I wrote the following feature and sidebar exploring some trends about the changing face of Neb. and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater. Slowly but surely the state and some of its institutions are becoming more diverse. Some of the changes can be readily seen already, others not so much, but in a few decades they will be more obvious. It’s a healthy thing that’s happening, though diversity is still taking far too long to be fully felt and lived and embraced in all quarters, but that’s for another story.
Nebraska’s Changing Face
©by Leo Adam Biga
Nebraska’s “Plain Jane” sameness has long extended to its racial makeup. Diversity hasn’t held much truck here. Even when the foreign-born population was at its peak in the state’s first half century, the newcomers were predominantly of European ancestry.
An African-American migration from the Deep South to Omaha in the early 1900s established the city’s black base. Until a new immigration wave in the 1990s brought an influx of Africans and Latinos-Hispanics to greater Neb., the composite face of this Great Plains state was decidedly monotone.
The perception of Flyover Country as a bastion of white farmers has never been completely accurate. The state’s two largest metropolitan areas, for example, have always boasted some heterogeneity. Urban areas like Omaha and urban institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Omaha express more racial-ethnic diversity because of longstanding minority settlement patterns and the university drawing heavily from the metro.
But it is true Neb.’s minority population has always been among the nation’s smallest, which only supported the stereotype.
Finally, though, its minority numbers are going up and its diversity broadening.
Still, if Nebraskans posed for a group portrait as recently as 1980 more than 9 of every 10 would have beeb white. Only 6 percent identified as African-Americans, Latino-Hispanics, Native Americans or Asians.
The lack of diversity extended virtually everywhere. The largest minority group then, blacks, was highly concentrated in Omaha. Despite slow, steady gains blacks still account for only 13 percent of the city’s population and 4 percent of the state’s population.
But as recently announced by UNO researchers, Neb. is changing and with it the face of the state. A group picture taken today would reveal a noticeable difference compared to a quarter century ago, with whites now accounting for 8 of every 10 residents. Indeed, the state’s minority population has more than doubled the past four decades, with by far the largest increase among Latinos-Hispanics, who now comprise the largest minority segment. Latinos-Hispanics are on a linear growth trajectory. They tend to be young and their women of childbearing age.
Minority growth has been even greater in select communities, such as Lexington, where meat processing attracted newcomers.
Celebrated native son filmmaker Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” – set and shot primarily in the northeast part of the state – accurately portrays a slice of Neb.’s past and present through a large ensemble of characters, all of whom but two are white. The exceptions are both Hispanic. The Oscar-winning writer-director may next make a partly Spanish-language feature about the impact of the immigrant population on Neb.’s towns and cities.
New UNO Center for Public Affairs Research projections posit that by 2050 the state’s portrait will dramatically change as a result of major demographic trends well under way. Within four decades minorities will account for about 40 percent of the entire population. Nearly a quarter of the projected 2050 population of 2.2 million, or some 500,000, will be Latino-Hispanic.
It’s a sea change for a state whose diversity was traditionally confined to a few enclaves of color. Immigration, migration and natural causes are driving this new minority surge.
Everything is relative though. So while CPAR Research Coordinator David Drzod says, “Our diversity will increase,” he adds, “Neb. is one of the less diverse places countrywide and other states are going to become more diverse as well.”
Still, the snapshot of Neb. is changing due to real demographic shifts with significant longterm consequences. Just as the majority white base is holding static or declining, non-whites are proliferating. The results can be seen in the ever more diverse profiles of some communities, neighborhoods, schools and other settings.
Thus, for the first time in Neb. diversity is becoming more lived reality than aspirational goal.
Economic conditions were the main driver for the sharp rise in Latinos-Hispanics migrating here. Plentiful jobs, a low cost of living, coupled with aggressive industry recruitment, lured people to move here from places with comparatively weak economies, high cost of living and job shortages. Neb. grew its Latino-Hispanic base from points of origin in California, Texas. Mexico, Central America and South America, The state also saw its African and Asian populations increase as refugees from Sudan and Bhutan, for example, resettled here.
Drozd says, “People are not coming as directly for new jobs like in the ’90s when the meat processors were expanding and recruiting. We expect to see some regional migration that Neb. has typically seen from smaller locations to more urban locations that tend to have a diverse pool of job opportunities within various industries.”
While migration has slowed from its peak waves it’s expected to continue in fits and starts. Migration, researchers agree is “a wildcard” that can’t be accurately forecast, but Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Research Associate Lissette Aliaga Linares notes an uptick in Latinos-Hispanics from Arizona, which OLLAS Director Lourdes Gouvia attributes to that state’s anti-immigrant policies.
Drozd says Neb.’s minority experience is consistent with some surrounding states and inconsistent with others.
“We are typical of the Great Plains in that we tend to suffer from outmigration especially of young college-aged whites, which is counteracted by in-migration and increase in the minority population groups. On the other hand Neb. is unique in that we are growing faster in some of our metropolitan areas and not holding our population as well as some of the more rural areas.”
The emergence of more minorities is perhaps most visible in urban inner city public schools, where student enrollment naturally reflects the heavily minority communities these schools serve. Minority enrollment in the Omaha Public Schools stands at 68 percent.
“The diversity of UNO will continue to grow and one only has to look at the demographics in the metro area to understand that traditional middle school and high school students will increasingly be students of color,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed.
Some outstate school districts are now majority Latino-Hispanic.
The impact of diversity in this small population state that suffers from brain drain cannot be overstated.
“There’s a large part of Neb. that would be having population decline if it were not for minority growth,” says Drozd. “There’s all sorts of implications with respect to aging, the workforce, health care, education. From a gerontology standpoint you have the possibility of seeing a younger, more diverse working-age population caring for a predominantly white non-Hispanic aging population and will there be any issues associated there. With programs like Social Security you’re going to be relying more and more on an immigrant population to support payments for predominantly white people collecting from the program. So there are potentials for tension there and of course political ramifications and all sorts of factors.”
Gouveia, a sociology professor, reminds that “Latinos are going to imitate some trends of the larger population the more urban and educated they become,” adding. “The more women are able to work outside the home fertility rates will drop and the population will begin to age. It’s the life cycle.”
As minorities grow they become a larger sector of the tax and voting base that elected officials and prospective candidates must recognize.
Drozd says communities must adapt, whether offering English-as-a-Second Language programs or multicultural competency classes, in order to best serve minorities and their particular needs.
As more minorities graduate high school educators and employers hope that many of these college-bound grads and working-age young adults will attend school and find jobs in-state.
“As people have become upwardly mobile in Neb.’s past that has led to outmigration out of the state,” says Drozd. “It’s going to be a very policy relevant factor because people born in the early ’90s are now hitting age 18. Even if they choose a Neb. college where are they going to go to work? Will there be jobs and associated positions for them here in the state or will they go out of state?”
Just as preparing students to succeed in school is critical, so is preparing a workforce for today’s service and skilled jobs.
“Let’s make no mistake about this, without immigration Nebraskans may have to rethink how they are going to have a viable economy that produces not only jobs but payrolls that produce taxes from which an aging population will benefit greatly,” says Gouveia. “Without this population there won’t be services this Boomer population and this aspiring mini-global city of Omaha depends on. These are increasingly service economies and that means it’s very important for the economy to increasingly be based on higher pay jobs likely to grow, such as information technology or biotechnology.
“That also means educational institutions need to be able to truly know how to train this generation of children of immigrants. The children may not be immigrants themselves but a large number have immigrant parents who endured very poor, disadvantageous conditions that tend to disadvantage the educational achievement of their children. We have to have multidimensional. multidisciplinary perspectives to understand who this population is. And that goes to our research also.”
She believes minorities will succeed to the extent opportunities allow.
“We haven’t addressed the serious barriers to education that would guarantee that new face of America and of Neb. becomes a face with equal opportunities to participate in the prosperity all of us will want to share.” She says if barriers to upward mobility aren’t removed “it may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that’s been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population were it not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and future.”
