Friday, June 27, 2014


By Manuel Ramos, all rights reserved.

“Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”  Buddha

I retired from Colorado Legal Services (CLS) on April 1, 2014. For more than thirty years I worked at the statewide legal aid program as a staff attorney, unit coordinator, director of litigation, deputy director, director of advocacy and acting executive director. At various times I enjoyed the reputation of a good trial attorney, decent writer of legal handbooks, persuasive appellate attorney, and an expert in legal ethics and professionalism. I also served as a mentor and trainer for the legal staff, and beer supplier for the softball games (when I played on the team we were the Legal Eagles.) I participated in negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement as president of the staff union and then, years later, as a representative of management.

Retirement Reception - Photo by James Dean
Boiled down to its essence, my job, in all its diverse applications, consisted of trying to provide high quality, competent and meaningful legal advice to people who had no means to hire their own attorney and, thus, without the assistance of the hard-working people at CLS, would be without any type of legal help. Our clients were people facing the most extreme crises: domestic violence, eviction or foreclosure, medical emergencies, imprisonment for unpaid debts, loss (or theft) of wages, wrongful employment termination, human trafficking, loss of essential services such as health care, food assistance, and transportation. The clients came from Section 8 and public housing, migrant camps, nursing homes, shelters. CLS has never had enough resources to meet the needs of all the potential clients but the attorneys and support staff always have given it a hell of an effort. I am extremely proud of CLS and the work it does, For me, the job satisfied several of my needs: self-identity, purpose, challenges, among others.

All in all, I had a pretty good run with my legal career.

Then, it was over.

My earliest memories involve work. I was born and grew up in Florence, Colorado, a small town on the banks of the Arkansas River stuck between Pueblo to the east and Canon City to the west. The area’s economy when I was growing up centered on mining, agriculture, and tourism. Today it is a hub of the prison industry. One of my grandfathers owned a hole in a nearby hill that was supposed to be a coal mine. I never worked in it but I think uncles and cousins did, although my only remembrance is that the so-called mine never amounted to much.

Peach Picker In Training
I did work in the fields and farms that dotted Fremont County. As a boy I picked apples, cherries, onions, and other crops I’ve forgotten. One summer, my mother and I traveled with some of her sisters and a few of their kids to Palisades, Colorado, where we participated in the peach harvest. I functioned as a “boxer,” which meant that I had to move and deliver boxes and other containers to the pickers so that they would have receptacles for their pickings. I had to keep up with dozens of workers in several rows of trees. It was hot, sweaty work, and I was covered with peach fuzz at the end of exhausting days. We lived in the migrant camp, where I hung out with dark, surly Mexican boys from Texas. Somehow we managed to have a taste of summer in the middle of the work and drudgery. I admit that I was relieved when my mother announced that we were finally going home, but that experience stayed with me, of course. When I turned to writing, I used the basics of that experience in a short story that later became a chapter in my novel King of the Chicanos.

My point is, it seems I have always been around work and working people.

My father was the hardest working man I have ever known. Many sons say that about their fathers, but I saw my father’s labor upfront and firsthand. He worked at tough, muscle-straining jobs from his teen years until he retired as the director of his union’s training school, and then he kept working on his own at his house until the day a stroke stopped him cold and he couldn’t walk anymore, let alone climb up on the roof to replace a missing shingle, something he did the same month he had the stroke.

We moved from Florence to Colorado Springs when I was fourteen, at the exact time in my life when I thought the fun would really begin with all my hip and cool Florence friends since some of us could drive and the clubs and girls waited for us in Pueblo. It was not to be. My father was working full time in Colorado Springs, he had finally obtained a more-or-less permanent job with a construction company, and he had come to realize that the daily drive back-and-forth between Florence and Colorado Springs had to stop. During one of those trips, a deer ran out in front of him and the animal managed to total our car with its body. At other times, the weather on the highway prevented him from making it to his job, or from driving home. At one job he stepped on a nail that went through his foot. He ended up on crutches with his foot heavily bandaged. It took considerable effort to finally get him home after the accident.

When I was in high school, I worked at odd jobs (I failed as a busboy) until my father had me join the union and I started to work as a laborer and hod-carrier in training. I worked with him at several job sites. I had a difficult time doing what my father did. I was not as physically strong as him, nor did I understand all the interactions that go on between working men – with one another and with their machines. Some days I felt abused; others were glorious when I managed to make it through my shift without any major problems. I convinced myself that going to college would be my salvation. But I kept working at construction even while in college.

My father had a reputation as a smart, energetic, and driven construction worker. He was the type of man who "never stood still." I saw that other workers admired my father, that they respected and worked hard for him because he knew what he was doing and he would not ask anything from his crew that he wasn’t willing to do himself. He just didn’t stop. It was no surprise that when I would call home, long after he had retired, my mother often told me that my father was working in the yard, or up on the roof, or down in the crawl hole, or making something with his tools.She complained that "your father's always doing something, he needs to sit down and rest."

Today, when I take my mother for drives around Colorado Springs, I can point out several buildings that my father helped to build. The local laborers' union hall is named after him – The Henry Ramos Building. I hated working for him but I am so grateful that I worked for him. He taught me what work is all about.

