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Restless Raul Ramirez—Journalist Refused to be a “Stenographer to the Powerful”

September 17, 2014
by Patricia Yollin
Raul Ramirez

It’s easy to find words to describe Raul Ramirez as a Bay Area journalist—and one of tremendous conviction, courage, and aplomb. Most of them appeared in the obituaries.

Raul died in November of 2013 at age 67, just four months after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He was executive director of news and public affairs at KQED Public Radio. He’d worked there since 1991, after 23 years at the old San Francisco Examiner, Oakland Tribune, Washington Post, Miami Herald, and Wall Street Journal. He’d also taught news writing and investigative reporting for many years at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State.

It is harder to find words describing Raul as a person, especially one who was a colossal presence in the lives of those who knew him. For us, adjectives have been ridiculously inadequate in capturing who he was.

That’s partly because Raul—my house-mate for 12 years and friend for two decades—managed to elude categorization. Some words surfaced repeatedly in the cards and letters he received after he got sick: generous, principled, kind, compassionate, inspiring, determined, and funny. He was elegant and erudite, a superb listener and wonderfully irreverent.

These qualities endeared him to friends. They also helped produce a singular kind of journalism in which Raul refused to be a “stenographer to the powerful,” as he put it.

For a Wall Street Journal series in 1970, he labored in the fields with Michigan farm workers. For the Miami Herald, he went along with undercover agents when they raided suspected heroin dealers. For the Examiner, he spent a few days as a deputy sheriff to do a piece on jail conditions.

At KQED, Raul played a prime role in building the news operation into one of the top-rated public radio stations in the country. He was deeply involved with the Center for Investigative Reporting, a fellow at Harvard and the University of Hawaii, a visiting faculty member at the Poynter Institute in Media Studies and part of a team that evaluated college journalism programs for accreditation. He led journalism training workshops in Ukraine, was founding director of the Latino Public Radio Consortium, lectured on media diversity and ethics, and mentored hundreds of students in the Bay Area for three decades.

Ramirez covered eviction protest in San Francisco.

It seemed that Raul, like a kayaker, achieved stability through motion.

Right from the start, he was determined to shake up the world through journalism—by doing it and teaching it. He was a disruptive journalist long before the term was coined. But was he a radical? Yes, if you look at an early meaning of the word. He went to the roots, to the origins of whatever he cared about. He challenged assumptions and hated dogma. He was also eclectic in all things, from food to books to friends. When he was battling cancer, his visitors ranged from Larry Kramer, president and publisher of USA Today, to former Chinatown gang leader Joe Fong, an ex-con who brought him jook, a Chinese rice porridge.

Raul was shaped by his own roots in ways that became even clearer when, after his death, we discovered his first published stories. All three were prizewinners written in English, his new language, only a few years after he had fled Cuba at age 15.

It was a day he never forgot. Even the painkillers fogging his brain last fall couldn’t erase the memory. “It was April 12, 1962, on Pan Am Flight 2422 from Havana to Miami at 10 a.m.,” Raul recalled from his bed at Kaiser Oakland. Weeks after he died, we found his plane ticket. He was right, of course.

Although Raul had celebrated in the streets when the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown, he and his working-class family eventually felt betrayed by the revolution: “In January 1959 Fidel Castro became the leader of the Cuban people. Every one of us had put our hopes in him,” wrote the 17-year-old Raul. “After long years of fighting and treachery, the Cuban people expected from him what no government had given us before: peace and freedom. … But by January 1960, I understood the terrible truth: our hopes of peace and happiness were in vain.”

He tried for two years to get to the United States before succeeding. The essay he wrote about it was published in Literary Cavalcade magazine in May 1965 and won a first-place award. It detailed his harrowing departure, including an interrogation by police at the airport. Finally, the plane took off:

“The last views I had of the airport were of some Russian air-machine guns on both sides of the runway and the airport’s terrace that was getting smaller … smaller. … In that terrace, in the people gathered there, I left a fragment of my heart. Then I saw the Morro Castle and entrance to Havana’s bay and I felt my heart being broken in pieces as the tears covered my eyes.

