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Promoting Diversity

Annette and Carmelo Ramos bring Latinx culture, community outreach to Rochester area

By Christine Green

Annette and Carmelo Ramos

When Annette Ramos boarded a plane in 1995 to attend a Native American Peace Elders gathering in Puerto Rico, she packed three Gucci bags and brought her Armani shoes.

Carmelo Ramos was also attending the gathering but packed much lighter and a little more sensibly for a spiritual retreat in the mountain town of Orocovis.

In fact, her Los Angeles style and fashion was a deep contrast to his simple jeans and flannel shirts. Still, she couldn’t keep her eyes off him and sought out his company every chance she could. After the gathering, he returned to his hometown of Rochester and she to Los Angeles. But over the course of the next several months, they courted by phone and in 1996, they wed in the Amazon jungle in a traditional indigenous ceremony.

Today, they each wear handcrafted silver wedding rings. His is emblazoned with traditional Taino (the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean) feminine symbols and hers with traditional male symbols.

Annette Ramos, 57, was born and raised in New York City but lived in Los Angeles working as an actor and community activist before marrying Carmelo and moving to Rochester in 1996. 

Since her arrival in the Flower City, Annette has worked as an actor, a bilingual storyteller, an educator and teaching artist. In each role she’s taken on, she advocates tirelessly for diversity in the local art scene, a tradition she proudly attributes to her Puerto Rican mother who instilled in her the value of volunteerism and community engagement.

“Mommy taught me that one voice can make a difference,” she said. “And that is the foundation of my advocacy work — I need to be that one voice.”

In 2011, she used her voice and talent to help establish the Rochester Latino Theater Company, Inc. along with Stephanie Paredes, a fellow Rochester actor.

Paredes and Annett Ramos met at several local theater auditions and noticed that they were regularly cast, if they were cast at all, in stereotypical Latina roles: hyper-sexualized women or maids. They were frustrated with these formulaic and often racist portrayals.

So together, they came together in what Ramos called “a mom-and-mom theater company.” 

Their first show was in 2013 and since then, they’ve produced numerous shows. Paredes said the RLTC “works hard to make sure our stories are told with dignity, pride and respect.” 

Ramos isn’t a one-job-at-a-time kind of person, though, and being executive director of the RLTC isn’t the only thing that has kept her busy over the years.

She also is a storyteller who brings traditional Latinx stories to classrooms all over the area to instruct children of all grade levels about cultural history and theater arts.

She has also worked with Young Audiences of Rochester, the Rochester Broadway Theater League and with numerous organizations such as Latina Unidas and Arts and Cultural Council of Greater Rochester.

Today, Ramos is the community connector for Geva Theater Center. Mark Cuddy, artistic director, reached out to Ramos during the 2017 production of “In The Heights” to provide connection and support.

“We wanted to partner with RLTC to make sure that Geva engaged local Latinx theater artists, and the general Latinx community. Annette and Stephanie Paredes were so very helpful in providing connections and support to the production,” Cuddy said. “In the spring of 2018, when Annette left her position at the Rochester Broadway Theater League, we immediately called her to help us forge even stronger bonds into communities that have not been historically that close to Geva.

“She has since worked as a consultant for us in our new engagement department as a community connector. Annette’s vast network of friends and colleagues throughout various Rochester organizations and government departments has been built over the years through her tireless volunteer work. She is a person who ‘walks the walk’, giving her time and talents to multiple causes and grassroots efforts. She is a positive and invaluable force for good in the Rochester arts community,” said Cuddy.

Ramos does indeed “walk the walk” and makes sure the Rochester Latinx community is represented in the Rochester theater and arts communities. Additionally, she noted, it is about much more than empty gestures toward the community. “Slapping Spanish on a flyer doesn’t fly with me,” she said.

She described her job as much more nuanced and inclusive than that. “It’s all about engagement,” she explained. “You can invite an organization and that is transactional. We’re really looking for relationships.”

When asked to describe Ramos, Paredes didn’t hesitate in her response. She has a “relentless, unapologetic spirit and energy that is contagious, powerful, inclusive, generous and kind. She works from the heart always and never gets into something in order to get accolades. She’s always uplifting other people as well. She likes to be engaged in places where she can make an impact,” Paredes said.

Ramos is working on the development of a nonprofit center for Latinx Arts in Western New York and Finger Lakes called the Latinx Arts and Culture Center Association, Inc.

The organization will preserve, develop and promote Latinx arts and culture in the Finger Lakes and Western New York communities to ensure cultural equity in the arts and cultural sectors.

This next phase of her advocacy work will continue to support and elevate artists of color in the region. She hopes to further “open the field for brown and black artists and to cultivate their talent in a way that scaffolds skills and confidence. Our children don’t know they can do that job unless they see others do that job.”

Student to teacher

Annette Ramos and her husband at their home in Rochester.
Annette Ramos and her husband at their home in Rochester.

Carmelo Ramos, 67, was nervous about a feature article in 55 Plus magazine or any other publication for that matter. “I don’t get out there that much,” he said during the interview.

He has called Rochester home since he was just a little child and his parents brought him here from Puerto Rico. As a child, he was always busy with sports and enjoyed being physically fit. In his late teen years, he joined a karate class and became adept at Chito-ryu.

