“I always wanted to help people; wanted to do something more than just me”
Jesus Ramos meticulously guarded the divide between his two professions: CP Police special agent, and mariachi singer. He prided himself on switching between the two “like a chameleon.” Then, at a performance in front of 20,000 at Chicago’s Millennium Park earlier this year, his lives collided. “Somebody blurted out: ‘And he’s a cop, too!’” Ramos recalls. “And the media was like, let me talk to you. And right after that, it just blossomed.”
Ramos’ twin passions, police work and music, have matured in tandem, but the music came first. Ramos’ father, an émigré from Jalisco, Mexico, filled his bilingual home in Chicago’s tough Pilsen neighbourhood with jazz music, particularly the tunes of the famed “Rat Pack”: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Traditional Mexican music it wasn’t, but it turns out a local radio station in Jalisco played it frequently in Ramos’ dad’s younger years.
“As a kid, that’s all I listened to, and I was able to mimic a lot of their styles,” Ramos recalls.
Following high school, Ramos began taking lessons in music while attending Triton College in Chicago to learn firefighting. “I always wanted to help people; wanted to do something more than just me,” he said of his line of study. In addition, he took a job in maintenance for the college police force, a role that included washing squad cars.
“I made them look like new, out of the dealership,” he said. “The chief liked my work ethic. At that time, you’re a kid, you see people in uniform, you see a certain amount of respect that they command. I always took that as an inspiration of wanting to become something like that.” However, Ramos spoke the language of a kid raised in a tough neighbourhood (“city talk,” he explained). So when Triton’s chief of police encouraged him to take a job as police dispatcher, Ramos said no.
“Eventually, he sent me to speech classes. He said, ‘We’ll pay for your school.’ That was the best class I ever took. It helped me to feel confident, and to speak in public.” It was the confidence Ramos needed to take the police dispatch job, and later, to begin performing before crowds. After graduation, each of these crafts would take him to new, gratifying places, first to work at a municipal police department in the Chicago suburbs.
“Two years into my job, I got promoted to detective,” he recalls. “I got sent to a homicide task force, and I worked more than 30 homicides on the forensic aspect. Any surrounding town in this area, we would respond to.”
Ramos also began to take an interest in traditional Mexican mariachi music. So what’s the musical link between the Rat Pack and Mariachi? Ramos explains it was Javier Solis, a Mexican mariachi ranchera singer and actor in the 1950s and ‘60s. Frank Sinatra dubbed Solis “the Frank Sinatra of Mexico.”
“They use a lot of the same techniques,” said Ramos. “There’s even a picture of Frank Sinatra with a sombrero. And that changed it for me. I looked at Javier Solis’ album, and there were so many similarities, even on the song selection. They were just translated into Spanish.”
Over the years, Ramos has sung everything from gospel in his church choir to the Rolling Stones. His love for music transcends any singer or style.
“I learned as much from every genre that I could, and eventually, I found my sound. I feel that makes me unique,” he said.
The mariachi tradition is important to Ramos, and he sees it as a way of sharing his Mexican heritage with the broader public. “I’m American, but I’m also Mexican,” he said. His signature style is the fusion of the two.
Ramos’ desire to help others has bled into the musical side of his life. A decade and a half ago, he began volunteering with a local charter school, the Uno School, which has since become the Mariachi Institute of Chicago. Now the kindergarteners he mentored are performing their own music, and they’ve invited him to sing at a few of their gigs.
“I’m very proud to say I was part of that,” said Ramos. “If you can make it easier for someone to be passionate for something, that’s everything.”
Ramos also brings his passion to his job with the CP Police Service (CPPS), which he joined in 2012. “If I’m out doing a rail safety presentation at a Metra [commuter rail] platform, or I’m assisting another police department on an arrest warrant or on a traffic stop, CP has allowed me to do everything. Not only my professional side that I like, in serving; they also allow me to do the things I love outside of work,” he said. “I feel like our team has a bond where we look out for each other.”
CPPS Sgt. Bruce Nichols, Ramos’ supervisor, says he’s a valued and reliable part of the CPPS Bensenville team. “I never worry about getting his best at work because, representing well, whether it be on stage or in uniform, is an important aspect of his personality,” said Nichols.
Earlier this year, the shy kid from Pilsen sang the national anthem before 40,000 baseball fans at a Chicago White Sox game. It was his largest crowd yet. And this fall, NBC Chicago profiled him, in his CPPS uniform, for a segment on community members sharing their heritage during National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15). Ramos is quick to give credit where he sees it due: To his mom, for moving his family to a better neighbourhood when he was a teenager; to the campus police chief that saw his potential; and to the music that inspired him.
“If it wasn’t for my music, who knows where I would be?”