Our next interviewee was nominated by the lovely Lex Weinstein, whom we interviewed a few weeks back. Ileana is Lex’s sister and judging by their genes, inspiration runs through their families. They are leading very different but equally inspiring lives. It is amazing to read Ileana’s picture of her family, I just returned from a very non-glamorous weekend in New York City where I spent time with my dear family. Sitting at the gate, feeling drained after seeing my 93 year old abuelita living with Alzheimer’s in a hilarious and beautifully tragic way. Hilarious because the way in which her illness is manifesting these days is by her singing non-stop (yes, even in her sleep sometimes!), which can be quite funny. Her humming is soothing and often times she sang songs that are quite popular and I just couldn’t help myself to join her secretly, although an hour into the same song I admit I wanted to run out of the house and just scream off the top of my lungs, which I tried doing but the -3• weather stop me cold! That was the funny party. The tragic aspect of it was seeing my favorite person in the world living in a 93 year old body, dependent, like a child, skinnier and without her admirable grace moving through life. Her pride, her strong temper and love, her beauty and perfectly styled hair, all of that is mostly gone but it was undoubtedly passed on to me. There is so much of her in me that sometimes I feel as if I’m not only living my own life, but continuing this amazing story without really knowing the beginning or without even knowing WHO started writing it. I feel as if my life is not only a life in which I should “accomplish certain things”, become a professional, have my home, family, and all of those things that us humans do, but I feel as if I’m the writer and main character of this story that began with the women before me and will continue with those coming after me. This is a great responsibility, it is a beautiful responsibility that I decide to embrace with the purpose of making my part of the story a pretty amazing one, one which a niece or granddaughter will look at one day and say “my great-great grandmother was fucking awesome!”. Even though I was helping my grandmother walk up and down stairs, she made sure she left a great story for me to follow, she left me wondering what can I do to make this even better? What life can I live to honor this woman and all these badass women that came before me?
My grandmother made being a mother, being a wife and being a proud Tupperware saleswoman a very, very glamorous life. I remember her meetings with 30+ other beautifully dressed homemakers, they had tea, coffee, pastries and discussed the latest lids on these seemingly almighty containers in my grandmother’s living room, under the light of a beautiful chandelier that made it all feel as in a 1920’s ballroom. She a power to make her middle-class life seem so glamorous, so blessed, so fabulous… She was a stay at home mom, but her ability to be the best at that not only had me wanting to be like her when I grew up, but once I did get older, inspired me to write one of my papers for Michael Taussig’s class at Columbia University on her life. It still has me wanting to travel in minu zero degree weather to join her in humming songs. Ileana’s interview came in at a perfect time for me as I reflect on life, it is a beautiful celebration of family, love and a major purpose.
Name: Ileana Ramirez
Profession or Passion: Mother of Three, MBA, Military Wife, Professional Singer, Amateur World Traveler
Where are you from? Virginia Beach, VA, USA
What or who inspired you to do what you do?
As a child I was inspired by the women in my family. We had this large Cuban family with lots of cousins and a lot of complicated love and a history of hardship and tragedy. My grandmother, my mother, and her four sisters were at the helm of everything. My father was the mouthpiece of my family, but as I grew up I understood that my mother was the real foundation, the silent strength behind everything.
We were taught how to dress, walk, and carry ourselves with confidence and class. We dressed up to travel, like they used to in the fifties and sixties. My mother had this classic idea about education: you play an instrument, speak foreign languages, study art and poetry, and read a lot. My father believed in public education, but my mother would still get the reading lists from the fancy private schools and track down all those books from the library. I read Tolkien, the Bronte sisters, Shakespeare, Dickens, Thoreau, Hemingway, tons and tons, all before finishing high school.
