Antonia Ramirez Cisneros

Ramirez Cisneros Commemorative Tree & Bench Ceremony at Arthur Sears Park, November 7, 2020.

Biography

Humble Beginnings

Antonia Ramirez was born on July 5, 1933 in her parent’s house in Green, Texas. The family later moved to Pawnee, Texas where Antonia was raised by her parents. She is known as “Toni” to many of her friends. Her trace ancestry indicates 33% Native American. For many years, her daddy worked as a tenant farmer in Pawnee, Texas. The family lived in a faded red-stained shack and poetically nicknamed the ranch “El Rancho Colorado.” Being the oldest of seven siblings her responsibilities were to help raise chickens, pigs and to feed cattle. Her daddy taught her how to read and write in Spanish, cook nopalitos (cactus), make homemade jalea (jelly), ferment cucumbers, and bake calabaza (pumpkin) pies. Her favorite harvesting pleasure was growing corn, turning it into maza (flour) and making delicious tortillas. She soon realized that the secret to a great taco was a great tortilla. One of her daily responsibilities was to collect fresh eggs from the chicken pens. She dreaded the agonizing chicken bites so much that she hatched a nimble idea of manipulating twigs to create distance between the chickens and their nests; thereby, fetching eggs without hazardous consequences.

At age 11, her daddy taught her how to drive a car. Not long after, she learned to drive a tractor at age 13. She enjoyed helping her daddy fix the tractor and considered herself as being daddy’s right-hand girl. For fun, her daddy taught her to fire a shotgun at the age of 12. She hunted rabbits, kept away from coyotes and quickly gained a remarkable understanding of firearms. Today she is a firm believer of gun rights and still owns a few.

Early Years

In 1947, Antonia married Andres Gamon in Kennedy, Texas. They lived in Easton Rapids Michigan and later in Chicago, Illinois. In early 1956, Antonia and Andres settled in Abilene. They moved to a small home on Green Street in the northside Penjamo barrio. They became parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. In May of 1956, Andres was involved in a tragic work accident at Dyess Air Force Base and Antonia was widowed. Antonia and Andres were blessed with 5 children; Janie, Maria Ernestina, Andres Jr., Lydia, and Gloria. Antonia would go on to later marry Efren S. Villanueva. Efren was a hard-working man that stepped up as a father to Antonia and Andres’ children. Antonia and Efren went on to have 4 children; Reynaldo, Efren, Octaviano, and Antonio before divorcing in 1970. Antonia later married John M. Cisneros.

In 1961 Antonia’s mother fell gravely ill. Antonia relocated her from Pawnee to her home in Abilene where she cared for her until her mother’s death on June 3, 1962. Her father would later fall ill in 1967 and she would likewise move him into her home to care for him until his death on November 8, 1968.

Antonia later became a member of St. Vincent Palloti Catholic Church. Early on, she instilled in her children that the Bible was an important source of wisdom and nourishment for their spiritual lives. Antonia believed that one of the best ways to grow her family’s Christian experience was to attend Sunday services. It was a safe bet that Antonia and her children would take up an entire pew every Sunday. Today, Antonia’s children follow the Catholic faith and observe the holy sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion, and Matrimony.

Antonia has always impressed upon her family the importance of dignity, respect, honor, and education. She also taught her children about heritage , culture and the historical significance of Mexican celebrations like Dieciseis de Septiembre, Cinco De Mayo, Semana Santa (Easter week), and La Virgen de Guadalupe (Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe).

Hard Work & Entrepreneurship

Antonia exhibited to her family the pride of hard work and the necessity of having both parents work-multiple jobs. Antonia and Efren earned supplemental income allowing for ventures into personal enterprises. From 1963-1965, Antonia’s aspirations led to owning and operating a small neighborhood grocery business. She embraced entrepreneurship in spite of the obstacles that stood in the way. Her personal interactions with the community and the lessons of hard work served as the catalyst for becoming an effective leader in the community.

Antonia’s goal was to reverse low voter participation. She helped organized community members to register voters, assist residents with the ambiguous voting materials, canvas Latino neighborhoods and provide rides to and from voting precincts. Her civic work didn’t stop there. Many times neighborhood people would come to her home late into the evenings to discuss matters like immigration, employment, GED & English proficiency classes, and other topics of the day. A lot of her volunteer work was handled at the kitchen table.

1966 – Antonia worked at the Community Action Program (CAP) in Abilene, Texas. She assisted low-income families obtain food, housing and utilities assistance. She also facilitated social security claims for injured workers.

1968 – Antonia was offered a job at Sears Park Recreation Center. The north-side recreation center served as a home-away-from-home to many Latino kids. Before long Antonia advanced to become the director of the center. She understood that recreation centers were outlets to escape the difficulties of the times. She saw firsthand the perils of systemic racism and how minorities were pushed out of the educational system and into the juvenile and adult criminal justice system.

1969 – Antonia supported the students at the Abilene High School Walkout. The issues of the AHS Walkout centered on a list of grievances including the prohibition of speaking Spanish, the lack of Latino teachers & counselors, the need to institute bilingual and bicultural programs, halting biased standardized tests, and fixing the high Mexican-American dropout rate. During the walkout, students, parents and community leaders met daily at Sears Park’s recreation center while Antonia was the director. Antonia further supported the students by offering her home on Green Street for additional meetings. She had numerous conversations with students and made it known that if they decided to march for justice; she would be presente (present) in her beautiful sombrero. In her warrior spirit, she often stated to the students “your generation is going to change things” and asserted that the movement would impact children not yet born. We believe she had it write.

Antonia’s personal experiences taught her that it was more challenging to minorities to achieve the American dream. At the family table there were many diverse discussions about issues such as civil rights, economic opportunities, and equity in education. It was during this time that Antonia impressed upon her children the importance of finding the truth, weighing the options, and engaging in the political/voting process. There were many teachable moments about the importance of advocating for the least fortunate; as well as, serving our community and country. Her strong patriotic values are a family affair as 5 of her 9 children served honorably in the military.

1973 – She began a long career at General Finance Company in Abilene. She educated herself in the business of finance and later became an assistant manager.

Lifelong Principles

We should leave the world a little better than how we found it.

Perseverance comes through hardship.

Favorite Quotes

“We need to help students and parents cherish and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity that nourishes and strengthens this community.” – Cesar Chavez

“The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.” – Cesar Chavez

Legacy

Antonia always stressed the importance of education. She emphasized that education was the most powerful tool to level the playing field. She believes there’s no limits, only plateaus. Her proudest legacy is that all her children are college educated, skilled, and accomplished. To prove this point, 17 of her grandchildren have their undergraduate degrees, 12 of them have obtained their graduate degrees, 1 has their doctorate degree. Her legacy includes kids that have become professors, lawyers and professionals.

Summation

Throughout her life Antonia has had a genuine perseverance that breeds courage under the hardest of circumstances. Her work in the community represented critical steps so others could participate in the democratic process. Family and friends are convinced that Antonia displayed the highest quality of leadership. She inspired many in the Sears Park community to overcome the ghosts of an ugly past and instead focus on education and participation in the political process. It will be an honor to come together to celebrate Antonio’s longtime advocacy in the community. (Bio provided by Reynaldo Villanueva)