Producer, Actor, Vocalist, and Arts Advocate
“It is still a tremendous pleasure for me to have the opportunity to touch people through song, a well-orchestrated production, or arts education. It can change your attitude, your life, make you laugh, cry, or you can simply lose yourself in the moment.” – Carmela Ramírez
Carmela Ramírez was born in Phoenix in 1952, a time when the city was growing into a booming metropolis, attracting many with its economic opportunities and warm climate. As a first-born daughter to artistically gifted Mexican American parents, Carmela was heavily influenced by dreams of a vibrant life filled with art and music.
Carmela’s parents, Eddie and Ortensia Ramírez, were passionate about the arts. Eddie, who worked for the City of Phoenix parks maintenance department, also played the trumpet and sang with Mexican trios. Ortensia, noted for her vocal talents and beauty, was often sought after as an artist’s model. However, it was difficult to earn a living through the arts in Phoenix in the 1950s, so they eventually gave up their artistic pursuits in order to concentrate on raising their children, Carlos and Carmela.
Eddie and Ortensia both helped Nana Carmen Ruiz run the family-owned restaurant and cantina, Las Palmeras. When the restaurant was sold, they went to work at one of the most popular music clubs in Phoenix, the Riverside Ballroom. Ortensia worked as a hat-check girl, and Eddie became a bartender. The exciting venue attracted talented artists like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tito Puente, and other great Latin jazz and salsa bands that were taking the nation by storm. Ortensia’s job allowed her to keep Carmela close by in her crib, listening to the memorable
In 1957, the Ramírezes became the second Mexican American family to move into a new suburb in West Phoenix, just north of 32nd Avenue and Van Buren. Carmela and her brother soon became fluent in English. Carlos learned to play the drums, and Carmela furthered her interest in music, listening to jazz on the radio with her father. When Carmela started first grade, she and her brother were among the few Mexican American students attending J. B. Sutton Elementary School. After school, they would take a bus to South Phoenix to stay with Nana Carmen. This upbringing allowed Carlos and Carmela to experience a life filled with a mix of cultures and languages.
Through middle school and high school, Carmela embraced various art forms, but her love for music never wavered. She listened to her father’s records and enthusiastically spent her allowance to add to the collection. She tried her hand at acting, and although initially unsure, she found that she loved it. She also loved painting and drawing and wanted to become an artist. The multitalented Carmela wanted to express herself.
In 1969, Carmela’s mother insisted that she enter a pageant competition for the reina of the annual Fiestas Patrias, a grand celebration held to commemorate Mexico’s independence. She wanted Carmela to experience a big stage and gain exposure, hoping one day she could achieve her dreams of becoming an artist. Carmela took to the stage and wore with pride a beautiful purple velvet dress handmade by her mother. She won the competition; other successes and opportunities to develop her talents would soon follow.
Carmela graduated from North High School, where she won many speech competition awards and held the leading role in various school productions, adding writing and directing to her repertoire. Her plays were at times controversial; Carmela and the school principal had many discussions about the content and borderline issues. This was Carmela’s first foray into arts advocacy.
After high school, Carmela attended Phoenix College on a drama scholarship. She studied under noted theater director Dr. John Paul, and continued her speech competitions and studies under Diane Rood. The college provided Carmela with a nurturing environment that allowed her to grow as an artist. She was now traveling nationwide and was writing and directing her own plays as part of student projects. Phoenix College also provided Carmela’s first exposure to musical theater. She tried this new medium and found that she had a voice equal to, if not better than, other musical actors. As Carmela’s vocals matured, her burgeoning talent influenced her old high school sweetheart’s band. Carmela became the lead singer, performing a mix of rock-‘n’-roll and rhythm and blues. The band was very successful, and Carmela eventually left her studies to pursue her new career with passion.
Throughout the ‘70s, Carmela opened for national headliners such as Tina Turner, Melissa Manchester, Herbie Mann, and B.B. King. She also studied sound engineering, lighting, staging, and logistics, and by the 1980s, Carmela had formed her own award-winning bands: Straight City as well as Linda & Carmela and Phases. Both exemplified some of the finest live music in town. Soon she established her own production company and artist roster and began to produce small shows around the Valley.
The City of Phoenix soon took notice of Carmela’s achievements, and in 1987, she was offered a part-time job in the Arts and Culture section of the Parks division. Carmela was immediately intrigued by the prospect of working with the community and producing shows in larger venues. She successfully produced the afternoon concert series Sights and Sounds, and the Phoenix Symphony People’s Pops Concert Series. Within three years, she was offered a full-time position as director of the Phoenix Center for the Arts, a visual and performing arts facility. This new appointment allowed Carmela to formulate a center for performing arts that would feature arts education, visual arts gallery exhibitions, the creation of a performing arts academy for youth, visual and performing arts for seniors, arts therapy for special populations, after-school arts programs, and the production of festivals and special events in the inner city.
Wanting to fulfill a dream Carmela had for many years, in 1988, she created Carmela y Más, a vibrant Latin jazz and salsa band. This Latin band soon gained recognition Valley and nationwide, garnering performance awards, raving reviews and accolades from Phoenix New Times, Soundboard, Arizona Republic, Cambio Magazine and
more. Carmela y Más soon received personal invitations to perform in Washington, D.C., at the National Museum for Women in the Arts and as guest artists for the 100th anniversary of the Himeji Castle in Japan. In 1999, Carmela returned to her love of R&B and jazz and created The Diva Band, featuring Carmela and Susan Phelan as lead vocalists and Rebecca Kennell on backgrounds and trumpet. The band has performed in various venues around the Valley and Southwest.
As a volunteer in 2000, Carmela helped the newly formed City of Phoenix Latino Institute create programs to improve the quality of life for Phoenix residents of all ages and cultural backgrounds. To this day, Carmela’s work with the institute reflects her dedication to the community and evidences her talents as an experienced producer and devoted civil servant.
Carmela has received many awards for her work and dedication. In 1999, she was recognized by the Friend of the United Nations Awards Program. She has also received several City Excellence awards and Phoenix New Times Best of Phoenix awards in Jazz/R&B/ Fusion and Latin music.
Carmela’s parents wanted her to live a vibrant life full of music and art. As a producer, actor, vocalist, arts advocate, and civil servant, Carmela Ramírez has fulfilled her parents’ hopes and dreams. As a talented artist in her own right and dedicated arts administrator and advocate, she has touched and enriched countless lives.
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