Daniel J. Shipp, UNO associate vice chancellor for student affairs, says schools must find ways to support minority students.
“When combined with the typical struggles of new college students the demographics of race-ethnicity will create even more difficult challenges in both access to and success in college. Not only must we continue to open our doors wider to traditionally under-served student populations but once on campus it is critical for all of us to see their success as a top institutional and community priority.”
UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Pelema Morrice urges educators and employers to appreciate diversity’s many forms.
“We always focus on racial-ethnic diversity but I think intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, all those different forms of diversity, really add a lot of value to everyone’s experience. There’s plenty of evidence that the more diverse environment we’re in the more we all have opportunities to learn from each other.
“So I think it’s incredibly important for an institution to be a welcoming and diverse environment where folks can learn from each other at a higher level. I think that adds to the educational experience and it provides students with really good training to go out and be productive citizens and to be successful in the workplace.”
Diversity is also the way of this flatter, interconnected world.
Reed from UNO’s Academic and Student Affairs office, says “Our students will grow up in a much more global environment requiring exposure to difference cultures and different experiences.”
Where diversity often must be programmed, Gouveia is heartened by students’ inherent embrace of it. “About this new Neb. mosaic, one thing I’m particularly hopeful about is the younger generation. I love our new students. From any background they are so much more prepared and so much more ahead of where we are as professors or department chairs or deans in terms of knowing how to do diversity. We are the ones who are often behind them.”
As Neb. becomes more multi-hued, UNO’s Morrice says representative stakeholders should discuss what diversity holds for the state.
“With these new demographics coming forward it means our student base will obviously be more diverse than it is now and that means the outcomes will be more diverse and so we’ll see more diverse workplaces and communities within the state. We’re just a piece of that puzzle but I think it’s a good collective conversation for everyone to have as the state continues to grow and it becomes clear that there will be different faces at the table.”
UNO’s Changing Face
©by Leo Adam Biga
The same demographic trends on pace to make the United States a minority majority population by 2050 and making Neb. a more racially-ethnically diverse place in the second decade of the new millennium, are increasingly being expressed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Roughly a quarter of UNO’s 2013-2014 freshman class is minority and just under 20 percent of the school’s entire undergraduate enrollment is minority. Both are record marks for the school. In 2000, for example, UNO’s minority enrollment stood at 9 percent. The minority numbers are even greater among graduate students.
The 11 percent rise in UNO minority enrollment from 2000 until now reflects in large measure the Latino-Hispanic boom that happened in-state from 1980 to 2010, when that segment increased from about 37,000 to 167,000. The Latino-Hispanic population is expected to add another 370,000 residents by 2050, according to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.
As a public institution with a state-wide reach, UNO’s a model for the changing face of Neb. Drawing principally from the Omaha metropolitan area, which as the state’s largest urban center has always been Neb.’s most racially-ethnically diverse spot, UNO is, as expected, one of the most diverse campuses in the University of Nebraska system.
At the University of Nebraska-Kearney minority undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled since 1995. Today, nearly a quarter of its students are non-white or non-resident alien. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reports the most diverse student body in its history. UNL’s 2,328 minority undergrads are about 12 percent of the undergraduate total, a 9 percent increase just from last year. Just as at UNO, the largest minority gains at each school are in the Latino-Hispanic and international students categories,
As minorities comprise a growing segment of the state’s mainstream and of its public schools’ enrollment, institutions are tasked with incorporating these populations and responding to their needs.
“The good news for Omaha is that UNO has a proud tradition of supporting minority students through various educational equity and learning community investments such as Goodrich, Project Achieve and the newer Thompson Learning Community,” says UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Daniel J. Shipp. “These programs provide student participants with a network of caring and concerned faculty, staff and peer mentors that help students to succeed and thrive in college. Moving forward, I expect we will continue to build on our national reputation for attracting and supporting the growing numbers of minority students and their families in the Omaha area and beyond.”
“Minority students are an important population but they are only one of an increasing mosaic of diversity at UNO, whether they are military, first generation, students of color or adult learners or transfer students,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed. “We are working every day to ensure that these students feel welcome at UNO and have the type of support services and environment that will make them want to be want to be here and to be successful. We do this for all our special populations of students. We have programs and learning communities as well as staff specifically directed at helping ease their transition to UNO and success in their academic goals.”
Reed says hiring faculty and staff who reflect the changing face of UNO “is a top priority,” adding, “We have made important strides in diversifying our staff but we lag behind where we want to be here and also with recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty. We are working on reviewing existing policies and procedures and looking at incentives and support efforts to increase the diversity of faculty and staff to reflect the changing demographics of our student body.”
There’s wide agreement that diversity is a net sum experience for all involved.
“The benefits are substantial,” Reed says. “The workplace is becoming increasingly diverse and employers need and want an increasingly diverse group of employees. We cannot underestimate the shift occurring here. We need to provide a strong educational workforce for employers and UNO must be positioned to do that effectively.”
Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Director and Sociology Professor Lourdes Gouveia agrees that educators at UNO and elsewhere must increasingly consider diversity and its impact.
“We have to educate our professionals and student populations in ways that allow them to be skilled about global issues and diversity and to have multicultural competencies as the world is very connected,” she says. “But also we need to address structural barriers that may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that has been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population if not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and a future.”
Street festivals are as emblematic of America as anything and my hometown of Omaha has it’s share of them. A newer one, the Vinton Street Creativity Festival, is an urban pastiche that’s part carnival, part fair, part block party that takes its name and cue from the funky diagonal street where an eclectic assemblage of venues comprise Vinton’s historical business district. This story appeared in advance of the recently held 2013 fest.
Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival Celebrates a Diagonal Cultural Scene
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
The resurgence of both the Vinton Street Commercial Historical District and the greater Deer Park Neighborhood it resides in is impetus for the second annual Vinton Street Creativity Festival.
The 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 18 event is a free celebration of youth and community organized by the Deer Park Neighborhood Association, Habitat for Humanity and the City of Omaha. Vinton Street merchants are helping sponsor it.
The festival, whose hub is 18th and Vinton, will include live music, a street art throwdown, extreme skateboarding, breakdance performances, children’s activities, arts and crafts displays, walking tours and a Victory Boxing Club demonstration. Food can be purchased from the district’s many eateries.
The Hector Anchondo Blues Band will headline the on-stage band lineup, which also includes Pancho & the Contraband and Midwest Dilemma. Mariachi Zapata and Ballet Folklorico Xiotal will perform traditional music and dance, respectively.
The Omaha Creative Institute will present Elmo Diaz in a blacksmithing demo, Tom Kerr drawing caricatures and a watercolor station for kids to paint.
Linda Garcia will teach the Mexican paper cutting craft, appeal picado banderas, in creating miniature decorative flags.
Among a few dozen commercial historical districts in the nation, the Vinton strip is singular for its diagonal layout. The narrow, meandering road, with low-slung, century-old buildings set close to the street, follows a ridge line that may have been a trail or country road before the area’s late 19th century development.
Noted photographer Larry Ferguson, who’s long maintained a studio and living space in the Daniel J. Jourdan Building at 1701 Vinton, says as a result of the street’s serpentine shape “you have a lot of different vistas as you move along and through those curves – it’s like a piece of sculpture that way.”
Festivalgoers will come upon a commercially thriving district whose 14 historically significant buildings have been largely untampered with and house a diverse mix of service-based businesses. Many small business owners there are Hispanic. Their enterprises include bakeries, restaurants, a meat market and clothing stores.
