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A series of POWERFUL PODCASTS by WOMEN, about WOMEN. Women’s strength has shaped the world in which we live in all possible aspects, the likes of government, education, health, science, business, spirituality, arts, culture and MORE. NPR-WGVU Public Media’s POWERFUL WOMEN: LET’S TALK podcast is a series of interviews with diverse women who are trailblazers who have helped shape our community and transform who we are and how we live. Hear them tell their stories in their own words.This podcast will be released in the summer of 2020 which corresponds to the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing and protecting women’s constitutional right to vote in the United States. This release will also parallel PBS national programming celebrating this historic event.POWERFUL WOMEN: LET’S TALK is hosted and produced by NPR-WGVU Public Media’s own team of powerful women, Shelley Irwin and Jennifer Moss.

Powerful Women Let's Talk - 045: Lupe Ramos-Montigny

Lupe Ramos-Montigny
Lupe Ramos-Montigny

As a young girl, Lupe Ramos-Montigny traveled from Texas to Michigan to help her family harvest cherries in Old Mission Peninsula.  Her love for the state brought her back to Michigan to earn numerous degrees, have a 36-year career in education, along with a stellar political career.  She also chaired a committee to honor Cesar Chavez and continues to push that cause today.  Today’s Powerful Woman is Lupe Ramos-Montigny.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:

[MUSIC] Produced by women about women. Powerful women, Let's talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world. Transforming who we are and how we live. [MUSIC]

Jennifer Moss: Hello, everyone. Time for another edition of powerful women, Let's talk. We of course want to thank you so much for joining us today. It is quite the honor to have today's powerful woman with us and she is powerful. We welcome Lupe Ramos-Montigny. She is no stranger to many being a well-known educator, political activists, and grassroots organizer who continues to be so very busy, especially these days and we'll get to why she's so busy in a moment. But first, a little background and a side note. This is just a short version because there's not enough time in the world to list all of her accomplishments and accolades. To start she's an educator, retired now but worked for the Michigan public schools, of course, for Grand Rapids, public schools for 36 years. She was in education from teacher to principal, but she's also well known in civic action. One of her biggest accomplishment has to do with being on the first committee seeking to honor Cesar E. Chavez which turned into a movement. We'll get to that. But I also want to mention that Miss Ramos-Montigny and she also served in politics, serving as the first Latina to serve as the Kent County Democratic Party chair as well as second vice chair for the Michigan Democratic Party. Lupe Ramos-Montigny welcome to today's powerful woman. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Thank you so much, Jennifer, for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here Jennifer

Moss: And it's a pleasure for us to have you here. Before we take a deeper dive into all that you do and some of your words of encouragement and wisdom. I should mention that you have served and continue to serve on countless boards and to foresee toward such as the mayor, George Hartwell, champion of diversity award. The Dave and Carolyn Van Andel leadership award, and an honorary WGVU I have made a difference award as well. That's just to name a few. And by the way, you are a Grand Valley graduate getting your master's here. And so you continue to work hard here in this Grand Rapids community. But you actually started coming to Michigan as a little girl.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: That's right, that's right. My family would travel from Weslaco, Texas to harvest the crop. In Chassell Michigan. And then we would go to old mission Peninsula and pick cherries. And then we would go pick tomatoes in Indiana. So that’s how I was introduced to this beautiful state. We came for 3 years and then we quit coming. And so, but in my mind as I went to high school and also the university. I always thought I have to return because in my mind, Michigan was old mission Peninsula. And if you have been their it is, a beautiful part of our state. And so when I came and the people and the students that I work with we're the farm workers and I taught their children. So there was really a thrill for me because like 10 years before I had been one of those children. And so that's how I made my stay here especially here in Grand Rapids that is my home. And now I have been here for many, many years, more years here than in Texas, but I'm originally from Weslaco, Texas.

Jennifer Moss: Wow and so you love the fact that you're back in Michigan.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Of course, absolutely! Jennifer

Moss: After all and this is the place you are meant to be.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Yes!

