The typical noir crime novel takes the reader through a gritty urban underworld with a cynical investigator and morally compromised clients, suspects, and contacts. A Mile High noir by Manuel Ramos (B.A., ’70) might make that journey in a beat-up pickup truck on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. The characters are just as sketchy, and the world view as bleak as anything in the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler or the New York of Walter Mosley, but the story usually starts on the mean streets of Denver.

Welcome to the subgenre of Chicano Noir, of which Ramos is a founding father. He has been writing mysteries steeped in local culture since 1985, when he entered a short-fiction contest sponsored by Denver’s alternative weekly, Westword.

“I won second place, but that was a turning point,” he says. “If other people liked my writing, I knew I should keep writing.”

His novels featuring burned-out lawyer Luis Montez, who battles corruption and racism to find justice for desperate clients, have won several awards, including the Latino/Chicano Literary Prize and Colorado Book Award. 

PHOTO: CSU Libraries Archives and Special Collections

Politics on campus

At CSU in the late 1960s, Ramos felt isolated on the mostly white campus. He studied political science, both in the classroom and as a leader of the eight-member United Mexican American Students. UMAS and the Black Students Alliance submitted a list of student demands for change to President William Morgan in 1968 – some of which are nearly identical to those presented to the administration in 2019. 

One of the demands, then and now, was recruitment of more students and faculty of color. Ramos remembers one of the few Black professors on campus at the time, Hugh Ragin, who opened his home to Black and Latino students and introduced them to jazz music. (Ramos has been married for over 40 years to Flo Hernandez, founder of Denver’s jazz radio station, KUVO.)

The demands were followed by nonviolent occupation of the Administration Building and the lawn of Morgan’s residence, but the state Legislature refused to fund additional recruitment of students of color.

After graduating from CSU, Ramos went to law school in Boulder, then opened a private practice in Longmont. But he wanted to be “one of the good guys” and soon joined the Denver Legal Aid Society, now Colorado Legal Services, where he had “the best job a lawyer could have” until he retired in 2014 to write full time.

Old Denver and new

In the Luis Montez novels, the city of Denver is a character dealing with its own moral ambiguity, specifically in the Northside Latino neighborhoods significantly gentrified at the end of the 20th century.

“There have been huge changes in Denver – the baseball stadium and light rail, for example – that have displaced the local community,” Ramos says. “Big developers have taken over with not a lot of thinking about what is going to happen to everyday people.”

When Luis mostly retires after five novels, his investigator Gus Corral, an ex-con trying to stay straight with lots of help from his familia, continues uncovering the truth, even if that doesn’t always lead to justice. The latest in the series, Angels in the Wind, was published by Arté Publico Press in 2021; Ramos says the next one will be finished next year.

Arté Publico will be reissuing the Luis Montez novels beginning with The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz in September to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its first publication. 

Manuel Ramos also edits the online magazine La Bloga

Featured Photo: Joe A. Mendoza, CSU Photography