By Cheryl Ross

Israel is a boxing champ in Zacatecas, Mexico, but he has bigger dreams–he wants to go to the U.S. and become middleweight champion of the world. Despite his mother’s pleas to stay home–her husband went north seeking riches and never returned–Israel moves to Chicago to train for the title. He wins the Golden Gloves, turns pro, and is in line to fight for his destiny. Then one day his life takes a detour. He charges into a raging Pilsen apartment fire to rescue a six-year-old Latino boy and suffers burns that end his boxing career. Thirteen years later the boy he rescued, the Kid, is the world middleweight champion.

As a child, the Kid had believed his background would keep him from achieving anything in America, so he set that fire in a bid to die famous. He doesn’t appreciate his championship and he resents Israel, who’s now a hollow man living in a small attic apartment in Pilsen and prone to alcoholic benders. In all the years since coming north, Israel has never been back to Mexico and never again seen his mother, though she still wires him whatever money she can spare. She is dying and prays to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, to watch over him. Suddenly Israel’s life becomes surreal. The scar he earned in the fire disappears, and he is pitted against the Kid for the championship. Israel wins, but…

“What did he win?” asks Juan Ramirez.

That is the essential question of Ramirez’s poetic fable Israel in Exile, a film premiering Friday, May 4, at the Chicago Theatre as part of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum’s Del Corazón Festival. It also might be the essential question of Ramirez’s own life. The son of Mexican immigrants, he ran with a Latino gang, became a teenage parent, and dropped out of college before making his way up the ranks of the local theater scene to become artistic director of the Latino Chicago Theater Company and an actor in movies and network TV. But he’s climbed the American ladder without feeling at home on it. He built his career telling honest stories of the “Latino experience,” and the higher he went the harder that became. On ABC’s Missing Persons he spouted lines that had “nothing to do with what I feel, or what I think is the reality of my people.” Things were better at Latino Chicago, but in 1997 the theater went up in flames. Putting the pieces of his artistic life back together, Ramirez saw a chance to make a film that would let him have his say.

Exile, which Ramirez hopes will get distributed nationally, may be only the second Latino-made feature film produced in Chicago to show on a big screen. The first, says Pepe Vargas, director of the Chicago Latino Film Festival, was probably Juan J. Frausto’s Change, an 82-minute film that premiered at the festival in 1994 but–unlike Exile–wasn’t intended for commercial release. Carlos Tortolero, executive director of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, says that Exile is important artistically, historically, and–at a time when Latinos remain underrepresented in all forms of entertainment–politically.

While Ramirez appreciates that his movie may be a first of sorts, he doesn’t care. He calls it “a single syllable of the voice of an experience.” He particularly hopes that Americans of Mexican descent will come away from Exile asking themselves whether to pull up their roots and replant them back in Mexico.

It’s a question that tugs at Ramirez, whose search for a home may be more fervent than his search for a voice.

He was born Johnny Anthony Ramirez on October 21, 1957, in Chicago. His mother, Maria, from Michoacán, Mexico, and father, Porfirio, from Mexico City, worked respectively as a factory worker and an upholsterer. They lived with their children in a cheap rented coach house in Douglas Park; later they bought a home in Pilsen. That’s where five-year-old Ramirez, following the example of two older brothers and some other boys, set several small fires in Jungman Elementary–an act of childish ignorance, he says. As punishment he wasn’t allowed to leave his house for a year, except for school, and in that time he became hooked on teleplays.

The family relocated to mostly white Humboldt Park, buying a house and renting out the top and garden floors. They maintained their ties to other Mexicans by returning to Pilsen to shop and attend church. Ramirez played with the neighborhood kids in Humboldt Park and was generally treated well by other whites there. Older Latinos with foreign accents, like his parents, were not as fortunate. English being his first language, Ramirez knew the difference between sarcasm and sincerity, and he heard whites in the neighborhood putting down his parents. “That’s one of the things that you don’t get when you’re an immigrant,” he says. “You come and present yourself and you take people at their face. You’re not sensitive enough or know enough about the language to know when someone is being facetious, and that’s one of the cutting tools we use to get over on people.”