Jennifer Moss: And you’ve made quite an impact. So you continue to pursue your dreams from educated to politician to community activists, and we should mention one of your biggest accomplishments and part of it is still a work in progress. Actually a national work to get a street permanently named after Cesar E. Chavez and you started the committee back in 2000.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: That's exactly right. One of by accomplishments has been working with the community. Elevating those people that have made a difference in the lives of the under privileged. The students that need that encouragement or need the funds to go to college. And so Cesar Chavez you know, he helped the farm workers. I used to be a farm worker. So that's one of the reasons why his testimony, his teaches his contributions are very important in my life. And so I want to elevate his story. I'm for more people, educate more students about who Cesar was, his principles. He always used it. He had about 10 principles and of course, those words like commitment, determination, unity, community. And so those are the principles that I live by and also, I teach and inform the public. So it is extremely very important to me right now as we go to these healing process because our country is in such racial tension, and we have to uplift ourselves of that. And so I feel strongly that this is that time. This is the right time to also put Cesar name in a very prominent place that people, students, generations to come can drive down Cesar E Chavez Avenue and also remember why that street was named after Cesar. So he was he was a determined person, a committed person. He lived by the principles of Gandhi and also doctor Martin Luther King jr. nonviolence approach to our struggles and our plights. So this is what I want to the legacy that I want to leave Grand Rapids. And also the community and the students that there are people from all walks of life from all ethnic groups that help make strong important contributions to the history of this community and the state, and also the country and internationally. I strongly believe to that his name Cesar E. Chavez should be taught in the schools. When students finish their schooling, whether it's high school or higher ed, They should know the name as I did. I had to learn David Crockett and all of those people that at that time was felt that they were contributing to the history of Texas. And so we had to learn that but we never, ever heard one Hispanic name that was making a difference. And so it is my responsibility, as a grassroots organizer as a community leader to also teach about Cesar E. Chavez.

Jennifer Moss: So your trying to get a street now permanent in his honor, not just honorary.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Yes, because that there would be a very prominent way to elevate his name, but not only that, but it’s a very important way to a unify the city. The Granville Avenue which we're trying to rename comes goes from Plight Park all the way to downtown Watson Southwest. So we will be also like connecting the barrio to the downtown. So what better way to unite the city, then to have Cesar’s name, what better way to proclaim that we are to the history of this country. And so if and when that day comes, which probably will take about a year. There's a lot of steps that we have to follow. And as you know, Jennifer, we are joining hands with the African American community and in this effort, this project we call March, March ahead for remarkable civil rights heroes and in the two heroes are Cesar E. Chavez and Martin Luther King jr. And so we're working on this project together. And so that's another reason why this is so important because unity in the community in this healing process is so important and now, we're going to be joining hands with the African American community and trying to get this renaming these two streets at the same time, and I think that’s powerful.

Jennifer Moss: Very powerful, speaking of powerful as a powerful woman. And that's part of that's going to be part of your legacy as you started back in 2000, the movement there and it continues in in 2021. And so like you said, maybe in a year you'll know. But even the unification along the process probably has a good as well. Working together, right. So you know, you look at powerful women. They don't get to be powerful without having to deal with life's issues and you've done so much. Tell me about any potential barriers that you may have faced along your pathway. I mean I would only imagine that you had to encounter some.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: You know, growing up in Weslaco, Texas. They're literally west of railroad track that separated the Americans of Mexican descent with the Americans of European descent. We couldn't cross that railroad track. And so that was something that I didn't understand. Now we went to my side of the barrio and my side of the city of the town. It wasn’t in a big city. Less like a town. With that we were all Mexican Americans. We spoke Spanish. I didn't learn how to speak English until I was 6 years old. And so even for you when you went to the post office on our side. They spoke Spanish to grocery stores the stores just to go buy clothing. Whatever, everybody spoke Spanish. But then when we graduate from 6th grade. We had to cross those railroad tracks and there was fear that I had to cross those railroad tracks because we never knew what was the other side what was in the other side. But the 7th grade we had to cross the railroad tracks now going back to the street. That's one thing that separates the barrio from the downtown area. There's literally a railroad track. And so our plan is to rename Grandville and so did the railroad track reminds me of when I was going up and the fear I had crossing that railroad track. Now, you know, I am an elected official. I have won 3 honorary doctorates, I have so many different accolades because of the work that I’m involved with. But even then, there's places here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I don't feel welcomed. I don't feel like they look at me. They're very friendly to everybody else. But then I cannot hide myself because I'm brown. And so what I used to do, I finished my term in in December of 2020. But what I used to do when that occurred, I would get my business card NY, state Board of Education business card. And I would go in and introduce myself to the people that were working in any particular store. And I would say, you know, I'm Lupe I serve on the state board. I serve your children. I serve the children of the state of Michigan and then the air would clear. I was an okay person.

