Thanks, George: Brownsville loses fierce cultural champion - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Thanks, George: Brownsville loses fierce cultural champion

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Posted: Saturday, October 19, 2019 7:15 pm

George Ramirez, whose name is nearly synonymous with culture and the arts in Brownsville, died Oct. 12 at the age of 73 after complications from surgery.

He was the longtime president of the nonprofit Brownsville Society for the Performing Arts, and his passing coincided with the 23rd anniversary of the Brownsville Latin Jazz Festival, which Ramirez founded.

Born Jorge Alberto Ramirez Muñoz in Mexico City in 1946, he emigrated with his family to Los Angeles in 1957. Ramirez came to Brownsville in the early 1980s to launch Polibrid Coatings Inc., a polyurethane industrial coating company, though he’s mostly known for his major contributions to the city’s artistic and cultural life.

District 4 City Commission Ben Neece said he first met Ramirez not long after both men moved to Brownsville. They learned they had mutual friends, soon became friends themselves and eventually wound up serving together on the BSPA board. It was during that time that the jazz festival was born.

“Somehow I got into salsa,” Neece said. “I was listening to a lot of it. I said, ‘George, let’s do a salsa festival.’ He said, ‘Salsa’s kind of narrow. Let’s go with Latin jazz.’”

Ramirez, who was BSPA festival events manager at the time, managed to book “King of Latin Music” Tito Puente as headliner that first year. Ramirez would soon be elected BSPA president. He was also instrumental in creating, with University of Texas at Brownsville-Texas Southmost College music professor Michael Quantz, the Brownsville Guitar Ensemble Festival and Competition in 2002.

Quantz, BSPA vice president for 18 years, said he joined the organization’s board after being asked to by Ramirez.

“Actually, he invited me on to the board back in the early days when it was mostly physicians that were populating the BSPA,” Quantz said.

In addition to the Latin jazz and guitar festivals, and more recently events such as the Brownsville International Flamenco Festival and Ancient Cultures Festival, Ramirez brought Handel’s “Messiah” concerts to Brownsville, Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, Bach’s B Minor Mass and the annual children’s “Hansel and Gretel” opera production, Quantz said.

He related a story of Ramirez’s response a few years ago when he discovered that none of the students in UTB’s opera workshop had ever seen a live opera performance.

“He just thought that that was completely unacceptable, so he bought tickets to the Houston Grand Opera and sponsored the whole trip for the entire opera workshop,” Quantz said.

Ramirez’s uncle Romulo Ramirez Esteva directed the Bellas Artes Opera in Mexico City for many years.

“Opera was kind of close to (Ramirez’s) heart, as was just about every other artistic thing,” Quantz said. “That was a typical kind of M.O. for George. He really saw himself as providing opportunities for people to experience the true wonder of being in art and doing art and watching and listening to art of all kinds — Latin jazz, salsa, hard core jazz, classical music, dancing of all sorts, visual arts, theater.”

Ramirez’s musical tastes were wide-ranging to say the least, and continue to be broadcast automatically around the clock on KXIQ 105.1, a low-power radio station Ramirez launched in July 2017. Lone Star National Bank on Boca Chica Boulevard donated offices for the station and a roof on which to mount the antenna, though Ramirez supplied the tunes — hundreds if not thousands of songs from vintage rock and country to folk, blues, funk, jazz, Motown and of course Latin jazz, lots of it.

Tune in to KXIQ and it won’t be long before a Beatles or Bob Dylan song pops up. Ramirez loved Dylan and the Beatles, saw the Fab Four perform live at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965 as a teenager, and once told the Herald that the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was “one that changed us all, really.”

“Blues, rock ‘n’ roll, cumbia — there wasn’t an art form that he couldn’t appreciate, as long as it was an expression of the human condition,” Quantz said. “If it was from the heart, George could appreciate it.”

Quantz noted that Ramirez “loved watching people enjoy themselves” and also took a great interest in others’ well being, personally sponsoring a number of scholarships for music students.

“If there was a need and he heard about it, he did his best to take care of it,” Quantz said. “George brought joy to the place. He made everybody bigger and happier.”

Ramirez’s younger sister Gabriela Esteva, who lives in Los Angeles, said her brother was musically inclined from a very young age.

“I remember him playing the drums,” she said. “His fingers were bleeding because he would play so hard. All of sudden it was the ‘60s and everyone was into music, and he got more involved with music and bands and everything else.”

Ramirez long championed the revitalization of downtown Brownsville, and in 2011 he bought the old Fernandez Hide Yard Building, where Neece was running the small live music venue Crescent Moon Café. The two collaborated in that business for a while before going in together on the Half Moon Saloon, which occupies more of the Fernandez Building, which Ramirez restored.

Esteva said her brother “embraced Brownsville like nowhere else that he lived in his life.”

“He loved it from the day he arrived till the day that he passed, and he gave everything — I’m talking about personally, psychologically, emotionally — to the community,” she said.

Esteva said her brother made friends easily and that she’s been overwhelmed by the response to his death.

“I knew that George was very important for the community, but the outpouring of compassion and love and support has been incredible,” she said.

Ramirez played a key role in the years-long project to transform the derelict Stegman Building at E. 11th and Washington streets into the Brownsville Performing Arts Academy, which held a soft opening ceremony in June. Interviewed at the event, Ramirez said the newly renovated space could someday be “the heart and soul of Brownsville.”

The Brownsville nonprofit Revival of Cultural Arts will operate the new academy, which will provide free music and dance education to children from low- to moderate-income families in the city’s Buena Vida neighborhood. Ramirez had envisioned the academy has a certified center for El Sistema, an education model created in Venezuela in the mid-1970s and today considered the world’s most advanced method for teaching classic music and dance to at-risk children in disadvantaged areas.

Neece, who worked with Ramirez on Earth Fest and a number of other events until leaving the BSPA board in 2016, said an official proclamation honoring his longtime friend will be read at the next Brownsville City Commission meeting. Neece also said he plans to lobby for the new academy to be renamed in Ramirez’s honor.

Brownsville City Manager Noel Bernal, who joined the city late last year, said he hadn’t been here long when he found out Ramirez was a major presence. Bernal credited him with persistence in keeping the city’s focus on seeing the Stegman project through, and thinks Ramirez will be remembered for a long time to come.

“I believe we owe it to him to keep his name alive through the vision that he had ... and how he was able to bring that vision to life,” Bernal said.

The academy’s official opening is “just around the corner,” which might present a timely opportunity for renaming the building in Ramirez’s honor, he said.

“I think there’s a chance,” Bernal said. “There’s already interest and discussions on that.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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