Arriving in Miami: “I felt an idea coming to my confused and tired brain, becoming more painfully clear each moment: I had left behind me all the people and things I knew and loved throughout my life, through the years of my early childhood. … Now I was entering an entirely new world.”

“He risked everything,” Low­ell Berg­man said. “He risked his job, he risked his repu­ta­tion, he risked his stand­ing in the com­munity.”

Reading these words, I thought about the many stories Raul had done about people who’d been uprooted and displaced, ranging from the tenants in San Francisco’s International Hotel to refugee children in Honduras who’d fled El Salvador.

He shattered conventional ideas about people who had left Cuba in the early 1960s, many of whom escaped to protect positions of privilege. Raul, the son of a machinist, always sided with the underdog. I think it helped drive his amazing energy—there was never a shortage of struggling or mistreated people.

Lowell Bergman, who teaches investigative reporting at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, discovered that side of Raul when they did stories for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner in 1976 about a Chinatown gang murder. The articles resulted in a libel suit. The Hearst Corp. would not defend Bergman, a freelancer, so Raul rejected the paper’s lawyer and found another to represent both him and his collaborator. They lost in court and spent a decade fighting the $4.5 million verdict, which was overturned by the California Supreme Court in 1986.

“He risked everything—he risked his job, he risked his reputation, he risked his standing in the community,” Bergman told about 250 people at a Jan. 12 memorial for Raul at the Berkeley City Club.

The Bancroft Library at Cal will be adding Raul’s work on the case to its collection. When Deputy Director Peter Hanff and archivist Lauren Lassleben paid a “site visit” to Raul’s garage on April 22, they were impressed with how organized everything was.

Raul would have enjoyed that. He was continually straining to keep the contents of the garage from reaching crisis proportions. Once an urn holding a friend’s ashes ended up there. Years later, when the family of the deceased asked for the cremains, it took Raul weeks to find them.

Inside the house, his stuff was almost as hard to contain. His KQED office was similar: His door was usually open, but you’d have to move a box or two if you wanted to sit down. Raul hated to throw anything out. He left behind notebooks, photographs, letters, postcards, tape cassettes, files, keepsakes, and yellowed newspapers. Fifty years’ worth.

Wading through all this is like going on a spelunking expedition with no end in sight. But there are so many discoveries along the way—and they’ve deepened my understanding of one of the most complex people I’ve ever known.

Raul and I became friends when we worked on a six-month project on “Gay in America,” a landmark series published by the Examiner in June 1989. After the stories ran, I moved in with Raul and his boyfriend of that era and lived in Raul’s house in the Westbrae neighborhood of Berkeley until 2001.

Something struck me about him early on, and it wasn’t among the vast array of adjectives that surfaced in any description of Raul: He was restless. It was always there, underlying his humor, warmth, and charm. I wondered if this quality was innate or the result of being a refugee, forced as a teenager to start a new life in a new land.

In theory, Raul craved security—not surprising for someone who’d been visited by four members of the Cuban secret police in January 1962 when he was home alone in Havana. He wrote that they suspected him of “anti-revolutionary actions,” perhaps because he’d campaigned in his school against communism and for religious freedom. They searched the house but failed to find an anti-Castro pamphlet his sister had hidden in a book.

In practice, however, Raul was often looking elsewhere, thinking about where else he might live or work, longing for that next adventure and wary of entrapment. His journals, especially those he kept while traveling, document an ongoing struggle to figure out who he was and what he wanted.

In mid-80s, he reported on El Salvador’s child refugees.

Scribbling his thoughts at the Marina Green in 1978: “I grow restless even in the midst of excitement and change. Would the stillness of joy—stable—trigger new searches? Or would new creative juices flow? If I could only channel, focus all this energy, all these spurts of yearning!”

Later that year, wrapping up a trip to Asia and contemplating a move there, he concluded: “I’m a hybrid and as such I detest attempts at categorizing me, at grouping me with others, even with hybrids. I want my humanity to be its own—its only—definer.”

