Power to the Parish

Father Jose Luis Menendez of Wynwood takes the church to the people and the people to the streets

"Wynwood is an inner-city sector that is going to be a ghetto if we don't reverse it," the priest continues. "But we can make a different shape to the neighborhood if we can change it little by little."

Nora S. Smith, director of the Eugenio Maria de Hostos/Wynwood Neighborhood Center, which is part of the Dade County Department of Human Resources Office of Community Services, endorses Menendez's strategy. "I give Father all the credit," she says. "It's become a total awakening of the community through the movement that he has created. A lot of people have stood next to him, and you need the perfect combination of a great leader and great followers. But he's been the leader."

Part of that leadership involved leading PACT town meetings as a means to discuss the issues, to vent frustrations, and, ideally, to hash out solutions. PACT leaders invited local politicians and city officials to some of the gatherings, and in order to persuade more than a core group of his parishioners to attend, Menendez recruited volunteer church members to knock on neighborhood doors and get the word out. The priest also rallied parishioners from the pulpit: "I talked to the community," he recounts. "I said, 'Community, you are a Christian community, you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world; go and be that. Give light to darkness and taste to something bad.' I say, 'If you want a better neighborhood, you fight, not me.'"

"The Corpus Christi impetus became the biggest impetus for the neighborhood," remembers social worker William Ramos. In response to the priest's call for action, concerned residents gathered for meetings in one another's homes. "My mom had one in our living room," Ramos recalls. "Around 60 people came."

Heir to a generation of social activism, Ramos moved with his parents from Camuy, Puerto Rico, to Miami in 1963, when he was less than a year old. His father, who worked as a chef at the Doral Hotel in Miami Beach, devoted most of his free time to community work and belonged to the Organizaci centsn Dem centscrata Puertorrique*a, one group pushing for improvements in the quality of life for immigrant families who had settled in Wynwood.

Willie Ramos played on the Little League team his father helped to found, as did most Wynwood boys. The whole neighborhood would turn out for the Sunday games, Ramos remembers; people brought home-cooked pinchos (shish kebabs), hamburgers, and alcapurrias (meat pies) to sell to the hungry crowd. Ramos was steeped in Catholicism at the Centro Cat centslico San Juan de Puerto Rico on NW 26th Street, a daycare and activity center he attended after school at Buena Vista Elementary, where his mother Rosalina worked for fourteen years as a cafeteria server.

His father became less active over the years, says Ramos, and the baseball and softball leagues in the park dissolved. Then in 1980, when Ramos was a junior at Edison High , the McDuffie riots inaugurated a bitter decade for Miami's poor urban neighborhoods. The violence, which broke out after the acquittal of two police officers accused of murdering insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie, raged right up to the freeway across the street from the Ramoses' home on 39th Street. The Eighties brought overwhelming waves of Cuban, Central American, and Haitian immigrants to the area, while the cocaine trade and economic neglect furthered Wynwood's decline. Many families who had once found refuge there, and who had worked long and hard to achieve economic stability, moved out; Ramos's family was among those few who didn't. The decade was to close with another riot, sparked in 1990 after the acquittal of six police officers who two years earlier had beaten and stomped to death accused drug dealer Leonardo Mercado, a Puerto Rican resident of Wynwood.

Until 1980 seventeen-year-old Willie Ramos had not thought seriously about his place in the community. After McDuffie, though, he decided he wanted to work with those desperate enough to mount such an uprising. "If I were to say an event shaped me, it would be the McDuffie riots," he reflects.

Ramos enrolled in Miami-Dade Community College, then graduated from Florida International University in 1985 with his bachelor's degree in social work. He found employment immediately at the Miami office of Aspira, a nonprofit national organization dedicated to motivating "at-risk" minority kids and keeping them in school. The outspoken Ramos has worked at Aspira's Miami office for the past eight years, the last four as deputy director. The office is located in Wynwood, just off I-195, its brightly painted murals depicting highlights of Puerto Rican culture and history and providing a splash of color amid drab offices and warehouses.

The logo, symbol, and role model for Aspira's young and disadvantaged Aspirantes is a stylized representation of the pitirre, a small bird that flies in Florida skies and the Caribbean. Like other birds of its order, the agile pitirre (also known as the gray kingbird) will instinctively attack and harry much larger birds, especially hawks, darting at the predators from all sides, pecking and loudly announcing to its fellow pitirres the presence of danger. The little bird's persistence usually drives off the invader. In Puerto Rico, Ramos says, there is a saying: "A cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre." Every hawk has its pitirre.

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