Jose Luis Ramirez was memorialized Friday at a mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church, a ceremony brimming with love for the Mexican immigrant who did more to bring Democrats and Republicans together in Sacramento than any governor of the last quarter century.
If you have never heard of Ramirez, it’s because the Sacramento of his heyday is only a memory, one that grew fainter with his passing at 85 on Jan. 10.
Ramirez’s Sacramento was more intimate, more collegial, more fun -oving and definitely more boozy than the one we inhabit today. In the 1960s, ’70s and even into the early ’80s, Ramirez was the maestro of Posey’s Cottage, one of Sacramento’s most popular watering holes.
He rose from dishwasher to busboy to bartender to owner/proprietor. Known for its prime rib, stiff drinks and convivial atmosphere, Posey’s stood on the corner of 11th and O streets, blocks away from the Capitol. It wasn’t unusual for Gov. Ronald Reagan to come in for lunch with Nancy on his arm. Ramirez would greet them with the warmth and kindness that he shared with everyone who walked through his door.
The Reagans would be ushered to a private room in the back where Ramirez would tend to them while also presiding over the boisterous area where Democrats and Republicans not only got along – they worked together.
“Jose was the carrier of the torch of collegiality,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, while adjourning the Jan. 16 floor session in Ramirez’s name. “Posey’s was one of places where collegiality was nourished.”
Remembering Ramirez, Nielsen spoke wistfully of how that across-the-aisle spirit among legislators is long gone today, just as Posey’s is long gone. It closed in 1995.
Much has changed since Ramirez was behind the bar. Most of the old-time steak joints have disappeared, eclipsed by locally owned establishments serving locally grown food. No one has time for two-hour lunches anymore, and day drinking is no longer part of the work week.
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats behave like warring nations instead of fellow Americans with disparate points of view. And immigrants like Ramirez often are portrayed as enemies.
“The talk about building a border wall saddened him,” said Ramirez’s oldest daughter, Mary. “He would just shake his head. He loved this country.”
Ramirez’s life was dedicated to embracing people, not excluding them. Love and understanding were the emotions he equated with America and with Sacramento in particular.
“He would tell us if you worked hard, you could accomplish anything,” said his daughter Sara.
Ramirez lived that experience and built a life of achievement and grace. Born in Querétaro, Mexico, he arrived in Sacramento in the early 1950s with almost nothing in his background to hint at the future that lay ahead. He had no money and scant language skills. He was hired to wash dishes by the original owner of Posey’s Cottage. After years of hard work and sacrifice, Ramirez bought the place and made it a go-to spot.
“He was a prince to everybody,” said Sherrie Golden, a former lobbyist.
Bob Giroux, a political strategist who later became Ramirez’s son-in-law, said: “Jose was affable. He was always above the fray, never took sides. If he heard something, he never repeated it.”
Ramirez memorized everyone’s drinks. He knew what they wanted to eat. He made them feel welcome. He did what so many immigrants do: He became a part of the fabric of his community by following his passion to build a new life for himself and his family.
The Ramirezes were one of the first Latino families to purchase a home in Land Park, on Perkins Way near Vic’s Ice Cream, his family said. Ramirez and his wife Laura raised three college educated daughters. His daughter Sara (who married Giroux) became the chief of staff of former Assembly Speaker John Perez.
Posey’s patrons – both Democrats and Republicans – treated Ramirez like family, his daughters said. He went on fishing trips to Hawaii with the legislators and doctors who frequented his establishment. He attended weekend cookouts at the homes of well-heeled community members charmed by Ramirez’s broad smile and love of people.
But even though he achieved success and stature, Ramirez never forgot the kindness and generosity he received from others earlier in his life. His daughters said he would tell a story about his arrival in the United States and a man he met in Los Angeles.
Having to change trains in L.A., Ramirez found himself confused and at loose ends. A man asked if he needed help. He ended up bringing Ramirez back to his house and letting him stay the night. The next day, Ramirez headed north.
Ramirez never got the man’s name but he often thought of him. “He always wanted to go back and thank him,” Sara said. “The man had told him to have a good life, and my daddy wanted to tell him that he had done that.”
Would any of us be that big-hearted with a Mexican immigrant today?
By the time Proposition 187 – the ballot initiative that scapegoated undocumented Mexican immigrants and sought to deny them social benefits – became hot politics in Sacramento, Posey’s was well on the fade. Tastes were changing, the Legislature was becoming polarized, and term limits had pushed a lot of the old customers out.
Ramirez walked away in 1995 and spent his remaining years enjoying his grandchildren and going to the funerals of old friends with whom he shared the times of his life. They’re almost all gone now, and so is the Sacramento he knew.
The city is vibrant and growing, but it will miss the heart and soul that Ramirez poured into his adopted hometown.