During summers and over Christmas, the Ramirezes put their bags on top of their Ford Country Squire station wagon, packed their children–who would eventually number seven–inside, and hit the road back to Mexico. Mexicans made fun of little Johnny Ramirez’s Spanish and called him pocho, meaning pale faced. In Mexico eight-year-old Ramirez realized that he was not a real “Mexican-Mexican.” He says, “First I was nothing–I was just a kid. Then you became aware later that you were not just a kid, you were Mexican. You found that out here [in America]. But then when you went to Mexico you found out that you weren’t Mexican.”

By the 1960s Latinos were moving into Humboldt Park. Ramirez, an A and B student at Lowell Elementary, helped tutor some of his classmates, many of them Puerto Rican. The tutoring led to new friendships, which led him into a gang. He was 11. Everyone in the gang got a tattoo on his hand or knuckles that symbolized how the gang saw him. Ramirez’s tattoo was an open book.

Gangs served a different purpose then, Ramirez says. His formed to fend off local white gangs that had tried to keep out the newcomers. “You had to choose sides,” he says. His parents didn’t know their Johnny, who was doing so well in school, was in a gang until the police began picking up its members for drinking beer in public and hanging out on the streets. He remembers the whipping his parents gave him after collecting him at the station. He kept hanging out and getting hauled to the station, and eventually they threw up their hands in despair.

In 1972 his family moved to a bungalow in Oak Park, but his allegiances kept him in Chicago and at Orr High School. He was 14. He lived in the basement of a friend’s house, and when he visited his parents it was usually for a change of clothes or out of homesickness. He was in a “Che Guevara stage,” reading about socialism and revolution, and the ideas in his books didn’t square with the ones espoused in school. “I really had a tough time dealing with American history–with that kind of propagandized, altruistic certification of American ideals,” he says. “I knew that it wasn’t true.”

He’d loved entertainment since he got addicted to TV when he was six. He and his friends were religious about the Sunday double feature at the Tiffin theater on North Avenue near Pulaski. They’d pick up gossip there and often wound up in a gang fight. He describes himself as his gang’s “language” point man, the guy who forged absence notes, called lawyers, and spoke for friends who weren’t as good with English.

When the gang got cars–and they didn’t necessarily wait until they had their driver’s licenses–they roamed outside Humboldt Park. “As a group we would go anywhere we could, just because we could,” Ramirez says. “Leaving the neighborhood to go somewhere else, to us, made us feel like we had a bigger world than anyone else in the neighborhood.” One time they were in the Esquire Theater on Oak Street hooting at the screen, and when an usher and an off-duty cop approached, they stashed their cans of beer. The boys were asked what they’d been drinking.

“What do you see?” Ramirez recalls answering. “You come and just single us out. Why? Because we’re Latin?” He thinks that to avoid looking racist the men let them be. “We were in the wrong. But you know what? You used whatever tools you could to offset the inequality, the inequity that was in the situation. I was good at that.”

When he was 17 Ramirez started going by the name “Juan Antonio.” A year later he and his girlfriend, a “like fourth-generation” Mexican-American, became parents. Ramirez, who was about to enter the University of Illinois at Chicago as a premed student (he says he was admitted on the strength of his standardized test scores), got married. “I [was] not going to leave some girl with my baby,” he says. “My revolutionary spirit would not allow this.” Here’s what he was thinking: “Che [Guevara] had a baby. Che was a doctor. I could be like Che. I’ll be a doctor.” He says, “I had this whole romanticized view of how this would happen. We were going to be broke. We were going to raise the baby. I was going to work and go to school. After eight to ten years of struggling, I’d be a doctor.”

