UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado
Sometimes it’s easy to assume that academics are cloistered away in their ivy towers, isolated from the real world. That’s certainly not the case with Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado. The University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor does his share of research but much of it takes him out of his office, off campus, and out into mainstream of life, whether to the barrios of South Omaha or Cuba, where he’s traveled many times for his research. I was reminded to post this profile of him I wrote a couple years ago after reading a piece in the local daily about his latest trip to Cuba, this time leading a group of UNO students to help restore a theater there that he hopes becomes a conduit for future arts-cultural exhanges. In his work he’s just as likely to meet with folks just trying to get by as he is with U.S. and Cuban diplomats and leaders. He’s even met Castro.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
For author, researcher, activist and University of Nebraska at Omaha associate professor of political science Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, political engagement is a birthright.
His mother Romelia marched with Cesar Chavez in the California migrant labor movement. Both his parents know first hand the migrant worker struggle. They also know the empowering change hard work and opportunity can bring.
Benjamin-Alvarado still marvels how his folks made “a hyper speed transition” from their vagabond life hand-picking crops wherever the next harvest was to achieving the American Dream within 20 years. “The day I was born my dad was picking lettuce and the day I graduated from high school he owned his own business and we lived in a really nice house in the suburbs.”
From his mother, who worked on behalf of women’s and Latino rights and as a political campaign volunteer, he learned activism. From his father he learned ambition and determination. As someone who grew up in The Burbs, never having to toil in the fields, Benjamin-Alvarado fully realizes how charmed he’s been to have role models like these.
“To this very day I’m reminded of the lessons and examples presented before me. These were people who prided themselves on what they did. They were people with an incredible sense of dignity and self respect,” he said. “I think what makes things like Cesar Chavez (or his mother) happen is they’re not willing to cede that one iota. They made it very clear that your abuse and subjugation of me will not define me.
“I shutter to think what my forbearers could have done had they had the opportunities I’ve been extended, especially given the incredible work ethic they had. They had no choice but to work hard. It’s only as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized what an incredible legacy and, in turn, responsibility I have to pay it forward. I’m very fortunate to have been able to live and travel all over the world and to be educated in incredible places. My whole thing now is what can I do to make sure others have these opportunities. I really do cherish what I have been granted and I feel an overriding sense of obligation.”
Despite comforts, life at home for he and his brother was unpleasant. Their father was an abusive partner to their mother. The siblings were also misfits in mostly Anglo schools and neighborhoods. To escape, the boys read voraciously. “That was our refuge from all the craziness in our lives. We were really just sponges,” said Jonathan. He did well in school and was enrolled in college when he abruptly left to join the U.S. Navy.
“I think everybody in my family was aghast but i really did it more for purposes of self-preservation and to establish some independence for myself. I needed to leave.”
His 1976-1980 Naval tour fit the bill.
“For me it was just four years of incredible discovery,” he said. “I met for the first time blacks from the northeast and Chicago, kids from the South and the Midwest, other Latinos. All of that was very interesting to me. I came to appreciate them and their cultures in ways I couldn’t possibly have done so had I stayed sequestered in California, where it’s very insular and you think the world revolves around you.”
Back home he used the G.I. bill to attend ucla, where he said he went from doubting whether he belonged to believing “I’m competitive with the cream of the crop. That realization stunned me. There was no limit at that point. I was in a different world.”
Then an incident he doesn’t like discussing occurred. It took five years to recover from physical and emotional wounds. He eventually earned his bachelor’s degree and did stints at Stanford and Harvard. He earned his master’s at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. While working at its think tank, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, he began intensive research on Cuba. He’s traveled there 25 times, often spending months per visit. Cuba remains a major focus of his professional activity.
Recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, he seriously entertained doing clandestine work before deciding he didn’t want to give up his academic freedom. Besides, he said, “I don’t and won’t keep secrets because it gets you into trouble.” Already married and with a child, he opted to complete his doctoral studies at the University of Georgia. He landed major grants for his Cuban research. Along the way he’s become a recognized expert on Cuban energy and foreign policy, authoring one book and editing another on that nation’s energy profile and what it bodes for future cooperation with the West.
A temporary teaching post at Georgia then set him on a new track.
“I had not given the idea of being a classroom instructor much thought prior to that,” he said. “I thought I was going to spend my life as a senior researcher — a wonk. But I got this bug (to teach). I realized almost immediately I like doing this, they like me, this is a good gig. It didn’t feel like I had to work real hard to do it, a lot of it just came naturally, and I had this reservoir to draw on.”
When grant funding dried up he sought a full-time teaching job and picked UNO over several offers, in part for it’s dynamic growth and emerging Latino community. He’s been at UNO 10 years. His Cuba work has continued but in a different way.
Benjamin-Alvarado with Castro
“The purposes of my visits have changed dramatically. Initially they were all for conducting basic research, doing lots of interviews on the ground. In the late 1990s I was involved in making some film documentaries for a PBS series. Then I spent five-six years taking students and faculty and people from the community to Cuba.”
Then the U.S. banned academic trips there. His last few visits he’s “been part of high level delegations with former Pentagon and State Department staff. This last one (in November) was with former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering.” In 2006 he met with senior government officials, including Fidel Castro, Raoul Castro, the president of the national assembly and ministers of other government bureaucracies. On these visits he’s there as “technical advisor-resident expert” for debriefings, analysis and reading beyond the rhetoric to decipher what’s really being said through interpreters.
He believes normalized relations only make sense for two nations with such an affinity for each other. Once restrictions are lifted he envisions a Cuban trip with area public and private sector leaders. He and a colleague plan to convene an international conference in Havana, of university presidents from North and South America “to discuss the trajectory of higher education in the 21st century for the Americas.”
His connections helped broker a deal for Nebraska selling ag products to Cuba. Closer to home, he advises government on Latino matters and is active in the Democratic Party. He’d like to see more Latinos active in local politics. A recipient of UNO’s Outstanding Teacher Award, he said the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at UNO “has been a godsend for me. OLLAS has been central to helping me live out what I do in my community. There’s an element of it that is very personal. When we founded OLLAS we intentionally created something that would have a community base and make the community a part of what we do. We want our work to be not only politically but socially relevant. That’s been the basis for the outreach projects we’ve undertaken.”
Recent projects include reports on immigration and Latino voter mobilization.
- A huge leap forward for Cuban-American community (miamiherald.com)
- Economists Question Cuba’s Commitment to Privatizing Businesses (nytimes.com)
- Hundreds Attend OLLAS Conference Cumbre to Give and Get Diverse Perspectives on Migration Issues (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- New import fees to hammer Cuba’s small businesses (miamiherald.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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