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SILER CITY — Traffic nearly stood still along U.S. Hwy. 64 in front of Chatham Memorial Park the day after Christmas, with dozens of cars from Siler City to Florida parked where they could find room — some even in ditches, wheels suspended above ground.
There, despite COVID-19 fears and the holiday timing, a crowd of people gathered to pay their last respects to Jose Ramon Hernandez Meija before his burial.
“I’ve attended, unfortunately, several services there, and I would say it was the biggest outpouring that I saw,” said Eliu Guzman, Jordan-Matthews’ vice principal from 2008 to 2011, when Hernandez graduated. “I mean, they had to stop the traffic — the police — to 64 to make sure that people could turn in, and there was hardly any room … because everybody wanted to be part of it.”
Hernandez, 28, died Dec. 20 in the UNC-Chapel Hill Medical Center after he was shot several times in the torso. His family held several public services, including a viewing on Dec. 23 at Smith & Buckner Funeral Home and interment on Dec. 26 at Chatham Memorial Park.
Hernandez was Guzman’s student at Jordan-Matthews and had grown close to Guzman’s family; while Guzman and his family lived in Siler City, his son, Brandon, befriended Hernandez’s younger brother, Jonathan, and grew to see Hernandez as an older brother.
“My son is the one who called me to tell me the bad news,” Guzman told the News + Record. “He just said, ‘Dad, they killed my brother.’ They’re not blood-related, but they grew up together.”
He and his family drove up from Florida to attend the viewing and burial, which the holidays had forced the Hernandez family to push up. Guzman’s son, stationed in Germany, couldn’t attend.
“We got in our car at midnight, and we drove all night and got to North Carolina,” he said. “We were able to freshen up and everything, and then we went straight to the funeral home. There was no way we weren’t going to go.”
Hernandez’s older sister, Tania, also held another celebration at her house after the funeral; she said people came to show support at every service.
“What was always constant at the wake and definitely at the funeral was people already waiting when we took his remains,” she said. “ … We were very grateful.”
COVID-19 made it hard to mourn together since they couldn't hug, said Geovanni Parroquin, a long-time friend of Hernandez, but he also said the services, especially the burial, reinforced to him just how many people loved Hernandez.
"He brought all of us together. We were all from different groups at school, different groups in Siler, different friend groups … but he was friends with all of us," he said, adding, "It was really a beautiful reminder of how many people he touched."
‘Everybody loved Ramon’
Close family and friends described Hernandez as an optimistic, friendly guy with a drive to help people — and that’s the kind of person he’d always been, said his sister, Tania.
“He was my supporter whenever I went through rough patches in my younger years,” she said. “... He was helpful. He was fun. He was loving. He was a great dancer. He was lovable. He was all of that.”
To family and friends, he was never “Jose,” his legal first name; he was always “Ramon.”
“He was named after my dad,” Tania said, adding, “But we have always called my dad ‘Ramon’ or ‘Moncho,’ and my brother was Monchito ever since he was little, because he was the baby. ... Then he came here, and we always kept calling him Ramon.”
Born in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Hernandez, his parents and his two siblings emigrated to Siler City in the late ’90s, according to Tania. At the time, she was 8; Hernandez was 6. They grew up in a mobile home neighborhood. To support the family, their mother worked during the day, while their father worked evenings.
“We lived all of our lives here in Siler City since then,” Tania said. “And we went to (Siler City) Elementary School here, and (Chatham) Middle School. We were both Jets. The three of us, we all played for the soccer team with the Jets, and we were all midfielders. We all won our awards with that.”
Growing up, Tania said they had been close. They played soccer together, shared the same friend circle and went to each other’s games.
“Many would say that — the early years of that — people would think that he and I were boyfriend and girlfriend,” she said. “That’s how close we were — like we were always together.”
That relationship changed, she said, as they grew older, went their separate paths and made different friends, a “deviation” she said she now regrets.
“We would see each other and we both knew — I know this for a fact — that we cared and loved each other and that no matter what that we will be there for each other,” she said. “But as far as having a close connection or contact, we were deviating apart or drifting apart.”
Attending Jordan-Matthews High School together, she said, brought some of the “best years” of their lives. Hernandez attended from 2007 to 2011. There he played soccer for Los Jets, completed a lot of community service and joined the Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI) program, a UNC-Chapel Hill mentoring program, which helped him get into UNC Pembroke.
“He was well known,” Tania said. “He was very well liked. ... Teachers loved him. I won’t say that he was a straight A student, but he managed to graduate.”
She and her family never thought he would graduate from high school, she recalled, let alone college.
“He proved us wrong completely,” she said. " ... we just thought he was joking and he was partying and all that stuff.”
He certainly did party and joke around, said Geovanni Parroquin, but he also kept his eye on his goal — going to college. Parroquin, who now lives in Raleigh, shared many classes and partipated in several programs, including SLI, with Hernandez at Jordan-Matthews.
"He was always there to make us laugh, to keep us upbeat, even with how stressful and hard it was to be navigating the (college) application process without really any knowledge of it,” he said, later adding, “I think he struggled a lot being that upbeat guy and trying not to show how hard he was struggling … where he was meeting with ... the principal and our AVID director and his mentor, and trying to find a way to pay for school.”
Paul Cuadros, his soccer coach at J-M, said Hernandez had “beautiful skill” and a “devastating left foot” as a left-wing midfielder for Los Jets.
