Ramiro Raúl Casso, an educator, physician, civil rights and community activist from the Rio Grande Valley, was born in the Buenos Aires colonia of Laredo, Texas, on August 4, 1922, to Francisco Margarito Casso and Josefa (Villarreal) Casso. Both of his parents had immigrated as children from Nuevo Leon, Mexico, to Texas and arrived with their families before the start of the Mexican Revolution. At the time of Casso’s birth, his father worked as a chauffeur, and his mother was a housekeeper. He was the second of four brothers. Throughout his childhood, he and his family moved back and forth from Laredo to Duval County, Texas, for work during the hard economic times of the Great Depression. When he was thirteen years old, he and his brothers lived in a tent in Freer, Texas, and worked as garbage collectors to help provide for the family. They saw their parents in Laredo on weekends. At fourteen years old, he sold newspapers on street corners.
Upon Casso’s graduation from Martin High School in Laredo in 1939, he attended Texas A&M University. After the United States entered World War II in late 1941, the university became a military training camp and had classes year-round so students could graduate before enlisting. As a student, Casso trained and served as a sergeant in Texas A&M’s Coast Artillery Battery B. In 1943 he received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering then joined the United States Army Reserve. He went to Anti-Aircraft Artillery Officers Candidate School at Camp Davis in North Carolina, then in 1944 he served as a lieutenant in anti-aircraft artillery at the Panama Canal. Casso was honorably discharged, with the rank of captain, in 1946 and returned to Laredo where he worked as an engineer for the International Boundary and Water Commission. He also taught math at his alma mater, Martin High School.
In 1949 Casso married Emma Laurel, a school teacher from Laredo, at the First Baptist Church of Laredo. The next year, after they had their first child, they moved to Waco where he attended Baylor University as a pre-med major and graduated in 1952 with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry. He received his medical degree from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas in 1956 then completed a year-long internship at the Robert B. Green Memorial Hospital of San Antonio. In 1957 he returned to the Rio Grande Valley and opened his family medical practice in McAllen. Two years later, he joined Dr. Lauro G. Guerra to open McAllen Polyclinic, often referred to as the Farm Workers Clinic (later the Hidalgo County Health Department Migrant Medical Clinic) to provide healthcare for poorer communities such as migrant farmworker families.
In addition to playing an important role as a physician and educator for the Mexican American community, he got involved in politics and civil rights activism. In 1948, after he was discharged from military service, he joined other Mexican American veterans, including American GI Forum’s Hector P. García and attorneys Carlos Cadena and Gus García, to combat discriminatory practices in Texas. In 1948 he, as a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), helped with negotiations with the state during the Delgado v. Bastrop Independent School District case that resulted in a court decision against the segregation of Mexican American children. In addition he helped raise money for Cadena’s and Gus García’s legal fees as they prepared to argue Pete Hernandez v. Texas, a case that fought against systematic exclusion of Mexican Americans from jury duty, in front of the U. S. Supreme Court in 1954.
Casso often took a public role in politics and focused on issues of education, poverty, and health. In 1958 he was a founding member and an original board member of the McAllen United Civic Association, a Mexican American group that advocated community improvements from local government. The next year he was elected to the McAllen School Board where he pushed for wage increases for teachers and maintaining Spanish teaching in elementary schools. Through his affiliation with the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASSO), he helped to organize the Viva Kennedy Club of Hidalgo County and served as its first elected chairman in 1960. Within PASSO he served as chairman and vice-chairman of Hidalgo County between 1962 and 1965. He did not always agree with the group’s decisions, most notably PASSO’s support of an all-Mexican American slate of candidates in Crystal City in 1964 (see CRYSTAL CITY REVOLT). In 1965 he was nominated for the state chairman of PASSO but turned it down.
When given the opportunity, Casso spoke out in national forums against systemic problems Tejanos and Mexican people faced along the Texas-Mexico border. He appeared in and narrated part of a television newsmagazine story about South Texas as “the most poverty-stricken” place in the country. It appeared on NBC’s Sunday and aired nationally on August 16, 1964. The Rio Grande Valley Chamber of Commerce, a primarily white organization, called the ten-minute story slanted and claimed it was a misleading publicity campaign of labor groups and PASSO because, in part, of Casso’s participation. Having experienced poverty in his youth and witnessing its effects in his clinic, Casso responded in the local newspaper that the chamber had actively ignored its impoverished residents and supported policies that maintained economic disparities.
In 1968 Casso testified to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor about violence committed by law enforcement during the Starr County Strike the year before. Members of the National Farm Workers Union (later the United Farm Workers Union) had organized farmworkers from melon farms in May 1966 and went on strike a month later. The strike lasted a year and included a protest march to the state capitol as well as help from César Chávez. Casso testified in 1968 that, on June 2, 1967, he examined Magdaleno Dimas and Benito Rodriguez, both members of the union, at the Starr County jail. Both had been severely beaten by Texas Rangers A. Y. Allee and Fred Dawson. Casso described the injuries sustained by Dimas as “the worst beating I have ever seen law enforcement administer.” Casso’s testimony was a key part of investigations by the state, the U.S. Senate subcommittee, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and all three found the rangers had used excessive force and abused their power.
During the late 1960s and 1970s Casso was especially active in education and health-related issues through various boards and government appointments. Locally he sat on the Health Planning Advisory Committee of the Lower Rio Grande Development Council and the McAllen General Hospital board of directors. Casso served on national boards as well, including the Physicians Committee for Health Care for the Aged and at two White House Health Conferences. President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed him to the National Advisory Board of Health Research Facilities of the National Institute of Health, and Governor Dolph Briscoe appointed him to the Texas Board of Health and the Texas Human Rights Commission.
Casso’s charitable work among farmworkers in McAllen earned him the 1970 Golden Deeds Award from Bishop Humberto Sousa Medeiros. He also made an unsuccessful run for mayor of McAllen in 1981 against the incumbent Othal Brand. The election drew national attention when videos of police brutality during arrests of local minorities in McAllen under Brand were released to the public.
In 1994 Casso retired from practicing medicine and became the vice chairman of the Texas Board of Health. In 1995 he helped start a new nursing program, called the Nursing and Allied Health Division, at the South Texas Community College and served as executive director and later Vice President for Institutional Advancement until he retired in 2002. He was named McAllen’s Man of the Year in 1996 by the city’s chamber of commerce because of his role in the building of the University of Texas Regional Academic Health Center in the Rio Grande Valley. The same year he founded another clinic, called El Milagro, for the indigent and uninsured in McAllen and was president of its board of directors. He also served as adjunct faculty at the Texas A&M University School of Rural Public Health. In 2001 the South Texas Community College board of directors renamed their Nursing and Allied Health Center the Dr. Ramiro R. Casso Nursing and Allied Health Center.
When Casso passed away on June 22, 2011, friends and colleagues recognized him for his extraordinary public service, increasing access, and protecting and providing education for the Mexican American communities of South Texas. He had five children and ten grandchildren. His funeral service was held at the First Baptist Church of McAllen, and he was buried at Roselawn Cemetery. His personal and professional papers have been archived at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.