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Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

A hybrid documentary employing dramatic elements explores the fascinatiing story of Loreta Valezquez, a Cuban immigrant who posed as a man to fight and spy for both sides in the American Civil War.  Noted filmmaker Maria Agui Carter will discuss her film Rebel after a 7 p.m. screening at El Museo Latino in Omaha on Sept. 25.  This is my Reader (www.thereader.com) story about what drew Carter to the project and what she’s discoverd and surmised about Loreta, a woman she greatly admires.  The film has been airing on PBS.

NOTE: Filmmaker Maria Agui Carter is pictured in the second photogaph below.

 


 

 

 

Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Award-winning filmmaker Maria Agui Carter has much to say about her new film Rebel, the story of a Latina who posed as a man to fight and spy in the American Civil War. Agui Carter will discuss the film, which recently aired as a PBS special, and its protagonist, Cuban immigrant Loreta Velazquez, following a 7 p.m. screening on September 25 at El Museo Latino, 4701 South 25th Street.

An immigrant herself, Agui Carter is an independent filmmaker based in Mass. and founder of Iguana Films, a film and new media company making Spanish and English language works. She’s a graduate of Harvard University, where she’s been a visiting artist-scholar.

In a director’s statement and answers provided via email, she details what led her to do the 12-years-in-the-making project.

“I’m a history buff, I look for interesting characters, especially women and Latinos, in American history,” she says. “I came across an original copy of Loreta’s 1876 memoir in Widener Library (Harvard).”

Agui Carter found powerful themes in those accounts that speak to her experience as a Latina storyteller, immigrant to the U.S. and feminist.

“I felt uniquely qualified to tell the story. I’m fascinated by the question of citizenship and national identity, having been brought here as a child undocumented and raised ‘underground’ by my mother. I felt growing up I was deeply American, but I did not have the citizenship status.”

Loreta’s story touches on issues of gender, race and self-determination Agui Carter identifies with.

“I identify with Loreta and sympathize with her painful struggle to find acceptance within her community. Loreta presents a Latina’s and a woman’s perspective on a time period and a war we usually think of as exclusively black and white. But this is less a story about the Civil War and more the story of a complex woman who reinvented herself to survive the impossible circumstances in which she found herself. And that reinvention of self is a quintessentially American experience that resonates with so many Americans – that idea we are not what we are born, but what we make of ourselves.”

Agui Carter’s fllm answers and asks questions prompted by the memoir. “My film is a detective story trying to understand the woman, the myth and the politics of how we understand our own past.”

From the time Loreta published her memoir until now, her story’s been marginalized and contested, even called a hoax.

“She was attacked as a liar and a fraud by an unreconstructed Ex-Confederate general. Jubal Early, who read her memoir and thought her story preposterous. He was quite powerful and publicly dismissed her story. Subsequent generations generally followed his lead.”

mariaaguifull

To unravel the mystery, Agui Carter consulted historians, who informed her some 1,000 women disguised as men fought in the Civil War. They confirm Loreta fought under the name Harry T. Buford at First Bull Run and was wounded at Shiloh. At some point Loreta became a spy, first for the Confederacy, then for the Union. She went by many aliases, including Laura Williams and Loretea DeCaulp. Agui Carter’s hybrid documentary uses actors to dramatize certain scenes.

“We don’t know all the exact details of her service, nor that of the other documented women who fought disguised as men because they were hiding their tracks and identities,” she says.

As for why Loreta did what she did, Agui Carter says, “She had just lost her family and as a young girl she had dreamed of being a hero. it’s a complicated and deliciously twisted plot. “

The filmmaker admires what Loreta did in carving out an unexpected, emancipated life and sharing her journey with the world.

“Her book popularized her story of a woman who broke the rules and social boundaries that, post-war, so many were trying to reconstruct. By writing her memoirs, she allowed others to imagine that they, too, might choose their own fates and go against the grain. This was considered dangerous at a time when men were returning from war and expecting the women to go back to their old roles.

