“If I could change the world for Latinos, I would create a more equitable world with more social justice, where racism, classism and misogyny had no place. I would do it for Latinos but not only for us, for everyone.” – Ivonne Ramirez Ramirez
Growing up in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico was not easy. As a girl, Ivonne Ramirez Ramirez witnessed armed attacks on public roads, misogyny, and hatred towards women. She saw corpses on the street and lived through a state of siege. She lived through war. While how this shaped Ramirez may be ineffable, her achievements have demonstrated her strength and perseverance. Today, Ramirez is an advocate for women’s rights, a social and racial equality warrior, a champion of education, and is dedicated to improving the conditions from which she came.
Ramirez’s list of accomplishments will leave less ambitious souls in awe. After receiving her undergraduate degree in Mexico, Ramirez armed herself with a Master’s in Modern, Postcolonial and Comparative Literature with an International Gender Studies specialization (which she received in Italy). However, she did not lose sight of Ciudad Juárez. In 2015, she created a project to monitor, count, and map the murders of women committed in the city from 1993 to date. She has also founded three community libraries in Mexico; won the Migrant Woman, Tell Me Your Story Award; won the Mexico Lee 2009 Award, and has been nominated four times in Sweden with her collective Palabras de Arena for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award due to her work-related with children’s literature. She has also published a book and numerous articles, stories, and poetry.
So what drives Ramirez?
“I have always felt committed to the diverse complexities of my city and my immediate context,” she explains. “I am convinced that I have a very strong commitment to the community where I live so I put my granito de arena to return a little of what corresponds to me.”
Granito de arena can be loosely translated as providing your grain of sand to the collective construction of the good. It is that part of one which corresponds to the commitment to return to the community. The duty every person has to improve their community. Its direct translation is a grain of sand.
“Each of these efforts is a small grain of sand,” explains Ramirez. “If we all committed ourselves to this by seeking a common and collective good (not only individual, which is what many people base their expectations and desires on), we would have a better world.”
One way Ramirez has dedicated herself to making the world better is through literature, through children’s literature in particular and literature written by women. She has done readings at events and organized workshops. “You can say that I am a specialist in the field,” says Ramirez. “I have spread this passion for books and reading to parks, schools, public transport, to jail, to hospitals, to parties, to squares, in demonstrations, even to shopping centers. To make this happen, more than anything I have had to allocate of my own time and money to make it possible and I have also obtained support from some cultural units, writers, publishers, reading organizations, activists, people very close to me who have believed and trusted in my projects.”
Ramirez says she inherited her perspective to be socially committed from her mother, who always did social work and taught Ramirez to “see the world with different eyes. To never see with indifference.” And those horrible things that happened during the era of exacerbated violence in Ramirez’s city, those things that took “life and death to an unknown state,” only worked to further solidify this perspective.
“The violence in my city reached such a point that I was very afraid for my children, and the anxiety and depression became intense. Two of my students were killed with their parents. They were classmates of one of my children. At school, the topic became taboo; teachers were not prepared psychologically or professionally to discuss it with their students. I saw the faces of the students full of questions, sadness, stress, affectation, and pain. That’s why when I had the opportunity to move to another place, I left.”
The adversities that Ramirez experienced during the war changed her and made her aware of things she had not seen before. They tested her. They made her a tougher woman while amplifying her vulnerability of being widely emotionally, intellectually affected by harsh realities. But they also made her goals clear … her social duties clear.
“My social duties are things that I love to do so I do not see it as a burden. Improving the context in which one lives not only depends on one person or two, unfortunately. To have really significant positive changes there must be momentum and change in political, economic, social, and cultural structures as well.”
While a lot of her social work has been in Mexico, Ramirez recently relocated to Connecticut and while she gets situated she ruminates on community involvement. She says that since her relocation to Connecticut in 2019, she has struggled with the feeling that she has not found her place. But it is in this uneasiness, in her relentless, in her emotional and intellectual agitation where she finds motivation to be socially active.
“Moving to Connecticut was not in my plans, it was by chance,” explains Ramirez. “I was studying in Europe and when I finished my studies, my husband and children were living here and I had to return with my family. One of the most difficult things about being in the States is that no more family besides my partner and one of my children are here. My other son and the rest of our family is all in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. So we are alone here. The transition has been hard. Due to immigration policies that have to do with the type of visa I now have, I still cannot work formally with a salary, so being out of work makes it even more complicated because I am a very restless, hardworking and active woman, and I have never been a person who stays at home (which is another super-heavy and tiring invisibilized job with no payment).”