Jennifer Moss: All of a sudden it just changed.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Yes, so those are the people think that because my name is known because I’m an, elected official, because I’ve got honoree doctorates. And I am involved to the degree that I am, that I don't have any obstacles. I'm so strong and yes, I am strong, but all those things bother me their barriers up to now. So yeah, I have to know coming traveling from Texas over here we were 9 children in my family. 6 girls and 3 boys. And so the 2 boys, oldest boys they were in working to go to higher ed, the university and my dad would bring the 6 girls and the younger. The oldest was a boy and my mom and Dad and another family and we would travel in his truck and so I didn't yet had crossed the railroad track. So I didn't understand racism. I didn't understand prejudice.

Jennifer Moss: Because you hadn’t gone to the other side You didn’t know what was over there.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Yes and I cross the railroad track and my dad, I don't know how he found the places because the farms were very remote. But he would find them, so that tells me my dad was pretty intelligent. But I remember one evening and he was very tired. And you know, you drink coffee and energize yourself. And so he stopped at a restaurant to get coffee. And I remember because when we stopped that truck had light boards in the back part where we were, and the board didn't touch each other. They were there with a place that we could peer out. And we were watching my dad walking to the restraint with the thermos, and he came right back. And though the way he was walking I thought that is not my dad. And he the only thing he had to do is look at me and I had to behave, you know, I knew I was misbehaving. No, but he was not walking like my dad. And so that's when I realized well, well I didn’t realize, I was a little girl. I was maybe when I used to come 4th, 5th and 6th grade. So then my mom says what happened and then he says, well, they don’t serve Mexicans. And I was like, they don’t serve Mexicans? What do you mean? You know, that's when I started learning that there was such a thing. So obstacles are there, but they tell you how you take care of those obstacles to move ahead.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. And that goes into my next question with all that you've accomplished. I know women, young women, older women want to know how you did then with that, find your own voice. Get comfortable in your own skin. I mean, especially when you think about the many times that you were the first Latina to accomplish certain things. How did to get comfortable with Lupe?

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Well, you know, we were 9 children, and we were 6 girls and I was one of the younger girls. And so my 2 oldest brothers And so [brothers name] became a pastor of a other church and then [other brothers name] He was an immigration attorney. So they were my role models and there was no question that Lupe was going to go on to a university and I was going to be a teacher all the time. I think I was little like I was saying 3rd grade/4th grade. They didn't know what to do it because I would finish my work and then bother everybody else. So what the teacher did she assigned me 3 students that I was. I was a little girl.

Jennifer Moss: Tutoring or helping others

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Yes, I was a teacher of those 3 children. And I was supposed to help with spelling and math. So I’ve been a teacher my whole life. So there was no question really So there was no question that I was going to go to school. And I after I crossed the railroad track. I became more assertive. I became more sure of who I was, even though every time I spoke Spanish and this teacher was always looking out for me. They send me to the office, and they would tell me don't speak Spanish anymore. They didn’t tell me why I was not to, maybe it's because they want to me to increase by vocabulary or practice my accent. I don't know. But because they didn't tell me we always thought well, their discriminating against me because I speak Spanish and so they would send me to the office all the time. And so one day I said to by friends let’s study Spanish in front of the teachers door and I will be the spokesperson and they said “no were scared.” And I said don't be scared. So we did. And he comes. didn't I tell you, don't speak Spanish. I said but Mister, whatever his name was. We're studying a Spanish lesson so that he couldn't do anything.

Jennifer Moss: So you became more determined that you kind of center in on by you or your voice.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Yes, yes, yes. So I was cultivating that assertiveness and determination and a commitment to myself and others that we could be successful, that I was going to be successful. So my life I have used a motto. Do not allow anyone or anything to get in your way of progress no matter what it is. And I have gone through a lot different things. A lot of different things. But by be the guidance of my parents, my brothers and sisters and I have had many mentors throughout. And I'm just real determined that there is a way/ There is a way to it and people can only say yes or no. So I asked for this project. They can say yes or no. But if I don't ask I'll never know it wasn't going to be a yes or a no. So my advice to young people is because [Spanish] Cesar Chavez used. That as their model. Yes. You can. President Obama used it in his campaign. Yes, you can. And so when You feel that you can't you have to say to you self. Yes, I can [Spanish]. And so you can live with that determination and commitment to yourself, you will succeed because nobody can stop you. A lot of people will try and even now you think everybody in Grand Rapids, is so excited that we're trying to rename two streets after two American civil rights heroes. No, they're not. And so we do this. We have a mission in our hands and that's to touch hearts and to change minds. And then that's another thing that I have used throughout my career touch hearts and change minds.