The area is far livelier then when Ferguson moved there in 1987. “It was a derelict part of town. It was really bad,” he recalls. “Nothing but vacant storefronts and six bars. Very little street and pedestrian traffic.” He says as the South 24th business district filled “it was a natural progression for the Latino community to move up into this area to rebuild. That led to a big influx of property changes and people changes. To the point now we have constant traffic on the street during the day. A lot of new businesses have come on board that are making Vinton happen. The new businesses are just hopping.”
One of the biggest changes is the influx of families with young children. Deer Park Neighborhood Association president Oscar Duran says, “There are hundreds of young kids in our neighborhood.” In his work as a Neighborhood Revitalization Specialist with Habitat for Humanity Duran’s enlisted youth as volunteers and as participants in urban art competitions and mural projects.
“I saw we had a local asset of urban artists within the neighborhood, That started us asking ourselves what other ways could we outreach to our youth in the South Omaha area. How can we bring together a mash of different counter cultures and communities that celebrate youth being active, involved and a part of something?
“So we invited some of the urban artists and break-dancers we’re familiar with as well as the nonprofits that do outreach-mentorship to cross pollinate with each other and celebrate what each of them is good at.”
Duran says the resulting youth and community-centered event is an attempt “to separate us from other neighborhood festivals because Deer Park itself is a very unique neighborhood. It’s a collection of smaller neighborhoods. It’s a melting pot. You go down Vinton Street and you have an internationally known photographer (Ferguson) who’s been there since the ’80s right next to a carniceria (meat market) who’s been there for ten and right across the street you have a pasterleria (bakery). Then there’s all the restaurants, the boutiques, the Capitol Bindery, Gallery 72.
“I think it’s really cool. It’s something that’s very organic to our area.”
New additions to the melting pot are The Apollon, a multi-genre arts event-dining space having its grand opening during the fest, and The Pearly Owl curio shop.
Apollon co-founder Ryan Tewell says the district is becoming known as a “friendly up-and-coming arts and dining destination without all the traffic and congestion and higher prices that come with it.”
Grants are assisting some owners with sprucing up the facades of their buildings. Duran says improvements to the surrounding area include the recent razing of condemned homes, the rehab of others and the construction of new residences.
“That revitalization brings new people, higher property values,” Ferguson says. “I’ve got 26 years here of watching this neighborhood transform, which has always been my dream. I’ve been trying to champion this street for a long time. It’s very exciting to see it happen.”
Ferguson and Duran view the festival as a showcase for what the area offers.
“There’s a really good core of people here,” Duran says. “A very strong sense of work ethic and community was already here and it’s not going to go away. There’s really an environment fostered here that people want to help each other.”
“Vinton’s becoming more unified,” says Ferguson. “It’s a real celebration of it. We’re totally jazzed and excited.”
- Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
After Decades in New York City Omaha Native Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato Proves You Can Come Home Again
Jazz artist Paul Serrato is one of those cool cats who left his native Omaha to do his thing in the big city. He carved out a nice career in New York as a pianist, arranger and composer. He has serious chops and he’s well respected in the jazz world for his talents. Now, decades after leaving here, he’s come back to his hometown something of a jazz legend to aficianados, though he’s largely unknown to the general public. He’s one of those classic cases of being unappreciated in his own backyard. That’s partly due to the fact that jazz is off most people’s radar. Then there’s the reality that he was not in Omaha when he did make a name for himself in the Big Apple. But he’s come home to stay and he’s eager to share his work with Omaha audiences. My guess is he will get the recognition he deserves here before too long.
After Decades in New York City Omaha Native Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato Proves You Can Come Home Again
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in El Perico
Jazz pianist-arranger-composer Paul Serrato left his native Omaha more than 50 years ago to pursue a theater and music career in New York City. He found considerable success there. He led headlilne and backup bands, he soloed and did sideman work at top clubs. He composed original music for hit underground, off-Broadway plays. He recorded and released several well-reviewed CDs on his own Graffiti Productions label.
He would return to visit family and friends. In 2011 he came back here to stay. He performs around town, including a regular gig at The Addicted Cup in the Old Market. He’s preparing a new CD highlighting some never released original music.
Why move here after so many years away?
“Well, it was a push-pull thing,” he says. His mother, who had remained in town, died and rather than give up “the family compound in South Omaha” he decided to move in. It beat the Big Apple’s high cost of living.
Omaha is where it all began for Serrato. He grew up the only child of a single mother. He never really knew his father, who left for Calif. It’s only in the last year Serrato discovered half-siblings on the west coast. “We’ve really bonded,” he says of his new found family.
Times were tough for Serrato and his mom. She traveled wherever she could find factory work.
“I went to school in Michigan, Texas, Tennessee,” says Serrato.
His love of the piano began as a young boy. An aunt in Omaha played a big upright he couldn’t resist. He started lessons at age 9 and quickly showed promise and passion.
“I really found an obsession.”
He won local music contests and was a featured soloist in school concerts. He played mostly classics until happening upon jazz.
“I used to hear it on the radio and I was very like blown away by the great jazz pianists. I’d thought I wanted to be a concert pianist until I started hearing recordings by Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.”
By high school he was living in Omaha again. Soon after graduating Creighton Prep in the late 1950s he left for Boston University to study theater arts. Then New York beckoned.
“It was a magnet, it was a pull, it was an exciting lure,” he says. “What I did when I arrived was I saturated myself in the club scene.”
He was a regular at the landmark Birdland. He also took composition studies. His studies continued. His resulting music expresses the energy and edge of the bustling city. He calls his sound urban jazz – not by the rules.
“You’re a product of your culture, whatever it is,” he says.
He acknowledges a strong Latin influence in his work. Conga player Candido Camero was “a great inspiration,” he says.
“Candido made a record called Mambo Moves with one of my favorite pianists Erroll Garner. It has such great duets they play. I’ve always loved that record and I’ve tried to incorporate some of those ideas into my own music.”
Serrato’s worked with several conga players over the years. He recently found a new one – “He’s got the licks, man” – with whom he hopes to perform and record.
He identifies strongly with his Mexican heritage. He didn’t grow up speaking much Spanish but he fell in love with the language and became an English-as-Second Language teacher for Spanish-speakers.
“I’ve done a lot of traveling in Spanish-speaking countries. I spent lot of time in Spain, where I used to follow bullfights. That was a whole passion of mine. I used to be a really great aficionado. I got my master’s degree in urban education ESL and my last few years in New York I taught adult education in Washington Heights to mostly Dominicans. I taught bilingually.”
His early years in New York he supported himself working odd jobs, including tending bar. While managing a Greenwich Village bookstore he met artists from the underground scene – poets, playwrights, painters, singers.
“That’s a great thing about New York, where you just collide with people. In that New York downtown underground culture nobody was dictating you to write it this way or that way, so I was writing jazz for singers to perform in plays. I had the field to myself because nobody else was doing that. Everybody was doing like rock songs and the Velvet Underground, and I loved the Velvet Underground but that wasn’t what I was doing. I was a novelty.
“I jumped into it and had some wonderful collaborations with (Andy) Warhol superstars, playing for them, accompanying then, getting acts together. I did stuff with jazz basses, walking basses, trumpet solos, all this stuff, and they loved it.”
Serrato made tours of London in the 1970s. More recently he’s performed concerts in Japan. His work’s been featured in television documentaries, included An American Family, and in the HBO dramatic movie, Cinema Verite.
He says New York is “where I’ve done my most memorable creative work and I’m hoping I can transfer some of that to Omaha, and I’m having some gratifying success. I’m meeting some really good musicians.
He looks to add to a personal recording catalog that includes the albums AlterNations, Pianomania, Excursions, Origami and Nexus.
His next Addicted Cup gig is June 29 from 4 to 6 p.m.
Find more about the musician at http://www.paulserrato.com.
