Troubadour from old Arizona clan tells great, great, great, great stories

Ted Ramirez's family has been in Tucson since 1776, and he can tell some stories. Better yet, he sings them

Ted Ramirez steadies his cowboy hat and slides behind an oversize cup of coffee at a trendy diner a few blocks from what remains of Tucson's first building, the Spanish fortress his great-great-great-great-grandfather had a hand in establishing.

That's four "greats," by the way, which dates the Ramirez family's arrival in Tucson to 1776. In other parts of the country, the year evokes Franklin, Washington and the Declaration of Independence.

In the Sonoran Desert, 1776 marks the start of another equally American story, one with a different cast but a similar plot of identity and independence. And it's one that Ramirez has devoted many of his 62 years to recounting.

"There's a lot to this," says Ramirez, a folk singer and songwriter. "I can't tell you all of it in a couple of hours."

The fact he can tell it at all in a social-media-driven age, when events are rendered in 140 characters and history is last week, is a credit to the generations that went before him. They not only lived the stories, but they also remembered and told them.

Now he tells how another Ramirez named Teodoro helped comfort an Army unit known as the Mormon Battalion when it limped, hungry and tired, into town on the eve of the Mexican War. He sings the ballad of Billy Stiles, a lawman-turned-outlaw:

He came riding through the night, looking for a place to hide. In my grandfather he'd confide: "Would you hide me in the night?"

"Billy Stiles, you are a friend of mine. I can hide you in a well, but no lies for you I'll tell."

And he tells tales of the culturally rich Papago people, who would over time reclaim their ancestral name, O'odham, and the indigenous language Ramirez's ancestors learned to speak.

"That history was always maintained. And passed down," Ramirez says softly. "So we really grew up with not only the European understanding of history in this part of the world, but the indigenous version of history and their view.

"The family was really good about making sure that people understood what had happened. And why we were here. By the time I got to high school, I was beginning to comprehend it on a different level."

Comprehending stories of farming and cattle and horses, for example. Of thunder and rain, of fires and earthquakes, of Gods — both Indian and Spanish — and of births and deaths.

The stories that gave him the confidence to correct high school and college teachers who never got any closer to the subject than a textbook.

"They would say, 'How do you know?' And I'd say, 'My grandmother told me,'" he remembers, a smile peeking out from beneath a bushy white mustache.

"She would make antojitos — sweet breads, fruit plates, many other little treats — gather us in the backyard and, in the shade of our little mesquite tree, tell us stories about our family and the history of our homeland in southern Arizona."

She also taught him how to throw a curveball and coached him in the nuances of second base. But those aren't the lessons he remembers.

"She would explain how we came from Spanish and Indian people and instruct us to be happy and proud of our heritage," he says.

He repeats his grandmother's stories in verse, singing about the stars, the moon, the thunder, the rain in old Tucson's three traditional languages, English, Spanish and O'odham.

"It was just framed as fact. This is what happened," Ramirez says. "For a lot of people who share my background, my history, it's a big part of who they are."

Hector Soza grew up hearing some of the same stories in the backyard of his grandmother's house. He also had an ancestor, Jose Maria Sosa, in the original garrison. (The family name was later altered by a scrivener's error, when an S became a Z in a 19th century homestead document.) When members of the Soza and Ramirez families married into the other family, the history became even more intertwined.

"Those are our founding fathers," says Julia Arriola of the Arizona Historical Society. "They pretty much laid the foundation."

The oral history both families tell has grown in importance as the physical history of early Tucson has been destroyed. The presidio walls were knocked down decades ago.

"Our history is underneath the convention center," Arriola says. "Whenever I think about it, it's really annoying. We lost a lot."

It wasn't until Soza's older cousin Edward began climbing about in the family tree in the 1970s that many of his relatives' often isolated stories began to construct a narrative.

"All the records, they link," says Hector Soza's son Randal, adding that archivists, archaeologists, historians, the National Park Service and authors have researched the family.

"We've been here," he says simply. "We are an Arizona pioneer family."

A family whose history packs several boxes in the historical society archives. It also inspired family reunions that drew as many as 440 people who can trace their lineage to a solitary Spanish soldier who arrived in the U.S. before the country had even been born.

Six flags have flown over Arizona since then, from the Spanish and Mexican banners to the Stars and Stripes and Confederate Stars and Bars. And at least one Ramirez and one Soza have been here to see all of that.

As a result, neither family has ever crossed a border. Those borders crossed them.

Recently Randal Soza tested the family DNA and found it to be more diverse than a food court at a mall, boasting Portuguese, Spanish, Mexican, Greek, Italian, Russian and Sephardic Jewish blood.

There's indigenous blood too, a nod to the harshness of pioneer life as well as the ability, and perhaps need, of people to come together.

"That's the beauty of the story, really," he says. "It took the cooperation of all the people — as well as the indigenous — to sustain life here."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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