Despite the challenges, Ramirez says she still feels blessed and sees that there Latino communities everywhere in the world and has faith in her ability to connect with them through common interests and she has begun doing so through her coordination of Listening Groups at the Hartford Library. She says, “I am pleased to meet other people from other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean because this way I know a little bit of those places at the same time without having been there. Understanding the differences and similarities and be surprised at how blessed I feel for these coincidences and experiences that make me grow as a woman, as a Latina, as an activist.”
Ramirez says although she doesn’t have concrete information on exactly what she will be doing next, what she does know is that the Hartford Public Library-Park Branch will be an important place to develop her next workshops. “The only thing I know for sure is that the next workshop will be one of biographical writing and we will have some screenings of art films there.”
Ramirez is still getting her bearings in Connecticut, but if her past accomplishments are any indication she should be popping up around the community in various ways very soon, doing her part to add her grain of sand, to do her granito de arena.
Ramirez’s Many Grains of Sand
Ramirez started Ellas Tienen Nombre in 2015. It is an extensive research project tracking the number of murdered women in Ciudad Juárez.
“I was always conscious about the dangers of being a girl and woman in Ciudad Juárez. I have worked side by side with mothers that have daughters that were victims of femicide, and when the idea of doing this project came to my mind, I was working with a mom of a victim. So thinking about my experiences in my city and working with this mom that has been an activist for years demanding justice for her girl, I get frustrated. I wanted to know where these victims had been found, who they were, who was capable of doing such terrible crime. That is why I started this project and I feel committed to keep doing it since men continue committing these crimes and there are no prevention policies nor interest in stopping them. On the contrary, the government has been an accomplice, negligent, has been under suspicion, has been sentenced by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The government has lacked sensitivity and has not taken responsibility.
“So, somehow this is one of my small contributions, a kind of memorial, a type of protest, a claim of justice, a way to say to the government: ‘Stop and prevent femicides right now!’ I work on this so other people like activists, journalists, politicians, researchers, can use this information in order to enact laws, create prevention strategies, study the profile of the murderers and know what group of girls/women are most vulnerable, etc.”
In Mexico, Ramirez has been a teacher of literature and Spanish in elementary school, middle school, high school, and at university. But also in informal education spaces like libraries.
“I have always liked all kinds of libraries but especially those that are not conventional, that surprise readers, where you can chat with other people … those libraries that are cozy and give you a sense of belonging. Libraries are shelters in which we should all fit and not closed and cold spaces for only a few privileged people. So following this deep-rooted idea that I have, with that conviction I wanted to work hard to create these types of spaces.”
In 2006, Ramirez helped select and collect books for a community library of a non-governmental organization that had been created in Lomas de Poleo neighborhood after a family had suffered the loss of one of the daughters due to feminicide. This experience planted the seed in her head and she began creating her own libraries.
The first children’s library that she founded was called El Chantito, and it was located in San Andrés Cuexcontitlán, an Otomí indigenous community in the center of the country (State of Mexico). The second one she designed and founded was inside the elementary school where her son was studying. There she also trained the teachers to use the library because it was not a common library but a playful one. This library, Ma’juana, is located in her hometown, Ciudad Juárez. Ramirez also created a nomadic library where she took about 250 books to different spaces, events, and neighborhoods so that people could read right there individually or with their family. “There were people who stayed there for up to 5 hours reading, and right there they finished a novel for example,” she says with pride. “My intention with this library was to make books accessible to people. Books are expensive, and in Mexico, libraries are scarce and not close to the whole people. In addition, libraries are often thought to be boring, but there are many types of libraries. I have always been very careful in choosing my books.”
Books, Poems and Other Written Contributions
Through her work with Collective Palabras de Arena (a feminist collective focused on non-violence in vulnerable communities) Ramirez published Sueño de palabras en la estepa. Experiencias lectoras contra la violencia en Ciudad Juárez (2001-2010). This is a culmination of essays exposing the journey of the collective in the city from 2001 to 2010 and highlights their proposals and theorizes about reading activism. The essays are accompanied by photos documenting their work. The book was part of a collection called “Diversity Without Violence” that focused on the analysis of the Ciudad Juárez and El Paso (Texas) border, from different disciplines and social perspectives.
Continuing her feminist work, last year Ramirez wrote a stand-alone essay titled:“Territorios feminicidas. México, el país más peligroso para ser mujer” or “The historical struggles and the current challenges of feminism.” The essay was published in El Atlas de la Revolución de las Mujeres. Las luchas históricas y los desafíos actuales del feminismo or The Atlas of the women’s revolution.
In 2010, El Cotidiano magazine dedicated a special number to Ciudad Juárez entitled “Ciudad Juárez: Survive in Violence,” and included a piece written by Ramirez and colleagues called “Lomas del Poleo: of readings and marginalization.”