- Potash Twins Making Waves in Jazz: Teen Brothers Count Jazz Greats as Mentors (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Laura Love: Omaha’s High Yaller Gal Comes Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- You: Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol group settle suit over banana image (latimes.com)
- Jazz Pianist And Pedagogue Mulgrew Miller Dies (wnyc.org)
- Jazz Fest 2013: Interview With Aaron Neville (Review) (popmatters.com)
The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is always looking for new ways to connect with audiences and in the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I share the latest attempt to bring theater to where people live. The conference’s PlayFest is presenting Neighborhood Tapestries in two well-defined inner city communities that don’t always have the kind of access to theater that other communities do. The idea of these tapestries is for people of these communities to share various aspects of their neighborhood’s art, music, culture, and history.
Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The play’s still the thing with the Great Plains Theatre Conference but organizers are making a concerted effort to expand theater’s definition in order to connect more people to it.
The May 26-29 PlayFest is the Metropolitan Community College conference’s answer to making theater more accessible. That means staging works at nontraditional sites, including one along the riverfront, and, new this year, holding Neighborhood Tapestries in the inner city.
The inaugural tapestries, a cross-between a chautauqua, a street arts event, a storytelling festival, a salon and a variety show, will happen outdoor on separate dates in North and South Omaha. Each neighborhood’s art, culture and history will be celebrated through a loose program of music, poetry, stories, dance and other creative expressions. The performers will include professionals and amateurs.
Union for Contemporary Art
Chapman, an actress and stage director, is the Omaha Community Playhouse education director and a Metropolitan Community College theater instructor. She’s worked with a team to produce the event.
“We’re creating a thread,” she says. “We are thinking of our show as a block. So who are these people on the block? Borrowing from Sesame Street. who are the people in your neighborhood? We want to have this musical and movement throughline with these transitional words and the sharing of these stories as people get up and talk about community and food, growing up on the North Side, memories of their mothers and just all these different people you might encounter on a street in North Omaha.
“That thread allows us to plug in people as we get them, as they see fit. Who knows what could happen with the evening. We’ve got that flexibility. It’s not a rigid the-curtain-opens and this-series-of-events needs to happen for the show to make sense and come to some conclusion. Instead it’s this nice woven piece that says here are some things that happened, here are some reflections, here is some music , here’s a body in space moving. Hopefully at the end you’re like, Oh, let’s get around this circle and have a conversation.”
She says GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler gave her a “very open” script to take the event wherever she wanted.
“I’m excited about this project because it allows us to explore the concept that we’re all performers with this urge to tell a story or to share this happening or to recount this thing that happened to us. But where’s the platform for that? When do we get together and do it? What we’re doing is throwing some artists and musicians and actors in the mix. It’s engaging us as theater practitioners to not be so static in our art form and it engages the community to understand that theater isn’t this other thing that happens on the other side of the city.”
Featured storytellers include Nancy Williams, Felicia Webster, Peggy Jones and Dominque Morgan, all of whom will riff and reflect on indelible characters and places from North O’s past and present.
Jazz-blues guitarist George Walker will lay down some smooth licks.
Member youth from the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club will present an art project they created. Works by Union for Contemporary Art fellows will be displayed.
Chapman sees possibilities for future North O programs like Tapestries that celebrate its essence. She says such programs are invitations for the public to experience art and own it through their own stories.
“Then you start having those conversations and then you realize the world is a lot smaller than you think it is,” she says. “It just starts to close the gap. So yeah I think there’s a real possibility for it to grow and create these little pockets of reminders that we’re all performers and we all need our platforms for creation.”
The May 29 South Omaha tapestry will take a similar approach in fleshing out the character and personalities of that part of town. The site is Omaha South High’s Collins Stadium, 22nd Ave. and M Street. Director Scott Working, the theater program coordinator at MCC, says he’s put together an event with “a little music, a little storytelling, a little poetry to let people know some of the stories and some of the history of the neighborhood.”
He says he got a big assist from Marina Rosado in finding Latino participants. Rosado, a graphic designer, community television host and leader of her own theater troupe, La Puerta, will also emcee the program. She led Working to retired corporate executive David Catalan, now a published poet. Catalan’s slated to read from three poems written as a homage to his parents.
Rosado also referred Working to artist and storyteller Linda Garcia.
“I will be doing a storytelling segment based on my Abuelita (Grandmother) Stories,” says Garcia. “The story I am telling is an actual story of my abuelita, Refugio ‘Cuca’ Hembertt, and my exposure to her insatiable reading habits. That led to my discovery and connection with languages and the power of words.*
Even Louie M’s Burger Lust owner Louie Marcuzzo has been marshaled to tell South O tales.
Also on tap are performances by the South High School Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry team, Ballet Folklorico Xitol, the Dave Salmons polka duo and a youth mariachi band. Working also plans to bring alive an El Museo Latino exhibit of Latinos in Omaha. Individuals will read aloud in English the subects’ bios as a video of the subjects reading their own stories in Spanish plays. He says his inspiration for the evening’s revolving format is the Encyclopedia Shows that local artists and poets put on.
“It’s a combination of like standup and poetry and music and theater,” Working says. “It’s relaxed, it’s fun. Plus, I don’t think I could get David Catalan and Louie Marcuzzo to come to six rehearsals to get it right. I trust them.”
Rosado embraces the format.
“I believe in the power of art. Music, dance, literature, theater and all cultural expressions can change a person’s life. That’s why I am so excited about the event. Scott has a genuine interest in showcasing the best of our community. Tapices is the word in Spanish for tapestries and I can hardly wait to see the unique piece of art that will be made at the end of this month.”
Catalan feels much the same, saying, “Stories told as a performing art leave lasting impressions on audiences and motivate many to learn more about heritage and ancestry.” He applauds Metro for its outreach to inner city Omaha’s “rich cultural history in the transitional ethnic populations.”
Lawler says Tapestries enables the conference “to be more rooted in the community,” particularly underserved communities. “I wanted to go further into involving the community and being something relevant for the community. That’s why I want to generate these stories from the community. It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s working but what are we doing that’s not working very well’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theater is just priced out of society’s ability to go. That doesn’t work.”
Just as Chapman feels Tapestries can continue to mine North O’s rich subject matter, Working feels the same about South O. He adds that other neighborhoods, from Benson to Bellevue, could be mined as well.
Both the North O and South O events kick off with food, art displays and music at 6:30 p.m. Storytelling begins at 7:30.
For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit http://www.mccneb,edu/theatreconference.
- Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Features Dynamic Speakers for Networking, Motivational, Recognition Events
Each year the Who’s-Who of Latino Omaha gather for the Heartland Latino Leadership Conference and as I’ve done the last few years I wrote an advance piece about the event and some of its keynote speakers, and my story previewing the 2012 conference and select presenters follows.
Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Features Dynamic Speakers for Networking, Motivational, Recognition Events
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Motivational speakers will draw on personal stories of achieving high educational and professional goals in the face of hardships at the annual Heartland Latino Leadership Conference & Expo. Now in its 13th year, the November 8-9 event will focus on the themes of authentic leadership and community success in talks by local and national presenters.
Thursday Career Expo, 1-4 p.m.
CoolThink Youth Rally, 4-5:30
Welcome Reception, 5:30-8:30
Friday Registration and exhibitor booths open, 7:30 a.m.
Scholarship Luncheon, 11:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. (Sixteen local students will receive college scholarships)
Latino Leadership Gala Awards Reception, 5:30-6:30
Latino Leadership Gala Awards Dinner, 6:30 to 8:30 (Community service awards will be presented)
Keynote speakers and personal, community and corporate development workshops are scheduled throughout the day on Friday.
All of it takes place at the Omaha Hilton, 1001 Cass Street.
Conference chair Julissa Lara, a Mutual of Omaha distribution compensation specialist, says she’s eager to hear speakers address topics close to her heart.
“An authentic leader to me is talking the talk and walking the walk. It’s doing (things) to benefit not only yourself but others and that will grow your community.”
About the “great” lineup of presenters, she says, “You may not remember their names but you’ll remember the content of what they say, I can guarantee you.”
