Rudy Ramirez did his best to hide his Costa Rican roots, but the thick and curly mane of black hair made that hard to do.
But then the 1960s teenager discovered the “conk”—a chemical and oftentimes painful procedure that would kill and burn and relax the natural curl in one’s hair—and forgetting that he was Latino became a little easier.
“I was ashamed,” said Ramirez, who would cringe whenever his immigrant parents would play cumbia music in their tiny Mission District home. “I hated the sound of it. I saw it as old country. I thought, ‘We’re here now. Lets leave that behind.’”
But during his final high school year, the then 18-year-old Ramirez went to a concert at San Francisco’s Fillmore West, and his life forever changed.
“Then all of a sudden, this rock band from the Mission with these Afro-Cuban rhythms is a world-wide hit and is embraced by everybody,”
Ramirez said, recalling the first night he watched Carlos Santana and his band perform in September of 1970.
“That night, I became a born-again Latino.”
He still is. Ramirez, an ethnic studies professor at the College of San Mateo and avid musician, will pay homage to the genre that forever changed him through his upcoming presentation and concert “Sounds from the Streets: A Historical and Musical Celebration of Latin Rock” on Saturday, Sept. 27 at the Brava Theater.
For Ramirez, who says he’s 62 going on 17, and acts like it, it will be his first concert at Brava, a venue his grandfather worked well into his late ‘60s.
“To me this is very meaningful. I’ve come full circle in a sense. This was his last gig,”
Ramirez said of his grandfather Marcial Ramirez, who hauled heaps of trash in burlap sacks out to side dumpster, until his bosses thought he no longer could. “I guess he didn’t feel like he was useful, so he died. That’s what I’m trying to avoid.”
But it was when Marcial was alive that Ramirez still conked his hair. Ramirez would routinely walk the Mission and let his comb fall to the floor, so that when he would stoop to pick it up, his free-flowing “good” hair would messily yet intentionally fall over his face, giving him the excuse to comb his hair back.
Ramirez will be wearing his hair curly and natural come Saturday, just like Santana and his band mates did all those years ago when he first saw them play.
“That night,” he said of his conk, “I gave up that shit.”