In 1968, when Jose Ramirez Jr. was 20, life in Laredo, Texas, looked promising. He had just been awarded money to attend an area junior college, so now he had a chance to launch a career, but then he got ill with an unexplainable fatigue, bleeding and sores. When local doctors were at a loss to find an explanation, his migrant worker parents took him across the border to Mexico to visit the native equivalent of a medicine man who himself was not certain but did mention something about the disease being biblical.
Then one day back in Laredo, a doctor came and handed Ramirez’s family instructions for taking their son to Carville, La., the site of the national leprosarium. Being diagnosed with leprosy was bad enough, but when the vehicle came to transport Ramirez, who would be accompanied by his mom, it was a hearse rather than the expected ambulance. Ramirez recalls that when his mother protested, the person in charge explained that ambulances were for the living, hearses for the dead.
Ramirez was the youngest patient at Carville, living his life among some victims who had been crippled by the disease. He was alone and denied the educational opportunity that had excited him months earlier. Life had turned bad, in biblical proportions.
Healing, however, is also part of the Bible. During his time there, new medications to arrest the disease were developed. Ramirez took the treatments. There was also a new understanding that it was possible for someone with the disease to live among others.
Because of the success of the treatment, the Carville administrators took the bold step of contacting the president of LSU to seek special permission for Ramirez to attend the university. The LSU president agreed.
Patients at Carville were given jobs around the facility so that they could earn spending money. With his cash, Ramirez bought a secondhand car that he drove the 20-plus miles to Baton Rouge every school day. He entered the university with two stigmas: One was having leprosy, and the other was that the treatment had turned his brownish Mexican-American skin unnaturally black.
Through it all Ramirez persevered, made some friends at LSU and got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work-related fields.
Today, Ramirez, totally cured of the disease, lives in Houston where he is a social worker. His natural skin color has returned, and he has only minor scars. To see him, one would not know that he once had leprosy. He does admit to one major scar, though: “the memory of my mother who felt guilty for my disease and who spent so much time washing the blood off my clothes.”
In 2009, his book, Squint: My Journey With Leprosy, was published. The title comes from the early religious custom of having an opening on the side of churches so that those with leprosy could look in to watch Mass. The opening was called a squint.
Although the circumstances were terrible, Ramirez speaks highly of the federal government’s Carville facility and the care it gave him. On a recent panel at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, James Carville, the political strategist after whose grandfather, the postmaster, the town was named, said that at its peak the leprosarium had more doctors than the Mayo Clinic.
Meeting James Carville (who wrote the foreword in Squint) was not Ramirez’s first brush with a political figure.
Ramirez says that in the ’70s, while still a patient at the leprosarium and working on his master’s degree at LSU, he earned an internship at City Hall in New Orleans. He recalls seeing then-Mayor Moon Landrieu, sometimes with his children, who included Mary and Mitch, now respectively one of Louisiana’s U.S. senators and the new mayor of the city of New Orleans. The Landrieus were emerging as an important political family, but it was the young intern with the strangely dark skin who was really making history.