Life change artist Shayla Rivera is the featured speaker at Thursday’s 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Welcome Reception. The Puerto Rico native went from knowing zero English to earning an aerospace engineering degree to working as a NASA astronaut to becoming a motivational speaker and corporate trainer to remaking herself into a successful standup comic.
Leaving everything behind she knew in Puerto Rico for America sent her into a depression. She determined to learn English. She says experiences like these taught her the power of “making a true decision,” adding, “I’ve made a lot of pretty radical changes in other people’s eyes but they seemed logical to me. You have to listen to yourself. It’s easier not to do that. It’s easier to listen to the voice of your parents or of obligation or of what’s ‘realistic.’ That’s ca-ca. You gotta listen to yourself and not just listen but take a step and be kind of bold about it.”
“The people who are really following themselves are the trendsetters,” she says. “We’re not taught how to do that and we’re not given permission. You kind of go through life not thinking about what you believe. You kind of march in step. Latinos especially, We’re expected to be all of a certain political inclination and religion and all that stuff. We have to foster individuality and let people be whatever they are.”
As “an awareness expert” Rivera challenges us to uncover our beliefs “because our beliefs determine our lives. The process is painful but learning how to laugh at yourself will keep you sane.”
She says despite all she’s done “I still feel like I have a whole lot more to do.” She’s sure she’ll” reinvent herself again. Each new path, she says, “found me because I was open to it.” In today’s fluid world she says “it’s imperative we embrace change – life and technology demand it. We’re used to asking our children, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and what we need to ask anymore is, ‘What do you want to be first?'”
Friday’s 8:15-10 a.m. session keynoter Joaquin Zihuatanejo went from award-winning classroom teacher to world champion poet. In finding his bliss he’s living proof education can be transformational. He made it out of the east Dallas barrio with the encouragement of his grandfather, who forced him to read aloud to him nightly. At first resisting the ritual, Zihuatanejo says, “I came to find the beauty in what I was reading. I just became enamored with words. It was my salvation “
He says it can be for others, too.
“Reading and writing and education are the great equalizers. If you become good with reading and writing you in turn become a strong student and thus you become good at education and when that happens I don’t care where you come from, it makes you equal to any other student on the planet because you can excel.”
It’s a message he drives home with youth.
“If I can talk young Latinos into empowering themselves through the act of reading and writing, they may not grow up to be a world champion poet but then again they may grow up to be a dentist or a doctor or an accountant or a lawyer. Anything you do you have to be an effective communicator.”
He acknowledges many Latino youths face obstacles that make learning difficult but he adds, if they can just find that book that makes them think, ‘This is me, they’re telling my story…’ For me that book was Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya.”
He says he’s always encouraged young people to chase their dreams but it wasn’t until one of his students challenged him to follow his own advice that Zihuatanejo quit teaching to become a full-time poet. That makes two callings, teaching and poetry, he’s cultivated and he’s committed to inspiring others to find theirs.
HLLC Chair Julissa Lara says as the annual conference has grown over its 13 years so has the number of high caliber keynote speakers. Friday’s Scholarship Luncheon keynoter, Graciela Tiscareno-Sato, is the author of the best-selling book Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them. Tiscareno-Sato will discuss “Grabbing Opportunity in the Green Innovation Economy” through real stories of “creative Latino entrepreneurs” and innovators rarely featured in mainstream media.
“We need to show who we really are and how we’re really contributing economically,” she says. “Something that isn’t known is we start businesses at twice the national average.”
In Omaha she’ll offer case studies of Latinos on the cutting edge of America’s transition to a green economy and share ideas for education-career paths that best prepare Latinos to tap into this new paradigm,
“There’s a lot of different ways to participate and some of them are technical and some of them are not,” she says.
She enjoys inspiring audiences with her tales of Latinnovators. She says two typical reactions her stories elicit are: “Wow, I didn’t know that,” and “Hey, that person’s just like me.” She says the only way these stories get the attention they deserve is if Latinos communicate them.
“Latinos, due to culture and tradition, are told we don’t talk about ourselves. We’re not used to telling our stories and proclaiming from the rooftop and being loud and proud. That’s not what we do. But it’s up to us, we own this responsibility, we own telling our stories and getting them out there.”
Marie Quintana, president-CEO of her own management consultant business, Quintana Group, is a success story in her own right. For her Friday Gala Awards Dinner keynote she’ll discuss strategies for tapping the inner leader in us all. Her talk “Embracing Authentic Leadership: Unleashing Your Strongest Life” draws on her personal and professional empowerment experiences.
“I will share some stories from my life that reflect times when I had to really reach deep down to ensure I was being authentic,” she says. “I think it’s important to be an authentic leader but it’s also important to be first of all an authentic person and to do that you have to start with a strong awareness of who you are, your roots, your values, your integrity.
“I was born in Cuba. I came to this country in the ’60s. In trying to navigate through these two worlds I had a difficult assimilation. So I had to be sort of the trailblazer. I think every Latino is always going to have that – where you’re very connected to your roots but then you go to work and maybe it’s not as familiar. I think the balance of that is very important.”
She advises doing self-appraisals.
“I think the first thing a person needs to do is to look at their life as a story. I call these defining moments. There’s been defining moments in every single stage of my life. Something happened at each stage that reminded how important it is to connect to who I am, to where I came from. That has built a foundation for me to take on whatever challenges and opportunities have come in my life. I think our strength comes from these moments.
“That (process) helps you become authentic and more aware of who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing, so your life takes on a much more deeper meaning. Through my journey I’ve become a better person and a more authentic leader because I really call out my Latina heritage. I use the best I’ve been given through my roots and family and who I am and I bring that to my work.”
She says whether you think so or not leadership has something to do with you.
“I think we’re all called to be leaders in one way or another. People who don’t believe they’re leaders don’t believe in themselves. It really starts with you. You have to believe in yourself for other people to see you as a leader. Once you develop your gifts, then you’re ready to operate from your strengths and not your weaknesses. You get courage, you can take risks, you’re much more capable moving your life forward.”
She advocates Latino youth find mentors and sponsors to guide them and she reminds adults they need guidance too.
The public may register for the entire conference or purchase event-only tickets. Visit http://www.heartlandlatino.org for details.
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Community-builders Jose and Linda Garcia Devote Themselves to a Life Promoting Latino Art, Culture, History
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
Jose Francisco Garcia and Linda Garcia are one of those meant-to-be couples you rarely meet in real life. They’ve very different people in some ways and clealry alike in others but what they have at their core is an abiding respect and appreciation for each other.
Call them simpatico.
These retirees are two of the busiest people you’ll ever know. They immerse themselves in community activities that seek to enrich, educate and entertain.
Both bring diverse experiences and gifts to their relationship and to their community-centered work. Jose, 67, has business and organizational acumen from his years as an activist, program developer and corporate officer. He also brings a certain discipline from his stint in the U.S. Army. Linda, 66, is a artist, storyteller, teacher and former children’s librarian, with a fine aesthetic sensibility and keen intuition.
He’s the fly-in-the-ointment agitator. She’s the smooth-everything-over nurturer.
Though he says he’s a loner by nature, he doesn’t mind public displays and isn’t shy about promoting himself or Linda or their work. That’s not the case with her. You won’t find the many awards she’s been honored with displayed in their home.
“I’m not a commodity. I don’t want to be. I have a real hard time tooting my own horn,” she says. “To get people to pull stuff from me is real hard. I don’t like to be in the limelight that much. There for a while I couldn’t even sign my artwork because it’s not really just me, it’s a gift that comes through me. I really feel that.”
The multimedia artist works with lots of recycled materials, including cardboard and paper, to create sculptures, cutouts, toys and dolls.
She says she gets so lost in her work that “time is distorted,” adding, “I could be working on a project thinking it’s only been an hour and it’s been six hours.”