Ramirez combined college with a job as a punch-press operator for a tool company on the northwest side. His wife stayed at home, watching the baby at their apartment in Bridgeport, which is where she was from. Ramirez couldn’t stand the neighborhood. “Every other word out of someone’s mouth was ‘spic’ or ‘shine,'” he recalls. “I’m sitting there and I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t live like this. This is people I make fun of or laugh at.'” Being “head of the family,” he decided they’d move to Humboldt Park.

It was his wife’s turn to complain about the neighborhood. He had a long-term plan but she wanted “more right away–like the new car, and the new furniture, and the beautiful place.” After a month in Humboldt Park she picked up their baby girl and walked out.

Ramirez doesn’t like to talk about his gang days. A 1995 Tribune article on gang life describes them as harder and more violent than he would like to acknowledge today. He quarrels with details of the Tribune story, but agrees that one anecdote is true. When he was 19 he was hanging out with friends when a man across the street fired a sawed-off shotgun in their direction. Pellets flew into his buttocks, his side, his leg, and his hand. One friend was seriously wounded. Ramirez set off on what he calls an “independent act of retribution.” He explains, “It was not about gangs when I went to retaliate. It was simply that I was standing there talking to someone and someone shot me. He didn’t know me. I didn’t know him. He had no reason to shoot me. I had a reason to shoot him.”

Another gang member drove the car in which Ramirez sat, disguised and waiting. When the man showed up and Ramirez had made sure of his identity, he shot him in the face. Later he saw the man wearing an eye patch and concluded that he might have blinded him.

“By this time the gang violence was no longer based on race. It was based on turf, based on drugs,” he says. “These are the gangs that we know now. I’m not trying to add an element of noblesse oblige to my time in a gang, [but] by this time Latinos were killing Latinos.” In one period in late 1976 and ’77, seven of Ramirez’s old friends died–two by suicide, one of a drug overdose, and the others in gang violence. He stopped going to funerals “because I just couldn’t deal with that whole thing.”

In the summer of ’77, Ramirez and a bunch of friends from the neighborhood were lounging at Wilson Beach after a night of partying, waiting for the sun to rise. One of the women announced it was her birthday.

“What kind of gift do you want?” Ramirez asked.

“A haircut.”

He’d been thinking of traveling to Los Angeles. “They give great haircuts in LA,” he said.

He and another guy and a couple of the women packed themselves and “a lot of drugs” into a 1966 Rambler and took off for LA. The trip was important for Ramirez, now a college junior, who was questioning medicine as a career and needed to sort out his feelings about life. One day he was alone at Redondo Beach thinking about it all when a stray dog wandered by. If nobody claims that dog, Ramirez thought, he’s going to get gassed. He saw the dog as a metaphor, and he decided he was not going to wind up like a stray that dies in anonymity. “Someone is going to know who I am,” Ramirez thought. “Someone is going to know where I’m from. Someone is going to know who the other people were.”

He says of his friends, “All of these people had a place of respect and had some position, and had some standing in that small circle that made up our community. I guess to someone on the outside, and to newspapers at that time, they were just another statistic of the young gang kids or urban kids. These were people. They were handsome, some were funny, some could sing, some could dance, some could fight. They all had a gift, but that gift was only allowed to be practiced in a closed circle, or geography, of eight square blocks. Outside of that they were subject to the larger social structure and practices and weren’t allowed to compete. Or they saw the hypocrisy in the larger arena and chose not to. I know a lot of people who walked away from participation in the larger society. They just said ‘F that!’ They didn’t care about James Bond and John Wayne. They became James Bond and John Wayne in their own eight square blocks.”

There on a beach outside LA, Ramirez also began thinking of the movies and TV shows that had inspired him, shows like Requiem for a Heavyweight. “[They were] just these dramas about obscure individuals,” he says. “People who you would just walk by in the street. But when you saw their life you would appreciate them more. That’s really how I felt Latinos were. I never felt like Latinos were just kind of some subversives. I thought the women were beautiful and the men were bold and brave and handsome. I saw the beauty in the music and all this, and I said, ‘Why don’t I ever see this? Why doesn’t anybody take the time to notice this?'”