In 2011, she published “Letras Bravas” in a newsletter named Salas de Lectura Leer en Común of the National Council for Culture and the Arts (CONACULTA). In 2012, she published “Círculos de lectura en el Estado de México” in the feminist magazine Con la A. In 2012, she published “Carmelita” in the comic book Ñáñaras Vol. 3. Leyendas urbanas de la frontera. In 2013, she wrote “La literatura infantil y los adultos” for Cuadernos Fronterizos, a publication of the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez. Also in 2013, she published two poems in the book Los bastardos de la uva, a book that brings together poems by authors from different parts of the country. In 2015, she wrote the opinion piece “Leyendas negras” about femicides in the digital magazine Juarez Dialoga (in Spanish).
Various Other Grains of Sand
“Another thing that I really enjoyed doing is organizing multidisciplinary festivals,” says Ramirez. “For example, at the Festival Bordeño that we perform supported by the Department of Culture of the American Consulate of the United States in Ciudad Juárez, we bring together 40 artists who travel from one border (Ciudad Juárez) to another (Ojinaga) to offer workshops, readings, and concerts to the community of Ojinaga that is mostly rural.”
In the festival of celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the Kanton Libertario library, she helped gathered 34 artists who offered children’s concerts, children’s readings, murals, juggling shows, and workshops (2011, State of Mexico). Ramirez also helped organize the Ladyfest Juárez 2015—inspired by the Ladyfest that takes place worldwide. They achieved getting 400 girls and women to attend workshops, concerts, conferences, screenings, and exhibitions in Ciudad Juárez. “It was an incredible festival that lasted 3 days,” recalls Ramirez.
Other workshops she has developed are biographical writing workshops in a security shelter for women who have suffered extreme violence; a reading circle at the Ciudad Juárez municipal prison for women; and a writing workshop for children of women killed by femicide in Ciudad Juárez.
Rameriz runs a famous Facebook page (she welcomes you to join) called Convocatorias y becas feministas – Feminist Scholarships and Calls aimed at Latin America (in English and Spanish), where she disseminates calls that offer scholarships from different countries so girls and women can apply to study, publish, exhibit art, apply for artistic and research residences or vacancies to work.
Listening Clubs in Connecticut
Ramirez says she is still getting to know Connecticut and trying to adapt to life here. Fortunately, she says she has met very nice and interesting women with whom she identifies with and share affinities. “I know that this is how affective and communal networks are formed, but it is a slow and long process and it is difficult for me. I’m starting from scratch again, so it’s normal that sometimes I get very desperate. I hope to work soon because that would make the transition more bearable. Therefore, organizing Listening Clubs in the Free Center and in the Hartford Public Library has been motivating and stimulating for me. I know I have a lot to contribute.”
2017 Migrant Woman, Tell Me Your Story Awards
Ramirez won second place in 2017 Migrant Woman, Tell Me Your Story Awards with her writing titled: “Saying goodbye does not mean leaving.” Of this work, she says, “The text I wrote deepens my experience as a migrant after having left my hometown because of the war there. Then I talk about how it was to go to live in southern Mexico without knowing anyone there. I began to feel like a foreigner in my own country. I also wrote about how I arrived in the United States and subsequently I went to live in Poland and Italy. That is, I am looking for ‘my place,’ a small place in the world for me if it exists.”
In this biographical writing Ramirez quotes the Nigerian author Ijeoma Umebinyuo that condenses very well the spirit of her text: “So, here you are too foreign for home, too foreign for here. Never enough for both.”
For this writing, she won the equivalent to $1,500 USD in Mexican pesos.
Mexico Lee Award
In 2009, Ramirez won the Mexico Lee Award, a Reading Promotion award. “We won as a group in the category of Promotion of reading from civil society with the writing ‘Giving away words in the desert: Urban storytelling between factories and clandestine graves,’ which was rated as high value and social content. In that paper, we talk about our experience in the Palabras de Arena (Sand Words) collective. We were involved in reading promotions for 12 years. The actions we carried out in Ciudad Juárez had an interesting impact on several levels. We won in that prize $1,500 USD, some books, the publication of a book with the winning text and we were invited to several presentations and conferences, one of them was at the wonderful Guadalajara International Book Fair.”
Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Nomination
“Our Palabras de Arena collective was active for so many years that we carried out many projects, events, and produced several writings. Many organizations and government agencies invited us to various places to give conferences to present our work,” says Ramirez.
The three women collective was supported by other groups, artists, and activists with whom they collaborated. The collective lasted about 13 years and their work became well known which is why they were nominated to the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA) for their commitment and work in promoting reading.
“This is very significant for us because The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is a super important recognition worldwide in the field of children’s literature and it is not easy to be nominated in it, so we are very proud of it,” says Ramirez.