“She refused to be bounded by the strictures of her time. She imagined a world for herself and went out and created it, regardless of what people told her she couldn’t do. She made the impossible possible for herself.”

Agui Carter has authored a new play, 14 Freight Trains, about the first American soldier to die in Iraq – an undocumented Latino. It has reverberations with Rebel and her own family’s experience.

“My mother married a Vietnam veteran who applied for citizenship for my mother and myself. War is a terrible, painful, transformative thing and yet people believe in this country enough to put their lives on the line for it, including generation after generation of immigrants. This is a profound experience and I am drawn to these stories of people who would believe in something so much they would risk their lives for it.”

She’s working on turning Loreta’s story into a narrative action feature..

See Rebel free with museum admission. Due to limited space, reservations are advised. Call 402-731-1137.

For more about the film and Loreta’s story, visit http://rebeldocumentary.com.

Nebraska’s Changing Face; UNO’s Changing Face

March 18, 2014 Leave a comment

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.”

‘Bless Me, Ultima': Chicano Identity at Core of Book, Movie, Movement

September 14, 2013 Leave a comment

For a writer, I don’t read as much as I should.   Most of my book reading these days is related to assignments.   I just finished reading the classic novel Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya to inform the following story riffing on themes in the story about what it means to be Chicano.  The 2012 film adaptation of the novel is showing Sept. 16 at Creighton University in Omaha.  After reading the book I very much look forward to the film directed by Carl Franklin.  For my story I sounded out three Omaha Chicanos who adore the book and were active in the Chicano movement and remain community acitivsts to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

Bless Me, Ultima‘: Chicano Identity at Core of Book, Movie, Movement

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

 

Sometimes a work of art so well captures the spirit of a people and time that it becomes an enduring cultural talking point. Such is the case with Rudolfo Anaya‘s 1972 coming-of-age novel Bless Me, Ultima, widely considered a seminal piece of Chicano literature and an influential artifact of the Chicano movement.

Three Omaha Chicanos who are great fans of the book look forward to a Sept. 16 screening of its film adaptation. Written and directed by noted filmmaker Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) Bless Me, Ultima (2012) will show at 7 p.m. at the Hixson-Lied Auditorium in the Harper Center at Creighton University. The screening is free and open to the public. A pre-film social hour starts at 6 p.m.

For attorney Rita Melgares, a native of southwestern Colorado near where the author grew up and the story is set, the book’s depiction of a youth (Antonio) treading the worlds of indigenous tradition and mainstream convention with the guidance of an old woman, Ultima, as his curandero (healer), resonates with her own experience.

“I identified with the duality of the worlds he was living in. The duality of your Latino home bucking up against what you learn when you go away to school. It represented something I knew.”

Community activist Abelardo Hernandez grew up in El Paso, Texas, not far from Anaya’s New Mexican roots,. He says the book’s mystical visions and beliefs are “not so different than the stories our grandmothers used to tell us. At the time I didn’t identify with them as being from the indigenous culture but I suppose they were. People who cure with herbs and chants. They call it a cleansing. It’s a gift. They’re raised with it and they pass it on through generations of the family.”

Kansas City, Mo. native Jose Francisco Garcia says the book made him appreciate “medicine isn’t just MDs but a lot of wisdom and knowledge about herbs, folklore and hundreds of years of tradition.”

 

 

 

 

Hernandez says he most identified with “the family traditions, the respect for elders and the upbringing of kids” portrayed in the 1940s-set story. Like Melgares, he had the experience of straddling two worlds. “We were bi-cultural. We had to learn the American culture but the Mexican culture and traditions were raised with us at home, in church and at festivals, where everything was in Spanish. Because we lived mostly among Mexican people we didn’t learn the American ways until probably high school or even after.”

The book gave Hernandez, Melgares and Garcia a prism to appreciate their culture at a time when they asserted their identity. All were active in the Chicano movement and the book spurred their activism.