“The real world means nothing to her” in those creative reveries, says Jose, who credits whatever aesthetic awareness he’s gained to her.
Each is knowledgable and passionate about the art, culture and history of their shared Chicano roots. They’ve spent countless hours studying Mexican art, traveling to exhibitions, workshops, conferences. For decades they’ve collected Mexican art objects and materials and shared them with the public.
“We’re Chicanos. What we do is we share art history and culture – that’s what Chicanos do and we’ve lived by that credo,” says Jose.
Their largest scale event to date is Music to My Bones, an exhibition and celebration of Dia de los Muertos or The Day of the Dead that runs October 6 through November 12 at the Bancroft Street Market in South Omaha.
In addition to displaying original artwork by contemporary artists from the metro and Mexico the multimedia event features art presentations, art classes and live music and dance performances.
“We’re showing all those aspects of the Day of the Dead, from the traditional to the modern, and how people in the United States and in other regions, especially artists, have embraced the Day of the Dead,” says Linda. “It’s crossed cultures, it’s crossed religions, it’s crossed ages, it’s crossed regions as an expression of death, of talking about death in a positive way.”
The exhibit is dedicated to the memories of Isabel “Chavela” Gonzales Hernandez and the Barrientos brothers – Vidal, Juan and Panfilo – and their musical contributions to the community. Linda’s designed a large music ofrenda installation in honor of those two families and other Latino artists.
“We want it to be multidimensional for people who honestly want to know the tradition and culture of Dia de los Muertos.” says Jose. “We’ll have everything from ofrendas to presentations to kiosks to musical groups. We want to blanket it as best we can. And we have so much material we can put into action. It’s going to be relevant and traditional and not made up. The art’s going to be primo.
“We have a collection of metal works – candelabras – from Mexico. We have a huge collection of calaveras sugar skulls. Dioramas. So it’s a chance for us to utilize our collection.”
Jose will also be drawing on his huge Spanish music archive “to give body to the work.”
The dozens of artists and musicians participating in the show were “hand-picked” by Linda. “I want to highlight these artists and musicians. I feel like a mom to them,” she says.D
Among the featured artists she’s adopted is Bart Vargas, who’s come to appreciate what she and Jose contribute to artists like himself.
“Personally, I am very pleased to be working with Jose and Linda,” he says. “As a mixed blood artist I have often struggled with having a metaphorical foot in two worlds, never quite feeling a sense of belonging to either. As a child I had very little exposure to half of my origins, often feeling like an immigrant to my own Mexican heritage. I am excited to work with Jose and Linda because the upcoming exhibit is the first time that I get to work within the context of my own cultural heritage. Both Jose and Linda are very generous, knowledgeable and approachable. I have already learned much from them and look forward to working with them again.”
Much as the Garcias collect art, they collect artists, whom they work with over and over again. The exhibits the couple curate flow from their collection, which they began accumulating shortly after marrying in 1977.
“She didn’t become a material collector until I come around,” Jose says of Linda. “She was a spiritual collector. Everything was here,” he says, indicating her head.
Many of their acquisitions come from trips they’ve made to their ancestral homeland. They’ve now amassed private holdings that would be the envy of any museum. Their multi-story Bemis Park neighborhood home, whose oak-finished interior is in the Craftsman style, is filled with art and artifacts from basement to attic.
“We surround ourselves with our collection,” Linda says. “You’ll see we don’t take care of some household things because we spend all our money on art and books.”
Off-site storage units contain the rest.
At one point they did operate the Las Artes Cultural Center in South Omaha as a venue for showing some of their vast Mexican wares. More recently they formed the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands as a kind of extension of their collection. They now serve on the board of the organization, for whom they curate exhibitions and programs.
They often dip into their collection for presentations and workshops. Linda is an artist for the Nebraska Arts Council Artist in Schools and Communities residency program. She just finished a three-month summer residency at the Omaha South Branch Library, where she taught Mexican folk arts. She covered repujado (metal embossing), pinturas de amate (bark painting), nichos (Mexican decorative boxes), papel picado (Mexican paper cutting art), pinata making, printmaking and yarn painting of the indigenous Huichols and wood carving and painting of the indigenous Oaxaca people.
Maria Teresa Gaston, emeritus director of the Center for Service and Justice at Creighton University, has had the pleasure of being taught by Linda.
“One of my favorite experiences with Linda was attending an art workshop she led when she and Jose had Las Artes. She taught us how to make Mexican-styled cut metal ornaments from soda cans. I loved being in her presence and being led to connect with ancient traditions and release my own creative spirit. I have often thought of that Saturday morning and longed for more of that mentoring.
“She has a way of teaching that calls out beauty and belief in all who are with her.”
Gaston’s also enjoyed Garcia’s storytelling talent.
“This past summer I had the opportunity to hear Linda present stories and lead 50 young Latinas in hands-on artwork and personal exploration as a part of the Latina Summer Academy. Linda had the girls in the palm of her hand. They listened so attentively as she presented folk stories of love and beauty.”
Linda also teaches at Granville Villa Retirement Center, the South Omaha Boys and Girls Club, the Joslyn Art Museum and other sites.
Whatever the program or subject or theme, the Garcias likely have a ready archive or reference or example at hand to give the project depth or perspective. If they don’t have what they need themselves, they get it.
“We’ve used our material to design exhibits and as teaching materials. I use it a lot to teach,” says Linda. “Anything we do, whether an exhibit or a talk, we do a lot of research. That’s the reason we have a collection, because we use it.”
Jose says the sizable library they’ve cultivated invariably contains books that “bubble up whenever we have a project.”
Their teaching and research often lead to new collecting interests.
For example, as soon as the couple began teaching about Oaxacan wood carvings, Jose says they had to have them, and so they collected them. “Now we own about 15 Oaxacan wood carving objects. Thats’ the story of our lives.” Thus, the collection ever expands as they add new elements. Their hard cover book collection alone numbers in the thousands.
Linda’s not alone in presenting the material. Jose, a trustee with the Nebraska State Historical Society and a former Douglas County Historical Society board member, also does his share of presenting and teaching. Gaston can attest to his ability to hold an audience.
“I fondly remember a presentation Jose gave on the life of Frida Kahlo (the Mexican painter and wife of Diego Rivera). Jose is a great teacher and his words were accompanied by the power of the images he presented and the beautiful papel picado hanging behind him – works of Linda’s hands.”
Jose has also taken it upon himself to document Omaha Latino life through photographs. He makes a point of showing up and snapping pics, these days mostly with a digital camera, at countless community events. He posts the images to his Picasa web albums on Google-Plus. Sometimes his photos are published in El Perico and other local publications.
Gaston says, “I love seeing Jose around the community at events of all kinds.”
“You can call him a community photographer,” says Linda.
He also searches out documents and photos that illustrate the long, rich history and culture of Latino Omaha. Just one of his discoveries is an original framed poster printed in Spanish promoting a 1935 Cinco de Mayo celebration in Omaha. The event was sponsored by the Sociedad Mutualista Mexicana or Mexican Mutual Aid Society, founded in 1928. He says the society operated a school called Lazaro de Cardenas, where English was taught to Mexican immigrants, and took a census.
What’s important to know, he says, is that “we had neighborhoods that had experiences with our ancestral artistic and historic culture that was relevant to American history but we weren’t being taught it, we never learned it in public school. We learned from our own community. There was a Mexican community.”
He says most of the local Mexican population then was based in South Omaha. The railroads and packinghouses were their main employers.
“The history and contributions of Mexican-Americans to Omaha is such an important part of our story,” says Gaston, “and Jose so reverently, professionally and passionately keeps this history alive for Latinos and non-Latinos. He presents the courage and beauty and also the luchas (battles) and sufferings of La Raza (Spanish-speaking peoples). His leadership and advocacy on behalf of the Latino community have inspired young and old.”
