritage made him an iconic Mexican-American activist and educator in Houston across four decades, died Wednesday. He was 86.
The Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery that he has operated with his wife, Chrissie Dickerson Ramirez, since 1984 at 241 W. 19th St., will continue, she vowed, after closing for “a short period of mourning.”
Her husband’s heart recently began to fail rapidly, and she said he made the choice to spend his last days at home, where he died peacefully Wednesday night.
Ramirez started life in a family of eight — with Mexican immigrant parents, Jesus and Marina, and as the second of six children — who at times worked the fields of Texas, Michigan and Wisconsin as migrant laborers. Still, his father made sure the children were in place to attend school each year, recognizing that success “so you can get a better life” depended on it.
Ramirez earned a bachelor’s degree in political science with minors in education and journalism at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio in 1967. His first career was in the federal government, starting as a language adviser in the U.S. Department of Defense, which took him to South Vietnam, Guatemala and Honduras, and then as a deputy director of training programs in the U.S. Department of Labor, where he was involved in a study of working conditions for Latinos.
He worked as a management consultant and publisher and had his own advertising-marketing business before finding his true calling with Casa Ramirez.
Ramirez found inspiration in the example of his father — a laborer, craftsman and folk artist who had operated a small folk art gallery in San Antonio — and followed his father’s path after his death in 1984.
“I needed to do something for that wonderful man who worked his butt off for all of us,” Macario recalled in an interview.
On its walls, shelves and in its programming and special events, Casa Ramirez became widely known for celebrating Latino culture by giving local artists, poets and authors a place to showcase their talents and sell their works — from books to greeting cards to elaborate paintings and sculptures.
But it has always been more than just a gallery. Ramirez made it his mission to educate Houstonians about unique aspects of his Mexican-American culture and is credited with making Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — a widely celebrated holiday in Houston, with his annual display of personal altars or ofrendas and a traditional procession down 19th Street in the Heights.
When the lectures and workshops he offered in such things as constructing ofrendas, rodeo-timed programs about the role of the Mexican vaquero in the American West, and Valentine-themed events celebrating amor eterno in Latin cultures grew in popularity, he expanded his gallery to include a large classroom space.
All the while, Ramirez was one of the most vocal leaders on equity issues impacting Mexican-Americans in Houston and the U.S., especially in education and media. He took on causes in Houston barrios and classrooms and led a successful David-and-Goliath fight of a folk artist against Gallo Winery, garnering national attention.
For his efforts, Ramirez was featured in a Smithsonian Institution photo exhibit, “Americanos: Latino/Latina Life in America,” in “People en Espanol Magazine” and received the Houston mayor’s Hispanic Heritage Award for art in the community in 2013.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his sisters, Anita and Bertha, and a brother, Edward; sisters-in-law Lois and Sheila, nieces and nephews and other extended family.
Private services will be held at Heights Funeral Home and burial at the Historic Hollywood Cemetery on Monday, June 15. A public memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in his name to MECA at TBH Center, 1900 Kane St., Houston, Texas 77007.