“It made me so proud to be a Chicana,” says Melgares. “Rudy Anaya was a man right out of our culture and he wrote about something he knew and it reflected much about what I felt. This was right during the surge of the Chicano movement and we considered it an important book for Chicanos. To me, Chicano is a political word we chose for ourselves in the movement for fairness, for justice, for equality. To me, Chicanismo or the sense of being Chincano, is what that embodies.”

Garcia says, “The number one principle of Chicanismo is to be self-determined and the second thing is to give back. It’s an intention. It’s almost like being converted. I started becoming influenced by the Chicano movement through books like Occupied America and Bless Me, Ultima. It gave me a way of life, it gave me a path to start following during a time when I really didn’t know who the hell I was. We had to search for our identity. We had to go out and almost reinvent not only who we were as Americans but who we were as a culture. The Chicano movement provided that.”

“People do have to have some kind of identity otherwise they get lost,” says Hernandez.

To be Chicano is a state of mind and being for Hernandez.

“People might change but the meaning doesn’t. I think Chicano is an experience you actually live through and that you identify with. It becomes a special feeling. A lot of people have educated themselves and attained nice careers but they still have that feeling of being Chicano because you’re background never goes away, at least it shouldn’t. A lot of people try to forget it, try to put it behind them, but it’s better to always know where you came from.”

In that spirit Hernandez helped form the Chicano Awareness Center, now known as the Latino Center of the Midlands.

“We were trying to get people to be aware of their culture,” he says. “We wanted to bring the language, the culture, the traditions back to the people because a lot of it was being lost. Once people learned English or maybe they never did know Spanish they didn’t want to have anything to do with learning anything Mexican.”

Garcia say the center, whose board he once led, advances “the precepts of Chicanismo of getting an education, having a cultural identity and expressing yourself in areas of self-improvement.”

Forty years have not dimmed the book’s impact. It remains widely used in classrooms and reading programs. Garcia says the film, which he’s seen, is a faithful adaptation. “It’s a great movie. It moved me. To a person like me of Spanish heritage that movie is very powerful.”

 

 

Rudolfo Anaya

Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival Celebrates a Diagonal Cultural Scene

July 2, 2013 1 comment

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.”

After Decades in New York City Omaha Native Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato Proves You Can Come Home Again

June 6, 2013 1 comment

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 was the first to perform on the Staten Island Ferry. He was a regular artist in the Jazz Vespers series at St. Peter’s Church. He appeared on the Joe Franklin Show.

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.

Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name

May 21, 2013 4 comments

 

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.

On May 27 the North Omaha tapestry, directed by Denise Chapman, will interpret the area’s African American experience at the Union for Contemporary Art at 2417 Burdette Street.

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

Denise Chapman

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

Collin Field

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Scott Working

 

 

“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.

Saving One Kid at a Time is Beto’s Life Work

January 24, 2013 Leave a comment

He goes by Beto.  Though middle-aged now Alberto “Beto” Gonzales can relate to the hard circumstances youths face at home and in the barrio because he faced difficulties at home and on the streets when he was their age.  He knows what’s behind kids skipping school or getting in trouble at school because he did the same thing to cover his pain when he was a teen.  He can talk straight to gang members because he ran with gangs back in the day.  He knows what addiction looks and feels like because he’s a recovering addict himself.  His work for the Chicano Awareness Center, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands, and other organizations has netted him many honors, including a recent Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award from Creighton University.  Beto is a South Omaha legend for the dedication he shows to saving one kid at a time.  My profile of him for El Perico tells something about the personal journey of transformation he followed to turn his life around to become a guiding light for others.

Alberto “Beto” Gonzales

 

 

Saving One Kid at a Time is Beto’s Life Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in El Perico

 

Alberto “Beto” Gonzales believes working one-on-one with youths is the best way to reach them. His work as a mentor and gang prevention-intervention specialist has earned him much recognition, most recently the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award from Creighton University.