That day at Redondo Beach his destiny came to him. He was going to “be the trumpeter of the great myth of the Latino.”

Ramirez dropped out of college that fall and began taking a playwriting course at the Body Politic on Lincoln Avenue. When he didn’t see any Latino actors, he started acting classes. He cleaned bathrooms at the old Victory Gardens on Clark Street to help pay for courses there. “I had to learn to act so that I could write. Then I realized there were no Latino directors, so I had to learn to direct and teach people to act so I could write.” He was concentrating on theater because the movie world seemed “totally inaccessible.”

In 1978, when Dionisio, a Puerto Rican actor, auditioned for an African-American role at Victory Gardens, artistic director Dennis Zacek realized there were few opportunities for Latinos to play themselves on the professional stage. The next year Zacek won a $98,000 grant to develop what would become the city’s first professional Latino theater company, Latino Chicago. Its goal was to put on shows at area schools and eventually on the Victory Gardens’ main stage. Ramirez auditioned for the troupe.

Latino Chicago’s first show combined vignettes, songs, poems, and a one-act, La sorpresa, that the six-member company developed together and Ramirez then put into play form. Ramirez recalls that one vignette of his was about a young man who tells the world it thinks it knows who he is but doesn’t have a clue. The show was the first theater that Edward Torres, then an aimless teen at Bowen High, had ever seen. When it was over, he cried. “These performers were dealing with subjects about what it was like to be in the Latino community,” he says. “[They] dealt with the gang subject, the Latino family. They were very specific about their experiences. That affected me, because those were the things I had gone through–not knowing whether to be a good person or a bad person, joining the gangs. All these wonderful characters who existed in my family or on the street that I knew about were in their show. So I was totally blown away by that, and that’s what made me get into theater.”

Torres eventually became a member of Latino Chicago, and then the cofounder and artistic director of Chicago’s Teatro Vista.

In 1981, when Latino Chicago separated from Victory Gardens, Ramirez left the company and branched out. He and actor Zaid Farid wrote a one-act play together, Resurrection Alley, about an African-American Shakespearean actor who finds success in France but not in America. The late Gregory Williams, a founder of the all-black Chicago Theater Company, directed the play, which was staged at the Black Arts Celebration.

Around this time, Ramirez made an important friend, the late Charles Finister, another Chicago Theater Company founder. He had “elements of the street in him,” says Ramirez, “but that didn’t bother me because he couldn’t be better or worse than I was. Sometimes it’s a different set of rules to do theater of color. Especially in the early part of an emerging movement, sometimes you have to maneuver quite a bit and sometimes you have to manipulate quite a bit, so that the thing can happen. And I think that’s the one thing a lot of people hold against Charles, is that he might have done a lot of maneuvering.”

Finister taught Ramirez to write proposals, to budget, to organize theater festivals and put on plays, and he shared his opinions of the theater scene. Ramirez recalls Finister telling him that a black play at a white theater was “plantation programming.” The money was going to the white theater. Gregory Williams agreed with Finister. Ramirez believes the two partners feared for the future of black theater in Chicago.

In the fall of 1981, Ramirez, Williams, and Roberto Caldero founded Royal Boulevards, a storefront theater on North Avenue in Humboldt Park that staged plays by authors such as Albee, Fugard, and Hemingway with African-American and Latino actors. The first play Ramirez wrote by himself, Maria Elena, was produced there. It was about a young woman who leaves Mexico to escape her mother’s boyfriend’s sexual harassment and moves to Chicago to live with an uncle. After the uncle’s murder, the woman is imprisoned for life in the apartment by her own fear.

Royal Boulevards got some good notices, but it lost money and closed after one season. Ramirez took the lights and other gear over to Latino Chicago, which was struggling to stay afloat.

