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Actor's life plays like a movie

Actor's life plays like a movie

Chicagoan is the genesis of city's Latino film community

CHICAGO -- Juan Ramirez's success is not the same old aspiring actor story.

His is a different take on an old and familiar movie script.

A struggling college student decides to drop out of school and tackle an acting career. The aspiring thespian gets to L.A., grows long hair and finds nothing to do but sit on a beach all day with no future.

But, there is a different and better scenario.

And Chicago native Juan Ramirez knows what it is. After Ramirez found no acting work on the West Coast, he decided to come home to stay. Today, Ramirez has found his work and is realizing his huge impact on the thriving Latino film community. Forty-four years into this Hollywood story, Ramirez is a face and leader Chicagoans should recognize.

The experienced actor, producer, director and writer realized what his life was about when he read a quote by Edward Albee in "Zoo Stories": "'Sometimes you have to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.'"

"I feel this is what has happened to me," said Ramirez, who grew up in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood and graduated from Orr High School, which is now Orr Community Academy.

The road to Hollywood began after Ramirez gave up his three-year pursuit of pre-med and education degrees at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Disillusioned from a marriage that was falling apart, Ramirez hooked up with some friends and cruised to L.A. for a "life-changing road trip."

"I was questioning where I would go," Ramirez said, recalling a day when he sat aimless on a Southern California beach. "I saw a dog on that beach," Ramirez remembered. "I said to myself, " 'He ain't got no money. If they catch that dog just hanging out, they're going to gas him. But they are not going gas me. I have a purpose.' "

That purpose, Ramirez decided, was in Chicago. He left Southern California determined to write a film script but realized he had no experience in screenwriting. So, he started smaller, ultimately working at an off-Loop theater called Body Politic.

His surroundings may have been familiar, but Ramirez quickly learned his journey in the theater community in Chicago as a Latino would be a self-lead and self-taught experience, which was far from his indolent life on the beach in California.

"I wanted to write for the stage but when I started writing, I realized there were no Latino actors to play the parts," Ramirez said. "I learned to act so I would have somebody to write for. Then I couldn't find any Latino directors."

What Ramirez had stumbled upon is a problem that has plagued the Chicago theater scene for generations. Many of the aspiring Latino actors in the Chicago area follow that same road Ramirez took out of town and straight to Hollywood.

"It is hard to find (production) funds, and finding work to do something Latino is also hard because there are not many resources," said Carolina Posse, the programming manager for the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago (ILCC). "So, people (in the film industry) leave and go to L.A. and New York."

Ramirez and about 19 other actors decided to take matters into their own hands and started the Latino Chicago Theater Company. Although some of the group were not even actors, they toured high schools performing plays by other playwrights. Ramirez's dedication is what continues to impress Pepe Vargas, founder of the ILCC.

"He is very committed and does not give up, even when there are many reasons in this industry to give up," Vargas said. "That can be inspiration for somebody else."

Even though Ramirez and his group found two legitimate actors for their first play, Ramirez forged on and tried to stir interest in younger thespians as they toured local schools.

Over the years, as Ramirez recruited behind the scenes for his Latino theater community, Chicagoans saw his face, and sometimes heard his voice, on the silver screen.

"There were not a lot of Latino actors," Ramirez said. "At that point, most Latino actors in the business were playing roles only as gang bangers. Plus, many Latinos were limited by their language."

Ramirez played small but memorable roles in classics films Chicagoans might remember. The budding Latino actor made his mark and his image known in such films as "The Fugitive," "Adventures in Babysitting," and "Backdraft." Although he did not have a speaking role, fans of "The Fugitive" might remember Ramirez as the man reading a newspaper on the El who notices the fugitive and tells the cops. Not a fan of "The Fugitive?" He was the gang leader of the "Lords of Hell" who threw a knife through the baby sitter's toe in "Adventures in Babysitting."

According to Vargas, Ramirez is the main actor directors look to when a major movie comes to town.

"He is pretty much in any feature film in Chicago because any casting director wants him in their movie," Vargas said.

That exposure and experience on the Hollywood set is what Ramirez turned into opportunities for aspiring actors in Chicago's Latino community.

"I was able to get close to Chicago crews while working on these movies," said Ramirez, who has been in 25 films made in Chicago. "I was never the Hollywood actor type and I found a lot of good friends on the crews. Plus, I had a lot of down time on location and started writing again."

Ramirez continued working with actors in a new theater in an abandoned firehouse on Damen Avenue. The group began featuring Latino playwrights, who wrote in English about the Latino experience in America. According to Ramirez, the troupe produced six or seven plays a year, some by writers Migdalia Cruz and Jose Rivera, who were known around the country for their stories about Latino culture and experience, but they were not known in Chicago.

As a group of Latinos interested in theater began to organize, Ramirez managed to get some funding for the trailer for his first film from the Mexican Fine Arts Center. With the Center's financial help, Ramirez gathered a crew of mostly Chicago professionals, some independents, some students and even family members to shoot the six-minute trailer for his film.

"I had to stop that job," Ramirez said. As he was packing for a trip to Iowa, his life changed dramatically when he saw the firehouse -- his theater -- burning on television.

At that point, most people would have given up on their dream. Ramirez decided to act.

"I said this is my opportunity because I am not on television now and my theater burned down," Ramirez said. "I decided to make the second script I wrote (into a movie), 'Israel In Exile,' which was simpler, needed less actors and crew."

According to Ramirez, he sold the house he bought in Humboldt Park and organized another mixed crew to make the film.

Over the next two years, Ramirez and his crew shot for 30 days, mainly in Chicago, using the burned-out firehouse and the streets between Pilsen and Wicker Park. After months of editing, Ramirez's finished product was a 70-minute film that was ready to hit the film festival circuit.

"Israel in Exile," which is about two local boxers at different stages in their careers, won the Mesquite award at the San Antonio Film Festival. It was also the only Latino feature from the United States, as well as the only movie from Chicago at the Slam Dance Festival. The film was also a hit at the Chicago Latino Film Festival, the largest in the country.

Don Rossi Nuccio, who is president of the Latino Art Beat, hopes Ramirez is just the first successful Latino filmmaker from Chicago. "We need to encourage more [local] filmmakers and entries," Nuccio said. "This is the beginning but it is very strong."

Strong indeed. Ramirez has gone from an aspiring doctor to a beach bum to a prime example of the success and goals of the Latino theater community.

But, is Ramirez still chasing that Hollywood dream with a pot of gold at the end?

"I can see the money down the line," Ramirez said. "I am now happy representing Chicago and a small part of the Latino reality. Life is good right now."

Ramirez can sum up the long trip Albee briefly described long ago. He wanted to write films when he was 20. He needed to move to L.A. He needed to help create a Chicago Latino acting community and then he had to watch his theater go up in flames.

At 44, Ramirez realizes all of these events are elements of a story.

Perhaps even a movie.

"This all seems like my own long movie and the jury is still out," Ramirez said. "I do not know if this is going to be a happy ending because I am running against the clock. I don't completely understand why it was such a long road, but I have wonderful memories."

The stage is set for a sequel, but for now, all Ramirez can say is, "el fin."

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