Gonzales grew up in the South Omaha barrio he serves today as a Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands counselor. He does outreach with truants, many of whom come from dysfunctional homes. He knows their stories well. He grew up in a troubled home himself and acted out through gangs, alcohol and drugs. He skipped school. He only turned things around through faith and caring individuals.

“I was just an angry kid,” says Gonzales, who witnessed his father verbally abuse his mother. Betro’s internalized turmoil sometimes exploded.

“At 17 I almost went to prison for 30 years for assault and battery with the intent to commit murder. Then I got hooked on some real heavy drugs.”

“My mother prayed over me all the time and I think it’s her prayers that really helped me get out of this. I just decided to give my life to the Lord. “

When he’d finally had enough he completed his education at South High at 20.

The Chicano Awareness Center changed his life’s course. A social worker there saw potential in him he didn’t see in himself. Then he was introduced to a nun, Sister Joyce Englert, who worked as a chemical dependency counselor.

“She heard me out,” he says. “I talked to her about my drug addiction, how I couldn’t keep a relationship and all kinds of crap going on. What’s cool about that is she asked me if I would go talk to kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol even though she knew I was an abuser. She said, ‘I think it’s important kids hear your story.’ I found myself crying right along with the kids as I shared it.

“She told me I had a passion for this and asked what I thought about becoming a counselor. Well, I’ve done a lot crazy, dangerous things in my life but the most frightening and hardest thing was to tell the truth that I couldn’t read or write that well.”

Sister Joyce didn’t let him make excuses.

“With her help I got a chemical dependency associates degree from Metropolitan Community College, which led me into working in the schools with adolescents dealing with addiction issues, and I loved it, I just loved it.”

He also got sober. He has 33 years in recovery now.

Beto reaching out to kids, ©d2center.org

 

 

Then he responded to a new challenge.

“When the gangs started surfacing I changed my career to working with gang kids,” he says. “That’s been my passion.”

He worked for the center until 2003, when he joined the Boys and Girls Clubs.

Having walked in the shoes of his clients, he commands respect. He uses his story of transformation to inspire.

“I had a faith my mother blessed me with, then I met a woman of faith in Sister Joyce who gave me my direction, and my job now is to give kids faith, to give them hope.”

He says it comes down to being there, whether attending court hearings, visiting probation officers, providing rides, helping out with money or just listening.

“It really takes a lot of consistency in staying on top of them. All that small stuff really means a lot to a kid who’s not getting it from the people that are supposed to be doing it for them, like mom and dad.

“Gangs ain’t never going to go away. The only thing we can do as a society is to find the monies to hire the people that can do the job of saving one life at a time. That’s what Jesus did. He then trained his disciples to go out and share his word, his knowledge, and they saved one life at a time. That’s all I’ve been doing, and I’ve lost some and I’ve won some.”

His job today doesn’t allow him to work the streets the way he used to with the hardcore kids.

“I’m not out there like I used to be.”

However, kids in his Noble Youth group are court-referred hard cases he gets to open up about the trauma, often abuse, they’ve endured. Talking about it is where change begins.

In a high burn-out field Gonzales is still at it, he says, because “I love what I do.” It hasn’t been easy. His first marriage ended over his job. Then tragedy struck home.

“There was a time in South Omaha when we were losing kids right and left and one of the kids killed was my cousin Rodolfo. It’s painful to see other people suffer but when it’s in your own family it’s a different story. Rodolfo was a good kid, I loved him, but he was deep in some stuff. When he got killed I lost it. That was a struggle. I told my employer, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I took a sabbatical, I just had to get away. I did a lot of meditation and praying and it only made me stronger.”

He’s not wavered since.

“I’ve got my faith and I’ve learned you’ve got to hand everything over to God, Don’t try to handle it yourself because you will crumble.”

Beto and family
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