“He was not an initial starter his freshman year, but from that point on in his sophomore, junior and senior years, he dominated that position and scored a bunch of goals for us as well,” he said. “... By the time Ramon had developed and become a senior and a captain on the team, he was in full command of his abilities and what he wanted to do, and it helped lead the squad the victory.”
As captain his senior year, Hernandez led the team to a conference championship, Cuadros said. He was all-conference and all-region; Cuadros also nominated him for all-state. His skills earned him a scholarship to UNC Pembroke, where he also played soccer.
“Everybody loved Ramon,” Cuadros said. “... Ramon was the type of person who was eager to learn and was giving and wanted to give. I think that’s one of the things I remember the most about him.”
Franklin Gomez Flores played soccer with Hernandez in middle school and as a fellow Jet. He ran parallel to Hernandez as a right-wing midfielder. Even after both graduated college, they continued playing soccer with community-organized teams in Snow Camp on the weekends. To this day, he remembers Hernandez’s deep-throated “Los Jets” chants and how he’d see the “sweat evaporating off (Hernandez’s) skin” during breaks.
“That’s how intense he would play, and that’s how much commitment and heart he gave to the game. At that time, I was like, ‘Yo, that’s really cool,’” he said, adding with a laugh, “To a guy, it’s pretty cool.”
During middle and high school, he said he always looked up to Hernandez. He also suggested Gomez Flores apply to SLI (now LatinxEd), which helped him get into UNC-Chapel Hill.
“(His) everlasting impact, the biggest impact, was just really being a good role model,” said Gomez Flores, who in November won a seat on the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. “He kind of was somebody you wanted to be. … A lot of us really looked up to him just because he seemed well rounded. I mean, he was athletic. He was social. He was well articulated — with the ladies of course, and at that time, nobody really had much understanding of how to speak to the opposite gender.”
Hernandez graduated from UNC Pembroke in 2015. He switched his major several times before settling on social work, which Tania said her family didn’t even believe at first. Guzman, his former principal at J-M, wasn’t so surprised.
“I knew it was going to do something with people,” he said. “... I expected him to do something like teaching or something like that. When we talked, he had a great affection for people and helping people.”
‘We want justice’
Right after graduating, Tania said Hernandez received a job with Chatham County Schools as a social worker in several schools, including Jordan-Matthews. In 2016, he also helped Cuadros coach the Jets soccer team.
“I think he had a really good impact on the school system,” Cuadros said. “... For kids at Jordan-Matthews High School to see somebody like Ramon working in the school system when they kind of knew him, and so had seen him grow up to come back and look at the school system, that was a real boost for those kids.”
“He was succeeding. He was doing very well for himself,” Tania added. “... It seemed that he was at his best 2015 to 2017, I think.”
But around that time, she said something happened and he lost his job. Though she and her family encouraged him to get back into social work, he instead began turning toward landscaping. He’d also settled down with his partner, Cinthia Karina Rodriguez, and started a family. Before he died, he and his father had plans to start a family-managed roofing company.
“I think at one point, he said, ‘I need to provide and I don’t have the time to do that,’” Tania said. “And it’s true. He started providing. He needed diapers. The baby needed this. The baby needed that, and I don’t know, he just didn’t have the stability anymore that he did before.”
Hernandez met his partner, Rodriguez, around 2016, while he was working in Jordan-Matthews. She'd then had a young son, Ihan, now 4 years old; a few years later, they had a son together, named Gael, who’s 2 years old. In June 2020, she said he’d given her an engagement ring "out of nowhere" and told her he wanted to marry her soon.
“He was afraid of having such a responsibility, but as he lived with us for a longer time, he grew fond of my child little by little,” Rodriguez said. “He loved my boy as if he were his. He told me that being a father was the best thing that could have happened to him. When our child arrived, he was even happier.”
A few years ago, Gomez Flores recalled how Hernandez whipped out his phone and showed him a picture of the ultrasound while they were playing soccer.
“He’s like, ‘Yep, yep. You know what that means, right?’” he said, laughing. “And he was just saying, ‘Yep.’ He was really excited that day that he was telling the team.”
His upbeat attitude and ability to make anyone laugh even in the direst situations — that's what many of Hernandez's friends and family said they will miss most about him.
"He brought a lot of joy to our lives," Parroquin said. "I think more than anyone, he was a reminder that there will always be something to dance to."
“I miss everything about him — his hugs, his words, his laughs,” Rodriguez said, adding, “He was everything, and I miss him too much.”
According to Hernandez’s family, authorities have not found or arrested his suspected killer, Sergio “Yovani” Rodriguez, who is also his partner’s brother. They’ve also been told that the U.S. Marshals are now involved in the search. Chatham’s sheriff, Mike Roberson, said his office has been reaching out to other agencies for help, but didn’t identify which ones.
“We work collectively with other units or other agencies to help us, and if we have an idea of where he is, we’ll call those agencies to help us,” he told the News + Record. “But we’re still investigating it — still looking for him. He will be entered into a national database that he’s wanted, or that there are charges, and any officer in the nation that stops him will be notified that there are warrants on him.”
But Tania said she worries they won’t find him.
“I’m afraid in the sense that he’s forgotten and that his case just stays like this — no answers and the guy just leaves and walks and he’s not found,” she said. “It’s not like my brother left a huge legacy; he left an impact on our community in a sense that we cared and we will miss him, but sometimes, cases like this may stay behind and we really need and want to find the killer. We want justice for him.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.
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