To be closer to the theater world, where he was spending most of his time, Ramirez moved from Humboldt Park to Lincoln Park. He was now working at various theaters, acting in industrial films, and teaching acting courses and workshops. When he was 27, casting director Jane Alderman called him for a made-for-TV movie, First Steps. The film’s director wanted a Latino for the small part of a computer medicine technician. They “couldn’t find one or couldn’t find one who could effectively sound like a technician,” Ramirez says. The director told Ramirez that if he covered his tattoo he had the job.

After the movie aired, Ramirez began receiving calls from casting agents for other TV and feature movies being filmed in Chicago. Most of the city’s Latinos trying to make it in the movies back then “really weren’t actors,” he says, or couldn’t speak English well enough. “So when they wanted people with some weight who were Latino, I would always get it,” he says. Most of the roles “were like shit roles. It’s not like they were things I would be proud of. I’d either be getting beat up or I was some kind of a gangbanger, coke dealer, or the oldest teenager in the world or something like that.”

By the mid-1980s Latino Chicago had moved to Wright College, which offered the company free office and performance space, Ramirez says, in part because he’d agreed to teach acting classes there. But the move didn’t rescue the floundering company. After it lost its artistic and managing directors in late 1985, the board of directors decided to dissolve it. Ramirez asked the directors to hang on as a “paper board” for six more months while he took over. They agreed.

Eight years after his epiphany at Redondo Beach, Ramirez had come to some conclusions about Latino theater. As much as he appreciated the opportunity given him by Victory Gardens, he now thought of Latino Chicago’s years there as a form of “plantation programming.” Unless the company had a completely independent voice–a first voice–its work would not ring true.

Ramirez and his older brother Michael–the only other member of the family to pursue acting–and a couple of friends began rebuilding Latino Chicago in the basement bomb shelter (a $150-a-month “little dump,” Ramirez says) of the Flat Iron Building in Wicker Park. A MacArthur Foundation grant helped them along. They developed shows in a commedia dell’arte mode based on teatro de la carpa, a traditional Mexican theater in which performers set up tents for impromptu performances “in town squares, then [broke them] down when the federales showed up,” Ramirez says. He calls teatro de la carpa a “human magazine” that notified the people of the state of politics and revolution. Latino Chicago traveled as far as Texas and Mexico with its shows.

Finister had taught Ramirez that to become an important institution a theater company needed its own property. Ramirez looked for a permanent home, and he and board president Roberto Caldero found it at 1625 N. Damen–a double-engine firehouse, circa 1894, on a street of vacant buildings, discarded needles, and prostitutes. The building’s pipes and windows were broken, the paint was peeling, and three feet of ice covered the basement. Urged on by mayoral deputy Ben Reyes and the local aldermen, Luis Gutierrez and Terry Gabinski, the city agreed to sell Latino Chicago the building. But when the company tried to close the deal, Ramirez says, the city didn’t return its calls.

Ramirez showed up at a community meeting where Mayor Harold Washington was answering written questions from the audience. An aide told him the mayor wouldn’t get to his question. He stood up and told Washington that some questions could not be asked on “a little piece of paper written in crayon.” I guess you have to stay until the end of the meeting and ask me yourself, Washington replied.

Afterward, Ramirez and other members of the company approached the mayor, who came down from the stage surrounded by his staff, security, and the media. Ramirez explained the situation, and Washington gave him the name of someone to call. “He’s going to make sure that you get that firehouse,” Ramirez recalls Washington telling him. “And if he doesn’t, you call me and I’ll make sure that he hears it.”

The company soon had a deal. They agreed to pay the city a dollar a day for five years and a sum of $35,000 at the end of that period. In April 1987, the reconstituted Latino Chicago moved into its new home, the Firehouse, and began rebuilding it.