On a Saturday night in Naples in June 1993, Raul was thinking about his father. As usual his ruminations were bilingual, sometimes shifting between English and Spanish (translated here) in mid-sentence: “My father. A good man. Honest. A worker. And unable to rise above the contradiction of desire, instinct and responsibility. In another class, the path would have been much clearer, easier. I see so much of him in me. Strip away the variables—culture, education, sexual orientation. Exile, which he chose for his family (me mainly?) effectively circumscribed his life.”

Uncharacteristically, Raul didn’t have much to say during a 2007 sojourn to Taiwan, where his partner, Tony Wu, had grown up. Instead, the pages in a small notebook were stamped with Chinese chops, or inked seals. “Life is a wonder. Treasure the moment,” Raul scrawled above one of them. Underneath another, he wrote: “Pray for healthy longevity.”

Many of Raul’s trips were to West Palm Beach, where he settled after leaving Havana and where most of his relatives still lived. There were frequent family emergencies, and he would race off to deal with them, often between hurricanes. Starting in 1989, he also returned several times to Cuba, a “land of chronic disarray.” At 8:45 p.m. on June 24, 2010, he was at the Malecon, Havana’s waterfront esplanade. His impressions: “Unpredictable, restless, alluring, playful and moody. Now quiet and melancholy.”

Those words could also describe Raul, even though most of them have never been used in the hundreds of recollections that I’ve read or heard.

Years later, he real­ized the power of words was not his to give: “The power, I came to un­der­stand, was in the stor­ies that people chose to share. I was merely a con­duit…”

Raul told stories and taught people how to tell their own. On the last Saturday in October 2013, in a skilled nursing facility in San Leandro, he was in total raconteur mode, reminiscing about being ambushed in the Golden Triangle, covering AIDS in Miami for his first radio piece, and his early days at KQED. It was a magical afternoon, replete with a wedding cake to celebrate his marriage the week before to Tony, whom he’d gotten involved with in November 1998.

Four days before he died, Raul was still intent on telling stories. He was expanding an essay he’d written years before, so that it could be read at a Nov. 19 Society of Professional Journalists event where he’d be receiving a major award. He was lying in a hospital bed in his living room and could barely talk. I was sitting on the couch and straining to hear. Still, we quibbled over the tiniest changes until both of us were happy.

The essay was especially important to him because it announced the Raul Ramirez Fund for Diversity in Journalism at San Francisco State. In the piece, Raul recalled a “fiercely taciturn school crossing guard” he’d interviewed for one of his high school journalism classes. The man was transformed when students gathered around and asked him questions.

“The crossing guard finally had his voice. And I had found mine,” Raul wrote. “I was hooked on this power of journalism to give someone a voice.” Years later, he realized the power of words was not his to give. “The power, I came to understand, was in the stories that people chose to share,” he wrote. “I was merely a conduit for the dissemination of those stories.”

During one of my drives to San Leandro to visit Raul, I listened to a song on Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss album. Reed, who would himself be dead later that month, sang, “No, there’s no logic to this—who’s picked to stay or go. If you think too hard it only makes you mad.”

I’m more sad than mad. Two months before he got sick, when we were tasting wine in the Napa Valley, Raul told me he planned to retire in April 2014. It was clear that he was no longer restless, and stillness was not something to fear. The person who, back in 1982, had written that he was “homeless but at home in so many places,” was fixing up his house. He was looking forward to reading on his patio, savoring the sunshine, and spending a lot more time with Tony, who lived in Fremont because he had a tech job in the South Bay.

When Raul told me he had terminal cancer, he said: “You were part of my retirement plan.” He meant walks, lunches, and unrushed conversations.

Douglas Foster, one of Raul’s closest friends, sent me an email in May. He used to live in Berkeley and was director of school affairs at Cal’s Graduate School of Journalism in the late 1990s. Now he lives in Chicago and teaches at Northwestern University.

“For me, it’s been disorienting,” he wrote. “I still find myself often with the impulse: ‘I’ve got to call Raul to tell him this or that.’ Then: I tell him anyway.”

Me, too. 

Patricia Yollin, who received her master’s from UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism in 1976, is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Berkeley. She is a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, where her coverage of Cal included stories on the Nzadi language, octopus sex, and the fight over Panda Express.

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