During his training, he and several classmates took a trip to Toronto for a karate tournament. It was here that Ramos met “Mr. Hirano,” a Japanese samurai who changed his life forever.

For the next 20 years, Carmelo Ramos would travel back and forth from Rochester to Toronto to visit Hirano and his family and to take in Hirano’s Zen teachings. During his years of study with Hirano, Ramos did everything from construction work to bake bread and teach karate until he got a job in the late 1970s at the Al Siegel Center teaching martial arts and tai chi to people with multiple disabilities.

He also worked with troubled youth at the Threshold Center in the 1980s as an outreach counselor for nine years.

During this time, Carmelo Ramos also expanded his studies by traveling to Guayama, Puerto Rico, to visit his uncle who is a traditional healer and spiritual counselor. He also connected to Tuscarora elder and medicine man Ted Williams as well as Twylah Nitsch of the Seneca Wolf Clan. He attended spiritual retreats around the world and journeyed to India and Peru.

Ramos’ life took another turn when Liz Nally, a social worker at Jewish Senior Life, took a tai chi class with him through her local continuing education program. She asked him if he would consider teaching modified tai chi to residents at her work.

He cheerfully agreed and now 20 years later, he is their first integrative medicine specialist.

Nally, 63, of Greece, is also an integrative medicine specialist and together, they provide tai chi, massage, bodywork, and other alternative healing modalities to residents of the Jewish Senior Life campus.

Jewish Senior Life offers a continuum of senior care from companion care and rehabilitation services to independent and assisted living, long-term care, and memory care.

Nally describes Carmelo Ramos  as extremely charismatic and gentle with everyone he works with.

“What I have seen over the years with our patients and our long-term residents is that he has a wonderful ability to help them to believe in themselves and to have hope for quality of life even at a time in their life when they may be severely compromised physically, mentally, and emotionally,” she said.

She added what Ramos  offers to the people he works with is not so much a cure as a special type of healing.

“Healing is different than cure,” said Nally. “They can be healed by being able to perceive themselves as greater than their illnesses and what’s happening to them and I think that is one of his special gifts.”

Ramos is extremely humble when it comes to this sort of praise, though, and remarked, “I’m still a novice with this kind of work; I’m still learning a lot about it.”

Barbara Warrick-Fisher, 77, of Irondequoit agrees that he has a special touch with those he works with.

Warrick-Fisher has known Ramos since the 1980s when he led her and several other people on a vision quest on his friend’s wooded property near Middlesex. Today, it’s a little harder to kneel down to enter the lodge or hike through the woods, but Ramos is kind and patient with everyone, no matter their abilities or needs.

“That’s what I find so endearing about him,” she remarked. “He cares and believes you can still have your health, agility or vision and won’t say you’re too old to do that.”

Ramos doesn’t carry business cards and he doesn’t have a website. He doesn’t maintain a social media presence either. Despite the radio silence, people all over Western New York, the country and the world seek him out to help with their spiritual and physical concerns. But his zen teaching taught him the virtue of humbleness and humility.

“He doesn’t like the limelight,” Warwick-Fisher said. “He is who he is and he stands on that without having to brag.”

“When you do a deed, you bury it and then talk about someone else’s,” he said just before mentioning how wonderful his wife is.

Ying and Yang: Opposites Attract

At first glance, Annette Ramos and Carmelo Ramos appeared to be exact opposites — one an extroverted actor and community activist and the other a quiet, shamanic healer. But their differences have not created rifts between them. In fact, their similarities and shared goals have strengthened their bond.

“Our career and work has never been just a straight line,” said Annette. “It has always been the accumulation of knowledge, and it is really seeped in our cultural identity and honoring the ancestors.”

For Annette, that meant learning about and uplifting Latinx artists. For Carmelo, it meant connecting with and learning from indigenous elders. At the heart of it, they are both dedicated to healing the community.

“While Annette is building community and healing through the arts, Carmelo is healing people’s spirits and physical body,” Paredes said. “He is like a flower — still, grounded, present. She is a butterfly gathering and sharing nectar. They are just really good people.”

Their daughter, Aurora Ramos, felt privileged to grow up with such loving, connected parents and said that their relationship is a “really good balance. My mom can really bring my dad out of his shell. They work off of each other. We’ve had a great relationship my whole life. They are some awesome parents. Both taught me to be myself and do what I think is right. They are so important to me.”

Annette said she has learned quite a bit from Carmelo, especially “loving kindness and listening for understanding.

“These are the principles I’ve see and experience in my marriage,” she said.

Carmelo said he admires Annette’s “drive and passion for the work she does. It’s good to see people with passion. She has a drive that is very energetic. I’ve learned to understand how that works and move along with it versus clash with it. She has really great energy.”

It’s clear they are both deeply dedicated to each other, and Annette wishes that everyone can have such a fulfilling life partner. “Even when I didn’t know I was being held, I was being held. Everyone should have that experience in a partnership and marriage,” she said.

To learn more about Carmelo Ramos, pick up a copy of “Standing in Stillness” by Jane Moress Schuster. The book is about his life as well as Hirano’s teachings.

Follow Annette Ramos on Twitter and Facebook rochesterlatinotheatrecompany.