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Against the Grain

A young political scientist breaks ground studying the immigrant vote.

Against the Grain

As a graduate student at Stanford University, Ricardo Ramírez was warned against studying California politics. Local politics was passé, he was counseled. He would be better served focusing on Congress or the presidency.

But he stayed true to his passion. His dissertation examined sweeping changes in California politics during the 1990s, tracking shifts in voting behavior and demographics among whites and Latinos.

“I sort of went against the grain,” said Ramírez, assistant professor of political science and of American studies and ethnicity in USC College.

By the time Ramírez finished his dissertation during the gubernatorial election in 2002, California politics had gained national attention.

“Sometimes going against the grain is useful,” he said with a laugh.

Ramírez, whose parents migrated from Mexico, is particularly interested in voter mobilization and Latino immigrants. His unique approach often supplements his own surveys with existing but often overlooked data, such as home ownership records.

This endeavor keeps him quite busy — in the spring semester he had six projects in progress, including a study funded by a National Science Foundation fellowship. He’s also working on a book about Latinos and competition between political parties.

“I love what I do and the fact that I have more questions than I have time to research,” he said. “These questions are just waiting to be asked and answered in new ways.”

His excellent work has brought recognition. In its January 2008 edition, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education named 34-year-old Ramírez among 10 emerging scholars under 40 as part of the magazine’s annual roundup of prominent young intellectuals. The Diverse profile lauded him as “a rising star … [gaining] national recognition for his research on the voting and political behavior of individuals across racial and ethnic lines.”

Of all races and ethnicities, Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. electorate in terms of sheer numbers, Ramírez said. And in an election year when the Latino vote in the Democratic primaries has been scrutinized carefully and debated often, it’s easy to see the importance of Ramírez’s chosen subject.

However, Latino political mobilization is important for more than its influence on elections. It also affects communities themselves.

Historically, political parties have helped to integrate new voters. As parties have moved away from traditional face-to-face mobilization techniques, Ramírez said, that vital integration process has become more and more disconnected. The effect on Latino immigrants is still being studied.

“We know what kind of impact parties’ mobilization efforts had on the older immigrant groups, such as Italians and Irish,” he said. “We need to understand how they impact the new ones.”

More and more scholars are investigating the intersection of politics and ethnicity. But Ramírez’s research is breaking new ground. Take, for example, a collection of essays he co-edited with colleagues from the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Riverside, Transforming Politics, Transforming America (University of Virginia Press, 2006).

It was the first book to analyze immigrant political incorporation — the impact that the foreign-born population in the United States has on American politics, and vice versa.

“That’s why we really pushed to get this edited volume out there,” he said. “We felt there was a strong need.”

The drive to address unanswered questions first drew Ramírez to political science. As a UCLA undergraduate, he was initially interested in international relations, with an eye toward a career in public-interest law.

But then came the contentious public debates around Proposition 187, a ballot initiative to deny government services to illegal immigrants, and Proposition 209, which aimed to end affirmative action in California’s public institutions. Ramírez saw these propositions galvanizing people, including his family and friends, to become U.S. citizens. He wanted to know more, but when he sought studies for precedent or explanations, he couldn’t find much.

“Someone needs to study this,” he remembers thinking. So he did.

His thirst transcends the quest for knowledge — Ramírez is interested in justice.

Born in Los Angeles, Ramírez was raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, for his first seven and a half years. Then his family moved to California’s Central Valley, where his parents were farm workers. Around that time, one of his older brothers drowned. Ramírez felt that an ensuing case was mishandled by his family’s lawyer, and he vowed to become an attorney to right the wrongs he perceived against immigrants. His ambition, as well as the encouragement of his parents, neither of whom attended school past sixth grade, motivated him to excel in his schoolwork.

Although he chose academe over law, Ramírez can see the link between his work and his early determination to confront injustice.

Some policies are flatly unfair to immigrant communities, he said.

“Some push people away from becoming integrated in society,” he said. “We need an academic understanding for policymakers to see the real impact of voting laws.”

Ramírez wants his research to have real-world impact. He collaborates with the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), providing data and advice to bolster their voter mobilization strategies. NALEO’s location near campus is among the reasons USC College is the perfect place for him.

His role as mentor is another way to contribute to a better world. While Ramírez provides students with new perspectives about the political process, there’s a broader message that’s equally important — and meaningful coming from a scholar who has occasionally gone against the grain.

He tells his students that if they follow their passion and invest themselves fully, success will surely follow.

“What I try to push to my undergrads is, ‘I don’t care what it is that you’re passionate about. Just go out and do it.’ ”