I met my husband in college and knew almost immediately that he was the love of my life. I remember thinking, “I’m eighteen and I just met the man I’m going to marry. I’m totally screwed.” I had been thinking of joining the Peace Corps when I graduated, but there I was, this independent feminist in love with this guy with this incredibly demanding career. Women talk about husbands and families as these burdensome anchors that hold them back, but that was never the case for me. My husband always said he’d quit any time I wanted something else. He has said yes to every project, job, or baby I’ve ever wanted, and we’ve traveled around a lot to satisfy my desire to see the world. The year after my first child was born I worked for a nonprofit and got my MBA. The year after my second child was born, we moved to Japan and traveled through six countries in the Pacific to meet my husband on various port calls. Most of the time, I was traveling alone in foreign countries with two small children. My third child is two months old, and we are moving to Italy in a week. Together, we are getting to enjoy the adventure of a lifetime.
As a major goal, what would you like the impact of your work to be?
Right now, my primary job is to nurture children who can grow up to be beautiful, ethical adults with the creativity, intelligence, work ethic, and gumption to solve some of the serious problems our society faces. I believe that is the moral imperative of raising children. But being pregnant and giving birth in the United States has also inspired me to advocate for women’s health. The medicalization of birth in the U.S. has largely been a failure, with some of the worst outcomes for mothers and babies in the industrialized world. We spend more money per capita than any other country, and yet our mother and infant mortality rates are frighteningly high, and our methods of reporting maternal mortality are insufficient. I want to devote the next stage of my life to fixing these problems.
If you could publish an autobiography, how would you title it?
“A white line, painted on the sand and on the ocean, from me to you.”
It’s a quote from Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is funny because that book’s title is taken from a quote from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Foer talks a lot about “the ghosts, the spaces amid love,” and I can really identify with that. I mean, sheesh, I’m a military wife, so I know all about distance. But we all operate under the illusion that we are separate, that injuring another living creature doesn’t injure us as well. I was always the translator in my family, trying to close the distance between people, and maybe that’s why I love languages and cultures and travel so much. Empathy and experience are the antidote to loneliness.
What advice would you give to your 20 year old self?
This moment doesn’t define you as a person. You’re going to have moments where you are brilliant and engaged and proud of your work. You’re also going to have moments where you are in mourning or exhausted or just uninspired. This moment isn’t everything; it’s just a moment. In a few years when you are doing nothing but nursing a newborn for three months straight, don’t count the seconds ticking by. You’re not always saving the world; sometimes you’re just living, and that’s beautiful and important too.
In just one sentence, describe your “dream life”?
I travel constantly, speak half a dozen languages, defend marginalized people, read voraciously, go on adventures with my children, fight for justice, wear fabulous clothing, run, practice yoga, paint, sing, learn something new every day, and pursue interior decorating as a hobby.
What is your choice of each of the following:
- A song
“My Father’s Gun” by Elton John. It’s such a strange song; an 1865 Confederate soldier’s story written by a Brit a hundred years later. In general, I love the epic storytelling power of rock ballads, but this song’s also about how we inherit a legacy of loves, losses, failures, and history and how that stuff makes up the lens through which we tell our own stories.
- A place
Engakuji Temple, Kamakura, Japan. I had just moved to Japan and was anxious to see some of the beautiful spiritual history there. Kamakura is full of Shinto and Buddhist temples, but we’d heard especially good things about Engakuji, so we walked several miles, pushing strollers of course, up this hill on this busy roadside, until we practically collapsed into this beautiful Zen temple with groves of bamboo and hiking trails and a stillness that only exists in places where monks are the custodians. I nursed my three-month-old and saw, in the reflection of his eyes looking up at me, the sun shining through the bamboo leaves, and felt the infinite bliss brush past me for a moment.
- An inspiring woman in history
Alice Paul was an American suffragette in the early 20th century who was imprisoned and tortured by her own government for advocating for women’s voting rights. She led masses of women in hunger strikes from prison, and when they couldn’t get her to voluntarily eat, her captors force-fed her using brutal methods. She shined a light on her government’s hypocrisy, and fought against her own marginalization.