Jennifer Moss: I like that.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: And also, you know, the two heroes that we're honoring at this particular. Yeah, this particular time and this year, our two individuals that practiced and taught to take care of your problems in a nonviolent way. And so as we go to, you know, walking down the street given out flyers for meetings and stuff. They tell us that, you know, after reading our flyer and they say nonviolent. I like that I will embrace this and so did I. And this as I started my conversation with you. Not a lot of people embrace the life and legacy of these two American heroes. So that’s another mission, another charge that I as an individual have. I will be meeting with what we call in the committee to honor Cesar E. Chavez that unity partners. And those are the university presidents or vice presidents’ provosts whomever they choose send, or CEO’s or principles or superintendents. We have 16 unity partners in our group. I will be meeting with them next week. And so one of the things that I would like to recommend to them and I will be doing that is to institutionalize the life and legacy of these two American heroes Cesar E. Chavez and Martin Luther King. Yes, it is very important to celebrate them, once a year. At least, right. But again, every child that goes to our schools should know the names at least of these two American heroes and the contributions that they made to the history of this country.

Jennifer Moss: And it's that type of movement that can help people find their voices. Now on to this next question, it is a much lighter question, but it's one that I always ask what is it Lupe that makes you laugh?

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Me.

Jennifer Moss: You like to laugh at yourselves, we all like to be able to laugh at ourselves and certain elements. But what makes you laugh?

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: What makes me laugh? I love to dance. And, you know, are the Hispanic music, Latin music is so rhythmic and so upbeat. And so what makes me laugh it last week on Friday night. We celebrated my daughters, my granddaughter’s 12th birthday. And one of the things we did is dance. And so it was just so much fun. It was just her and every Friday she comes over for a sleepover. And so it was herself and a friend. And so we danced in and we've you know, they would pose and we modeled and did a lot of crazy, a girl things.

Jennifer Moss: That makes you laugh that keeps you going.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Oh that made me laugh. I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. Another thing that that makes me laugh is some you know, some there's some people that are real good jokes. And I have a friend that comes in when we're partying, or we eat dinner and he's always saying that you know that to the to the point that my stomach hurts. I laughed so hard. Also, I have a friend that there is a real good friend and she's like my younger, younger than I. And she's like my mentor. And she gives me upbeat. We just talk about everything and anything. And there's a section that we just laughed. You know, because laughter is good for the soul

Jennifer Moss: That is absolutely it!

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: And laughter is you have to laugh and so that that makes you happy. But I everybody tells me, well, why are you always also upbeat. And I say, well, you have to. You have to be positive, have to be optimistic. Working on this project with the street. Everybody tells me you go well it’s never going to be done but I’m going to stay very optimistic and upbeat and that it is going to happen.

Jennifer Moss: Good for you. And look, Lupe Ramos-Montigny we only touched the surface, but I could talk with you for hours. I really, really enjoyed our conversation. One of West Michigan's powerful women. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny: Thank you so much. We have lots to talk about Jennifer, because being a woman, being an activist, being a political evolved, being a Latina. There's lots to cover and lots of struggles to overcome. But at the end of the day, we have to know that [Spanish] yes, we can and we will.

Jennifer Moss: Yes, and I also want to thank all of our listeners as well for joining us for this edition of powerful women, Let's talk. I'm Jennifer Moss

[MUSIC] Produced by women about women. These powerful podcast focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more powerful women, Let's talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org and wherever you get your podcast, please rate and subscribe powerful women. Let's talk is produced by WGVU at the Myer public broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU its underwriters for Grand Valley State University. [MUSIC]

Jennifer is an award winning broadcast news journalist with more than two decades of professional television news experience including the nation's fifth largest news market. She's worked as both news reporter and news anchor for television and radio in markets from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo all the way to San Francisco, California.
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