She says the Garcias are nothing less than “community builders,” adding, “Jose and Linda’s incredible dedication to the well-being of the Latino community and the Omaha community deserves great thanks.”
Both Garcias are on the Speakers Bureau for the Nebraska Humanities Council. She’s a storyteller with NHC’s Prime Time Family Reading program at the South Branch Library.
Because of the amount of material in the Garcias’ possession, ranging from sculpture to fabric to paper objects to books, only a fraction can be displayed at any given time. So they bring out small selections to present with their talks and programs, et cetera.
“We don’t have a gallery, so our gallery is the community,” says Jose, and for Music to My Bones their gallery is the Bancroft Street Market.
The fall exhibition, which has been made possible by grant funding, “is a Jose and Linda Garcia production,” he says. “We’ll receive no compensation for our activities. It is all in benefit of the Mexican American Historical Society and to keep this historical objective going.”
These life partners enjoy collaborating on projects.
“Some people say relationships are like rivers and you’re within the same bank but with us it’s more than that. We’re a symbiotic relationship,” he says. “She’s kind of like my Jiminy Cricket. I’m very aggressive, I’m in your face, I’m an attack dog, that’s what I do. And she reels me in.”
Linda admires his tell-it-like-it-is style.
“You may not like what he says but he speaks up and says it in front of you. One thing I really learned from Jose is to speak out and not be this timid girl. I saw the respect people would give him because he would ask for what he wanted.
I’ve learned to ask for what I want.”
She believes they make an effective team. “I think to an extent we balance with each other. I think we do blend well.” And they genuinely enjoy each other’s company.”We like to spend time with each other. We share a lot of things. We have stacks of stuff we’ve written together. Some of it’s real personal.”
Jose, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo. and lost his mother at age 6, lived a kind of vagabond life until he wound up in Omaha and met Linda. He was going through a divorce at the time and he and Linda were just friends at first before becoming serious. He appreciates what he found in her.
“Linda is a very natural creature of her element,. She’s like an angel without being blessed. Everything is full of life and energy and she just can’t wait to tap into it, to share it. Linda has never brought a negative or bad influence into our relationship or into our domestic life or into the way that we raised our family.”
The couple have two grown sons, Che and Carlos Garcia, and two granddaughters, London and Elliette.
One of the key things that brought them together in the first place and that keeps them together after 35 years is their shared Chicanoness. They both got caught up in the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and for them the movement’s aim of empowering and immersing U.S. citizens of Mexican descent in the richness of their shared heritage has never ended. Indeed, the Garcias have devoted their retired years – she’s a former Omaha Public Library children’s librarian and he’s an ex-Union Pacific Railroad officer – to preserving and displaying their heritage.
“The Chicano movement was about identity,” Jose explains. “Yes, we were American and yes we knew English and yes we were third generation and yes we had college degrees but there was a certain disconnect between our life experience as Mexican Americans and George Washington. And then when the Chicano movement started welling up…Rev. Robert Navarro was the seminal guy, the match that lit the Chicano movement here in Omaha. Then all of a sudden nothing made sense, especially when you started hearing about all of this art and culture that had a thousand years of equity – the Mayans, the Aztecs – that was never even approached in our educational experiences. It drove Linda to find out what was going on.”
It drove Jose to find himself.
“I suppose part of the motivation to seek out an identity began way back on the 31st of January, 1966. At my Army induction-swearing in ceremony, I had a copy of my birth certificate I had never seen. On it my name was listed as Jose Francisco Garcia. This was an identity taken away from me by my kindergarten teacher Miss Margaret, when she changed my name to Joe Frank. So I enlisted in the US Army as Jose Francisco Garcia. To this day everyone in K.C. that is family knows me by Joe Frank.”
He served one tour in Vietnam with an engineer battalion operating in and around a support base, Dong Tam, near the city of My Tho. He was apolitical entering the service but he came out highly politicized.
“Emotionally, I changed and became obsessed with ending the war when I returned stateside. To this day I see every environment I am in as a possible threat and am under constant alert for intruders, danger, checking for escape routes, just in case. The Vietnam experience literally buried the joy of being alive and changed it into the anxiety of living.”
Back home he not only joined the antiwar effort he intersected with the burgeoning Chicano Movement. Much of his activism centered around the two colleges he attended in his native Kansas City.
At Penn Valley Metropolitan Community College, he says, “I connected with every radical group on the face of the planet, including the Weathermen, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the Brown Berets, the Black Panthers. Always a loner, I gathered my causes in a singular manner and marched as they say to my own drums. After a stint on the student council, I organized Libra, an alternate bookstore.
“My first action as a student activist was taking over our chancellors’ office because he refused to install a ramp for a veteran that had been wounded in action and for other handicapped people.”
He says at the University of Missouri Kansas City he organized a group called United Mexican American Students and “became involved in West Side actions, blow-outs, marches, demonstrations.”
After getting his bachelor’s degree from UMKC he worked as a program developer with the Kansas Council of Low Income Peoples and Migrant Workers in Garden City, Kansas. He made several trips to D.C. to negotiate proposals for housing and health services.
Before coming to Omaha in 1976 he married and worked a series of jobs. He was employed at Xerox, twice, he became a hypnotist helping people lose weight and reduce stress,, he sold cemetery lots, he sold Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door, he even picked apples one harvest season in Kansas.
“I couldn’t keep a job. Then I came to Omaha and I started the whole thing all over again. I did various things here.”
He eventually got on with the Chicago Northwestern Railroad as a clerk and worked his way up to training personnel. The railroad was purchased by Union Pacific and years later he took his buy out from them.
Among his early Omaha gigs was serving as director of the Chicano Awareness Center. It’s where he met Linda, who was already active in the organization.
Omaha Latino activist Abelardo Hernandez says then as now Jose and Linda were a force to be reckoned with.
“She helped us with our art classes and later joined us in our folkloric dance troupe. She sacrificed a lot of her time to help the young kids understand the arts and traditions of our people. Linda has never let up in our struggle for knowledge.
Jose was able to identify with what we as Chicanos were trying to attain. He has managed to find some great archives that people have entrusted unto him.He has also given a lot of his time towards communicating with city and state officials. He seems to know what buttons to push when working in our behalf.”
When it came to relationships, Linda says she was dead set against marriage and had a whole rationale worked out to justify her attitude.
“I knew clear back as a girl that nobody was going to make me happy. I wasn’t going to give that responsibility to a person, no matter who it was,. Happiness does not come from outside, and I knew that when I was in the third grade. I don’t know what it was. I tell people I was born with old lady eyes. I was an old soul.”
Jose was immediately taken by her beauty and spirit. Linda, on the other hand, says, “I didn’t want a thing to do with him. I was involved with somebody else at the time anyway. Besides, I just didn’t think it was in the cards for me. I was older, kind of set in my ways being single. I wanted to do my own thing.”
She began warming however to this newcomer. He intrigued her.
“It was more curiosity about each other. We found out we could talk. Love and all that didn’t come until much much, much later, and I don’t even think we spoke it then. We just both knew we’d be together. He was one of the few people I could talk to and he really listened and he really looked at you and he had opinions.” We were compatible.”
Poster for the Garcias’ Music to My Bones exhibition and celebration
Just as Jose did, underwent her own identity catharsis.
“When I went to Mexico my senior year at College of St. Mary I came back very disappointed knowing I had taken four years of art history and the only time anything Mexican was mentioned was one period, and it was just four muralists, and they were all male,” she recalls.
Mexico opened a whole new world to her she was eager to explore.
“In the marketplace I’d watch the women grab a piece of material and roll it and before your eyes came out a doll. It was amazing.”
She was enthralled by the handmade art, some of the techniques going back centuries, she came upon. Then there was all the history she discovered.
“It hit me really hard when I came back. First, it was a cultural shock. It was like, ‘Why didn’t anybody ever tell me this?’ And the answer was because it wasn’t up to them to tell you in any way, it’s up to you. But how do you know to look?