The following March the company opened its first Firehouse-based play, Nicholas Patricca’s The Fifth Sun, about the assassination of El Salvador’s Archbishop Romero. As the company’s reputation grew, high-paying acting jobs in LA and elsewhere began luring the actors away, and new talent came aboard. Brisk ticket sales and major grants from the MacArthur Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, the Joyce Foundation, and the Illinois Arts Council kept the company in business. By the late 80s there were 23 people working there, including technicians, support staff, designers, and actors.

In the early 1990s Ramirez shifted the company’s emphasis from providing roles for Latino actors to providing a stage for Latino playwrights. The company was to be a writer’s paradise, a sanctuary where the “first voice” would be revered. “We were a company that was very concerned with a clear and clean voice of the Latino experience,” Ramirez says. Latino Chicago focused on English-language plays that reflected Latino experiences in America because “no one else was doing that kind of stuff”–not, at least, in the same way. “There were other people doing it, but they were kind of concerned with regional issues. Like in California, everything was pretty much grapes and lettuce. In New York it was independence. There were Chicano groups and there were Puerto Rican groups and there were Cuban groups, but there were not really Latino groups.” The Chicago Tribune reported in 1992 that Latino Chicago produced “more plays by Latino playwrights than any other company in the country.”

Gregorio Gomez, a Chicago poet who hosts an open-mike poetry night at Weeds, saw a Latino Chicago production in 1988 and became a fan. He rarely missed a show, and sometimes saw the same production more than once. In 1990 Gomez became the company’s managing director, a role that included building sets, running lights, writing proposals, and looking out for the bottom line. His arrival allowed Ramirez to spend more time on playwriting, directing, and outside acting jobs, such as parts in the movies Backdraft and The Fugitive and the TV movie In the Company of Darkness, with Helen Hunt. And Ramirez finally began to do some moviemaking of his own. He attended the Community Film Workshop and made two short films.

During the 1993-’94 TV season, Ramirez was a regular on Missing Persons, a Chicago-based TV series starring Daniel J. Travanti. He remained Latino Chicago’s artistic director in name only. In his absence the company formed an actor-driven artistic committee, but he says it lacked the leadership required to maintain the old level of success. Latino Chicago stopped producing as many shows of its own, and the Firehouse became a home for itinerant theater troupes who paid the rent.

Ramirez had been overjoyed to land the TV show, but was miserable doing it. “I made a ton of money, like unbelievable, perverse, nasty money,” he says. “But it was terrible. They owned you.” He worked up to 16 hours a day, six days a week on Missing Persons. He says he was given lines like: “When Connie’s family escaped the civil war in Central America, she came to this country for happiness.” And as he said them, “I’m here thinking, ‘The United States caused the civil war in Central America! Why is she here? Why am I saying this? Who am I? Look at my hair!'” Ramirez laughs. The makeup artists had found “strange places to part it” and “put all kinds of things in it. It kind of became like nonmoving, kind of like a sculpture.” But then, Hollywood had a funny idea of what any Chicagoan looks like. “According to them, we all wore JCPenney jackets.”

It didn’t matter what Ramirez thought–he was hired to say what the writers wrote, not to have a mind of his own. He moved his family from Albany Park to Ravenswood, and he bought a Humboldt Park apartment building–three apartments and a coach house–that he rented out. He felt he was throwing money at his family and friends in order to maintain relationships with them. (He has six children today and doesn’t want to talk about his family. “You know it’s a blur….I’m a very good father who has wonderful children, but I probably failed in the husband department.”) He began stopping by a bar after shoots.

Network TV gave him “a mind STD,” he says. “I just didn’t belong there. Some people do, and I respect people who can deal with that kind of stuff, but I wasn’t one of those people. I wasn’t made to be on network television as an actor.” He missed Latino Chicago. He missed the real Latino voice. During downtime in his dressing room he began writing a movie script to stay in touch with that voice.

Then wonderful news came. Missing Persons had been axed.

