In 2011, photographer and documentarian Jesus Ramirez was asked to help produce a special about the Mexican Revolution, to highlight the untold historic contributions brought to the United States by Mexicans fleeing their country. The goal was a single hourlong episode, but the order quickly grew to 20 independent episodes featuring a who’s who of powerful and successful Latinos: politician Julian Castro; advertising legend Lionel Sosa; former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros; Ricardo Romo, president of the University of Texas at San Antonio — each talking about the economic, academic, and industrial advancements made in America during the Mexican Revolution. “We should be able to tell our own story, and our kids should know their story,” Ramirez says. “In 1910, when the most elite Mexicans fled the country, they came to the United States and established businesses, brought a lot of knowhow, a lot of knowledge that contributed to the Industrial Revolution, and a lot of ideas.” The series, Children of the Revolucion, aired across Texas and on PBS.
Ramirez, who in 2007 launched a storytelling studio in San Antonio that contracts with some 20 videographers and photographers, sees plenty of parallels between those historic contributions and those of today’s immigrants, including immigrants who aren’t authorized to live in the United States. “The people who are here illegally, many of them are still getting their wages docked, they’re still paying taxes, but they’re not taxing the economy: They can’t claim their workers’ comp, their Social Security,” Ramirez says. “They’re just leaving their money in the budget of the government.” Not to mention, Ramirez adds, that immigrants are avid consumers, further pumping money into the U.S. economy. “They’ve got that idealistic American Dream thing going on. They’re not entitled, and they bring with them an enormous work ethic. People assume in this country that people with money have more moral fiber or character, and I disagree with that. Immigrants with wealth can buy passage here. Yet, character is not defined by, or exclusive to, wealth. The poor immigrants that are getting under-the-radar jobs and living in the shadows are probably giving more to the American economy than the many wealthy opportunists who get unfair red-carpet treatment.”
The poor immigrants that are getting under-the-radar jobs and living in the shadows are probably giving more to the American economy than the many wealthy opportunists who get unfair red-carpet treatment.
One of the immigration stories Ramirez most likes to tell is that of his own family. Ramirez’s father was born in Mexico and lived in Texas without documentation until he finally received citizenship after serving in World War II. Ramirez still sees the irony in his father’s struggle to fix his paperwork: The family later discovered that his father was already a U.S. citizen because his great-great-grandfather had been a U.S. landowner in 1765.
“He was an illegal alien, even though he’s probably more American than George Washington,” he says. Ramirez himself was born and raised in Texas, but from an early age he remembers feeling like an outsider because of his heritage. “When I was in fifth grade, I remember, emotionally, that Davy Crockett was a good guy and my ancestors who were defending their homeland were the bad guys,” he says. “Only half the story is told in the textbooks to my children in Texas. They only get the romantic John Wayne story, but the narrative can’t be suppressed anymore and my ancestors should not be maligned any more.”
Ramirez would like to see reform that supports immigrants who are working hard and contributing to their community, even if they’re undocumented. “The profound poetic idea of Emma Lazarus’ ‘Give me your tired, you poor, your huddled masses’ inscription on the Statue of Liberty worked before to build a great country,” he says. “I believe it will continue to work when undocumented immigrants don’t have to maneuver in the shadows. However, if you’re here illegally and you’re breaking the laws and participating in criminal activity, yes, you should be deported. But the people who are respectful and follow laws that are about social interaction, human cooperation, decency and social mores, we should help them build lives here. They may help the entitled generation understand more about what it takes to be a true American.”