“I just became really hungry for getting my hands on this and the Chicano movement. It was like an awakening. That happened to a lot of people. What was awakened was the art, literature, of becoming who you are as a Chicano. I’m not really Mexican, I’m an American, but the combination made me a Chicana, which means I seek knowledge, but it’s not enough to stop there, you must transmit it to other people and share it. In other words, be a teacher.
“It’s not enough to collect and learn and keep it all to ourselves. Thats’ the reason for this place,” she says, referreing the Mexican American Historical Society.
It’s the reason for Music to My Bones.
“It is stuff to people, it’s more than that to us. It’s more than leaving things to people, it’s leaving the story. Without the story it’s absolutely meaningless.
“I made the commitment to show the kids I was teaching that there’s so much more. I just started digging. In the process of learning you have to do the research, you have to go out there and dig.”
There’s also the matter of leaving and passing on a legacy.
“I think everybody wants to do that in a way – to say, ‘I was here, I want to leave a mark.’ Like with the Day of the Dead they say there’s three deaths: the first death is the physical and then when you’re buried and nobody can see you, but the worst death is to be forgotten.
“We want to leave a legacy, OK, but it’s more than that, it’s trying to teach the community. They also have a legacy and they also have a responsibility to carry their family traditions and to know how to take care of photographs and keepsakes.”
About their role as historians, curators and culturalists, they say, “Somebody’s gotta do it.”
Their work is far from done in their estimation. They’d like to form a free research and public library containing their catalogued and digitized collection. They’d like to have a permanent exhibition space.
“We don’t have a million dollars but were Chicanos, we’re going to do what we have to do to get it done.,” says Jose.
And these two will do it together as long as they can.
“We’ve become two old souls together,” he says.
For Music to My Bones details call 402-651-9918 or visit http://www.bancroftstreetmarket.com.
- SOULS OF THE CITY / Dia De Los Muertos (freesolarts.wordpress.com)
- A Conversation on Chicano Art: Artist Jose Lozano and Collector Armando Duron (kcet.org)
- 6 Stunning Day of the Dead Makeup Looks (bellasugar.com)
- Latino Writers Collective supports aspiring KC authors and artists (kansascity.com)
- The Garcia Girls (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When a Building isn’t Just a Building (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Success runs in certain families and most of America loves nothing better than classic immigrant success stories. That’s what the Jesus and Beatriz Garcia family of Omaha represents. Their success starts with the now elderly but still active parents who came from Mexico to make a better life for themselves and their six girls, who were all born in Mexico but primarily raised in America. My story for El Perico focuses on how the sisters have achieved much educationally and professionally, always guided by the hard-working, aspiring example of their parents. Just as the parents are inspirations to the Garcia girls so are the sisters inspirations to each other.
The Garcia Girls
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
When Jesus and Beatriz Garcia left Mexico for America decades ago their fervent wish was to give their family a better life. In that, there’s no doubt they succeeded. The couple captured the American Dream by working hard, owning their own home, becoming fixtures at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and raising six girls.
The Garcias have seen their daughters, all born in Mexico, grow into accomplished women with families and careers of their own. The Garcia Girls carry on their parents’ tradition of serving others. At the 2011 Latino Heritage Awards the eldest, Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia, was honored for her work as El Museo Latino founder and executive director. Baby sister Maria Vazquez, associate vice president of student affairs at Metropolitan Community College, was named Latina of the Year.
“I’m amazed at Maggie’s and Maria’s accomplishments, and at all my other sisters.
They’re all working hard and continuing their education, and I’m doing the same thing,” says Silvia Wells, El Museo Latino managing director.
The sisters have all attended college as nontraditional students. The only one without a degree, Lori Ramirez, is working on it. Some have multiple degrees. Each has a chosen profession. It all stems from strong parental guidance. Maggie recalls, “My father sat me down and said, ‘My responsibility is to provide for you what you need. Your responsibility is to do the best you can.’ He never said you have to do this or that, he just said, you have to do the best you can. The demands were what each one of us placed on ourselves.”
Jesus and Beatriz Garcia
Education was always stressed. “They put all six of us through Catholic school. They both worked. My dad sometimes had two and three jobs,” says Maggie.
Jesus trained in fine woodworking and construction in Mexico and his expert craftsman’s skills made him employable here. He repaired furniture for Nebraska Furniture Mart. Later, he opened his own shop, Jesse Garcia‘s Repair, at 13th and Vinton Streets in South Omaha, where the Garcias are an old-line Latino family.
He also built custom display cabinets for daughter Maggie’s museum. He closed his shop last year but still keeps his hands busy for select customers.
Beatriz, who learned seamstress skills in Mexico, labored 30 years at Pendleton Woolen Mills. She started as a sewer and retired as a supervisor. A talented cook, she makes her famous enchiladas and burritos for museum and church fundraisers. She marvels at what her daughters have made of themselves.
“I’m so proud of all my girls.”
In turn, the Garcia Girls admire their parents. Beatriz “Betty” Garcia Gonzalez, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health professional with two degrees, is struck by their “humility and determination.” She and her sisters appreciate the effort their folks made taking them to Mexico every summer for two-week immersions in family, heritage and culture. They value their devotion to church and their legendary work ethic. Wells says these values are “deeply rooted” in them all.
“Those pillars of lessons” says Vazquez, shaped the Garcia Girls. That example now shapes four generations of Garcias, “Mom and Dad are still healthy and they’re still very much a part of our lives. They still encourage us,” says Patty Tello, an Educare Center of Omaha family enrichment specialist.. “They worked so hard so that we could have an education. Always in the back of my head was that I had to make them proud of me because of their sacrifice.”
“I’m very happy my parents had the desire for us to complete our education and go further than just high school,” says Wells.
Maria says, “They’re the smartest people I know. They valued education. They always certainly encouraged us to do our best and to work hard and give back, and with that foundation we were able to do anything.”
Indeed, Silvia says her folks made her feel “I’m capable of reaching any goal I wish to attain.” She can count on “always having their support.” And the support of her sisters. “It is nice to always have someone encouraging you and I think we all encourage each other.” “We’re there for sounding boards,” says Maggie.
Tello says the family always pitches in to babysit as needed.
There’s some sisterly prodding, too. “If I’m thinking, This is difficult, there’s always someone there to say, ‘I know you can do it,’ or, ‘I did it, you can do it, too,” says Silvia. Patty was inspired to go back to school after seeing Silvia do it.
“I think we’ve challenged each other,” says Betty.
The striving continues. Silvia is midday through graduate studies at Bellevue University. Patty is studying for her master’s in childhood education at Concordia (Seward, Neb.) University. Vazquez is going after her Ph.D. in educational administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Betty says the family’s left “a legacy.” “And there’s still more to come,” says Patty, adding, “We’re still pushing the envelope and seeing what more can we do.”
“We all try to be a part of the community we live in and make it a better place to live,” says Silvia.
As the oldest, Maggie led the way by embarking on a corporate career, then becoming the first in her family to attend college.
“Maggie was working full time and married when she started at UNO. I remember her taking me when she registered for classes. She wanted to expose me to that environment, to that other world,” says Maria, who went on to earn degrees from Metro and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia, right, with her Latino Heritage Award
Maria Vazquez making her Latina of the Year acceptance speech at Latino Heritage Awards
photos ©2007 – 2010 Barrientos Scholarship Foundation, http://www.barrientosscholarship.org
After Maggie completed her master’s at Syracuse University she was unsure what to do next. “My father told me, ‘Whatever you decide to do you have our support in whatever way we can, but find something that makes you happy and you’re passionate about.’” She fulfilled her dream opening the museum. The whole family’s volunteered there.
As each Garcia Girl’s found success, the whole family’s shared in it. The legacy lives on.