In 1997 he codirected Latino Chicago’s production of Migdalia Cruz’s Che-Che-Che!, a play about Che Guevara. On December 16, a few days before closing night, Gregorio Gomez was walking back to the theater from a restaurant around the corner when he saw dense smoke. Then he saw fire engines, firefighters, and flames shooting “50 feet high.”

Ramirez was about to leave home for a directing gig in Iowa when he heard a news flash on TV–a fire in the 1600 block of North Damen. He stared at his screen and was stunned. The Firehouse was ablaze. He shouted an obscenity. Two people are trapped in the building, the reporter said. Gregorio and someone else, Ramirez thought. Then the phone rang. Ramirez picked it up. “It’s Gregorio.” Gomez was calling from a cell phone that belonged to a firefighter who’d consulted on Backdraft. He apologized for not being able to prevent the fire and asked Ramirez if he was mad. “What are you talking about?” said Ramirez, choking up with relief.

He drove to the Firehouse. It turned out no one was still inside, and he and Gomez and other members of the company stood and watched it burn. When the firemen left, they entered and inspected the damage, which was enormous. Ramirez remembered the day Mayor Washington had promised him the building; he remembered the nails, paint, and sweat that had transformed it into the pride of a community. They trekked over to someone’s house for an “Irish wake”–food, liquor, and stories.

According to Ramirez, authorities said the fire looked like arson–maybe the work of an anti-Castro group, the FBI suggested. If so, Ramirez says, it wouldn’t have been anyone who actually saw Che-Che-Che!, which was hard on Castro. Ramirez says plenty of people on the street, around Wicker Park, and in the theater community suspected Latino Chicago of torching the building. He says no way. First, the damage was about $635,000 and insurance didn’t cover half of that. Second, the members of the company spent so much time there it was like their home.

Latino Chicago vowed to rebuild. In the meantime, Ramirez decided, it was time to make a movie in the tradition of the films he had always loved.

He talked with Gomez and others to bring his story into focus, and by the summer of 1998 he’d written most of the screenplay. Ramirez was inspired to name his lead Israel by lines in a Christmas carol: “O come, O come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.” He called another character, an injured boxer never seen or heard but only referred to, Charles Finister.

The movie would focus on Israel in Chicago and on his long-suffering mother back in a mountainous Mexican village. “There are people who are left behind who are never considered,” Ramirez says. “There are whole towns full of just women in Mexico. There are bigger problems than just finding a job and coming north.”

He says a lot of Mexican immigrants “get sucked up into trying to maintain this type of lifestyle. You leave for the right reasons, you kind of stay for the wrong reasons.” Would he say that of his parents? “I don’t think that they’re happy,” he replies. “I don’t think that they’ve gained any real equity here. I don’t think they are of this country even now, and they’ve been here 50 years. I still think that they are Mexicans in their souls and in the eyes of others.”

Eduardo Von, who’s from Mexico City and played the title role in Che-Che-Che!, took the part of Israel. Ramirez cast his 20-year-old son Tony (whose credits include an appearance with Michael Jordan on the back of a Wheaties box and the role of a missing person on his dad’s TV show) to play the Kid, the character who sets a fire to die famous and goes on to become a champion. Ramirez dedicated the film to his mother, and he says it was inspired by his parents, who worked themselves to the bone for their children. “Other cultures may do this,” he says, “but Mexicans have this ability to just land somewhere and start working and start making things. And even though the wind blows and people come by and piss on their plants or whatever, or piss on them, they just kind of hang in there. And they have faith in God, and they have faith in the earth, and they have faith in other people around them. It’s a sense of community that I think my parents gave me.”

In June 1998, Ramirez, Gomez, and Angelica Gutierrez, a Latino Chicago set designer and Exile’s art director, took off for New Mexico to look for a location that could represent Mexico. Driving through the town of Tularosa, they spotted a white cross at the top of a mountain. They got onto a dirt road leading to the mountain, and soon the cross, an adobe house, and a small cemetery loomed before them. They’d found their Mexico.

