Everyone, it seemed, had to talk with Willie (The Crease) Ramirez on Sunday afternoon.
Somebody needed to know what to do with bags of decorations and flags. Someone else wanted him to meet a VIP and another filled him in on last-minute changes.
While Ramirez, a retired dry-cleaner, huddled with one person after another to call the plays, mariachi musicians, horseback riders, politicians, King Kong, Aztec dancers--the latter dressed in little more than pheasant headdresses and gold encrusted capes--along with tens of thousands of just plain folks waited. When he walked up to the microphone, the Mexican Independence Day parade began to roll through East Los Angeles.
Fixture at Parade
Since its inception 40 years ago, Ramirez has been a fixture at the parade, which commemorates Sept. 16, 1810, the anniversary of the start of Mexico's long and bloody struggle against 300 years of Spanish colonial domination.
Ramirez's responsibilities were not always so complicated. The 63-year-old Montebello resident, who emceed Sunday's parade from a spot across from a tamale stand at 1st and Lorena streets, remembers when just about nobody showed up.
That was in 1946, when the late Jose Jimenez, a furniture store owner, decided it would be a wonderful idea to hold a parade to honor Mexico's break from Spain and to celebrate the end of World War II.
Ramirez, who rented space from Jimenez for his dry-cleaning business on 1st Street, decided to help out.
"We started with two buses, an ice cream salesman and that's about it," Ramirez recalled. "It was nothing. It was a joke."
In its early years, politicians tended to snub the event and the military refused to send their bands. But that quickly changed and the parade grew rapidly.
Over the years the title of parade marshal has been shared by such celebrities as actors John Wayne, Anthony Quinn and Jayne Mansfield and director John Ford. When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he rode a horse along the entire parade length.
A bumper crop of floats and bands participated Sunday afternoon. There were 107 entries in all, a record for the event.
Police estimated that 150,000 spectators lined the parade route.
Politicians were out in force trying to harvest votes. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, wearing a pale blue guyabera, the traditional Mexican shirt, rode by in a white antique Chrysler Imperial. Following behind were his supporters waving Mexican flags, "Bradley for Governor" signs and placards protesting the proposed state prison site near East Los Angeles and Proposition 63, which would make English the state's official language.
A few minutes later, Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Ed Zschau, surrounded by his family, rolled by in a convertible. Many of the city's Latino politicians also rode in the parade.
Over the years, the parade has become better than tea leaves in predicting who is hot in Mexican politics.
Every fall, the Mexican government sends a representative to ride at the front of the parade. Some of those participants have gone on to become president of the country. This year Mexico sent Manuel Bartlett, the secretary of government, which, in this country, is akin to President Reagan's chief of staff.
But the crowd hardly seemed captivated when politicians from either country rode by grinning and waving. Their loudest cheers were saved for the Mexican movie and television stars and the Mexican Banda de Guerra, or the band of war, which traditionally starts all Mexican parades. The band's trumpet and drum players, dressed in black coats with brass buttons, shiny black boots and white gloves, traveled from a military school in Ciudad Juarez.
Many Natives of Mexico
Parade organizers estimated that about 80% of those who lined the parade route are natives of Mexico. Many Latinos who were born in America are not that interested in identifying with a country they have never claimed as their own, they said.
That distresses Ramirez, who is a fourth-generation American.
"If you don't go back to your roots, you're just taking up space here," he said. "You have to identify with your roots."
"We aren't going to forget Spanish and our culture," vowed Val Rodriguez, a teacher at Banning High School in Wilmington, who lamented that his son, who attends Harvard University, and other assimilated Latinos are forgetting their culture.
Rodriguez, a Long Beach resident who returns to the same corner each year to view the parade, said: "We don't have to trade our huevos rancheros for pancakes."