One of the jobs I had as a teenager, which I obtained through the union, was to sandblast paint off the metal buildings inside NORAD – yes, that NORAD inside Cheyenne Mountain. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was intrigued by the idea of seeing the inner workings of the country’s missile defense system. I recall a long, winding road up the mountain, huge metal doors and gates, several soldiers checking identification, and, once we were inside, strict instructions about where we could go and not go. And then, nothing but noise. I did not have any ear protection (I got the job because of a call for workers at the hall, where I happened to be waiting as a good union member needing a job), and the sound of the sand shooting against the metal walls screamed and shrilled all day long, except when we stopped for lunch. At the end of the day the only thing I could hear was the intense ringing in my ears. I was deaf for days, even though I had ear plugs after that first day. I am convinced that the NORAD job is the reason I have to wear two hearing aids today.

Another job was to dig ditches for underground pipe that had to be laid for a new bible school out on the prairie a bit east of Colorado Springs. A high school friend and I worked for weeks digging those ditches the old fashioned way, with shovels and buckets. Just the two of us, digging trenches that stretched around the construction site, some deeper than others, some wider, some only a few feet long. We created ditch-digging contests to keep our brains from atrophying in the sun, and we filled the hours with stories about the high school drama we had both lived through – my friend as a long-time and well-liked student (white), me as the johnny-come-lately kid (Mexican) from the boonies that certain groups wanted to beat up.

I worked through college, in construction the first couple of years, then as a student adviser, recruiter, and tutor for the affirmative action program that we Chicano and Black students had created through our activism on campus.

During the summer of 1968 I worked on a particularly strenuous job. I think we were building a Woolco store (remember those?) For some reason the walls had to be especially thick. One detail I vividly recollect is that as a hod-carrier I had to keep the bricklayers supplied with 16-inch concrete blocks. Each morning I dreaded the day that was to come. Each afternoon I would come home and collapse.Some evenings I dropped on the living room floor and wouldn’t move for hours. From the floor I listened to the TV news and watched film of the police riots and attacks on the youth and antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Those news broadcasts had a profound effect on me, as did all the reading I did that summer. When I returned to Colorado State University I was not the same guy.

During law school, my summer work included providing legal aid services to the rural areas surrounding Boulder through the auspices of the Chicano Law Students. We called our efforts Centro Legal, and we agitated and argued with the law school administration when funding for the program was threatened.

Waiting for results of the bar exam, I worked in the IBM warehouse, where I drove a forklift and did other odds and ends for the computer giant. That job is nothing but a blur in my memory because I focused on the time in the near future when I would finally be a lawyer and have my first paying client.

Eventually, I was licensed as an attorney. I worked out of my house in the town of Longmont, along with my roommate, trying to establish a law practice. We did that for a while until we moved to Denver. After several months of living on the edge of bankruptcy we folded up our practice and went to work for legal services.

There was a time when my life went through a quick series of wholesale changes. One of those changes involved me dropping out of law, claiming that I was burned out, so that I could work in a solenoid factory where some of my more political friends were doing all they could to organize a union. That was dirty, thankless work. We were always on the verge of poverty, the working conditions were dangerous, the bosses and some of the workers were jerks, and my immediate supervisor was a racist older white man. After one particular insult I went after him but I was stopped by a Mexican woman who was twice my size and who had no problem keeping me from hurting myself by fighting the supervisor. When I returned to being a lawyer I never looked back.

So now, I am not that lawyer. I don’t go to the office, I don’t prepare for the next day’s confrontation, meeting, or crisis. I don't solve ethical puzzles or conference about advocacy tactics. I don't sign off on dozens of different forms of administrative paperwork. I don't email questions or answers to attorneys on the other side of the mountains or down in the San Luis Valley. I don't meet with attorneys to talk about (or simply to listen to) problems with their cases. I don't do a lot of things that I had taken for granted for decades. The transition has not been as smooth as I had anticipated.

For a few weeks the realization of the change in my life slowed me down. I started to feel sorry for myself and wondered if I had lost my purpose, my bearings. I worried over small things and endured a few tossing and turning nights. But those problems were short term.  I've found new outlets for my energy, much as my father had to do when he retired, and more and more I realize that I have quit fighting the change.
Retirement means that I own my life, as one writer friend told me. My work now involves much more mundane tasks such as cleaning the house, planning trips, organizing my home office, raking the yard, cooking meals, working out the exercise and yoga schedules. I did all those things before, but now they have assumed larger roles in the daily agenda.

There is that writing thing.

I talk and think and make notes about writing my next novel. That is one aspect of my working identity that has not changed. I’m still a writer, still trying to use the perfect word, create the perfect sentence, and write the perfect book. I just haven't yet started the actual manuscript.

And I accept that life, with all the hits and misses, ups and downs, pain and joy, is perfect. But we need to work at it.



Amelia ML Montes said...

Felicidades, Manuel! What a beautiful post and a wonderful tribute to your father.

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you, Amelia. I appreciate your kind words.

Jose Rodriguez said...

I'm an engineer right here in Denver, keenly looking at the retirement clock. I squeeze my writing among a full time job and another million things. You were able to publish books even as you worked full time; that took a lot of work. Imagine what you can do now if writing is the thing you do, not something to be squeezed in a busy life. Enjoy your hard earned retirement, get off the roof, stop raking the yard, and start writing like your life depends on it.