Shooting began in September 1998, financed by $10,000 that Ramirez raised by selling his Humboldt Park building. The rest of the movie was made, Ramirez says, as money trickled in from “the Latino community, the Chicago community, the professional community of film in Chicago. They are white people and black people and brown people. And old people and young people, and people who are in the arts and people who are not in the arts.” Actors and production workers cut their rates. The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum contributed. Gutierrez, Gomez, Ramirez, Arthur Acevedo–who was Latino Chicago’s accountant and legal adviser–and an old friend of Ramirez’s named Wiley R. Stewart put together an informal production company called Puffin Films, after the seabird that had been a featured metaphor in one of Latino Chicago’s productions.

Stewart is a former professional guitar player, singer, and songwriter who owns a Chicago-based hazardous waste disposal company. He was hooked by Exile’s premise of someone “trying to live their dreams.” On December 16, 1982–exactly 15 years before the day the Firehouse burned–his mother Juanita had died in a car accident caused by a drunk Mexican driver. Stewart, who’s African-American, says he felt his mother’s spirit urging him to contribute to Exile and make peace with the past. He gave Ramirez $75,000, a little more than half its total budget. The shooting wrapped up 15 months ago.

Ramirez is thinking about making other movies, nine more to be exact. He’d like to do one about a Puerto Rican subway conductor who turns an O’Hare el train into a nightclub. Another movie might be based on his mother’s first husband, a Mexican-American who fought in World War II. Meanwhile, Latino Chicago hopes to reopen the Firehouse this fall.

Ramirez will tell you that life in America is no better than it is anywhere else in the world; Americans think it’s better and we’re better, but we’re “full of shit.” He considers the States “just one big marketing campaign. We just continually buy into it, and we continually build it up. We change it every now and then, and that becomes fashion. But the reality is it really goes nowhere–it either goes in circles or it leads us down very dangerous paths and we’ve got to back up. In the meantime, though, people are coming in from other countries all the time and they buy into it. They buy into this American dream and this American-image-conscious society, this image trap, and they look even more ridiculous than us trying to be it.”

Ramirez greatly admires Cinema Paradiso, an Italian movie that won the 1989 Academy Award for best foreign film. In it, Toto, a fatherless boy, grows up under the wing of Alfredo, the movie projectionist in an Italian village. Alfredo teaches Toto about movie projection and about life, but he wants more for Toto than his own life has held, and when Toto becomes a young man he tells him to leave. Indeed, Toto goes to Rome and becomes a famous director. He enjoys many women, though he has no real love. Thirty years later he returns to the village and finds Alfredo’s movie palace vacant, dilapidated, and about to be demolished to make way for a parking lot. The town’s residents gather to watch the theater fall.

When Ramirez saw Paradiso, he felt the change in the village and in Toto to the core of his soul. “Once he left there he became famous but his life kind of ended,” Ramirez says. “Toto, the little boy–the beauty of his life, the poetry of his life, that thing which was most precious of his life–happened at home. And when he left he became a big man, but he also in many ways became less of a man. He lost the myriad of wonderful characters, and experiences and laughter and love. And all of those elements, and loyalty and faith, and hope and all. Those were lost forever, and that’s why he longed for them. That whole thing is about going back and rediscovering.

“And when we see those people at the end, they’re old. And we remember them, and we love them. My God, we want to touch them and say, ‘I’m back.’ The nerve endings on our fingers want to touch the scruff of their beards and we want to sit with them. And we just want to sit with them quietly and spend time there and not be important, you know. And not receive an award, and not have someone tell us how wonderful we are. We don’t want any of that. We just want to sit there with them and breathe that same air.”

By the end of Exile, Israel is “where he belongs”–though whether that place is geographic or psychological is up to us. Does Ramirez know where he himself belongs?

What comes to mind is his mother’s home in the mountains of Michoacán. “I’ve always thought, I’m probably going to live here one day.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.