Alberto “Beto” Gonzales could have easily stayed in The Life of drugging, fighting, abusing, and manipulating that used to be his M.O. as a gangbanger, but he found the courage to change and that transformation has led him to help countless others stop the madness, get clean, and go straight. For years now he’s worked as a gang intervention specialist, a position he holds today as a civilian employee with the Omaha Police Department. He’s much respected for his work in the South Omaha community, whose barrios he grew up in. There were many harsh experiences he initiated. He did things he regrets and has made amends for. But he’s done all he can to move on and to be a productive citizen and he’s been exceedingly successful at that. This profile for Omaha Magazine ((http://omahamagazine.com/) is my second opportunity to tell his story and I’m glad to have had the chance to share his life and work with readers.
Beto’s way: Gang intervention specialist tries a little tenderness
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Omaha Police Department gang intervention specialist Alberto “Beto” Gonzales grew up in a South Omaha “monster barrio” as an outsider fresh from the Texas-Mexican border.
Working out of the South Omaha Precinct and South Omaha Boys & Girls Club, he knows first-hand the suffering that propels at-risk kids to join gangs. He grew up in a dysfunctional home with an alcoholic father. By 13 he was a substance abusing, drug dealing, gang-banging illiterate and runaway. For a decade he conned and intimidated people. “The beast” inside ran roughshod over anyone, even family. He ruined relationships with his rage and alcohol-drug use.
“A lot of people got hurt behind me being that hurt kid that felt hopeless,” he says.
Charged with assault and battery with intent to commit murder, he faced 30 years in prison. Shown leniency, he used that second chance to heal and transform. He got sober, learned to read and found the power of forgiveness and love, dedicating himself to helping others.
He credits the late Sister Joyce Englert at the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands) with setting him straight.
“She took me literally by the hand and coached me. There were days where I just didn’t feel like I could do it and I tossed up a storm with her. But she never gave up on me. Sister Joyce was no joke. She was incredible.”
At her urging he became a counselor.
Beto, who’s spoken about gangs to high-ranking U.S. lawmakers and law enforcement officials. is the subject of a book by Theresa Barron-McKeagney, University of Nebraska at Omaha associate dean in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service, His message to those dealing with people in crisis is “patience – you can’t give up on them, you have to have that energy, that willingness to sacrifice to work with them.” He says he’s living proof “no matter what challenges you have you can make it – all you gotta do is find what your purpose is in life and go for it.”
This former menace to society “never ever could have imagined” working for OPD. “They took a risk in hiring me because of all the baggage I carried. They’re watching me. I’m under the microscope. But all the officers make me feel welcome. It’s a good fit.”
His street cred enables him to go where OPD can’t.
“If they do walk into some of the places I walk in it’s a shut down – nobody’s talking.”
He has people’s trust, including prisoners and ex-cons.
“They feel safe opening up to me, they know I’m there for them, I’m not going to give up on them. Whatever it is, we try to work it out. You can’t measure this, all you do is continue your relationship with someone and if you build that trust that relationship will be there forever. I’ve been in a lot of these men’s and women’s lives for years.
“Sometimes I don’t see them for four or five years but they know they can always come back.”
Not everyone’s cut out for this work.
“The burn-out is real/.”
Not everyone wants recovery. Relapse and recidivism is high.
But Beto’s a firm believer in second-chances.
“Somebody gave me a chance.”
Intervention and prevention is “my passion,” says Beto, who can spot a troubled child or adult in an instant.
“If we don’t get to a kid in time, if he doesn’t find a mentor, if he doesn’t get in to some kind of sport activity, if his mom and dad don’t do some kind of healing, that’s a lost child.”
He often tells his own story at assemblies. It’s still cathartic at age 57.
“I share it all the time with hundreds of kids and believe me every time I share it I can feel that pain in my heart. It’s still there. There’s no getting ready of it. It’s a part of who you are, the fabric of your soul.”
He can only do so much. “There’s a lot of kids out there hurting I can’t get to. The other frustrating part is when we lose kids to murder or prison. I’m just so focused on trying to save one life at a time, one family at a time.” As a society he feels, “we better wake up and invest in more counselors – we’ve got to educate, educate, educate.”
Happily married with kids, he has serenity he never had before.
“I wish everybody had that.”
He’s made peace with the fact his job never really ends.
“Even when I retire, people are going to be knocking on my door. I already know that.”
The challenge is as near as a neighboring three-generation gang family he’s counseled. They all respect him except for a teen boy.
“I asked him, ‘Why do you hate me, man?’ He just shrugged his shoulders. ‘How many times did you feel like killing me?’ He finally looked me in the eye and said, ‘Every time I see you, I want to kill you.’
‘What keeps you from killing me?’ ‘Because my nephews love you, my auntie loves you, my uncle loves you, so I’m just going to leave you alone.’ Fourteen years old. He’s just another Beto.”
He holds out hope. “Anybody can change, anybody, I don’t care what condition you’re in, as long as you want to find that peace in yourself.”
South Omaha Stories on tap for free PlayFest show; Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to the south side
Omaha’s various geographic segments feature distinct charecteristics all their own. South Omaha has a stockyards-packing plant heritage that lives on to this day and it continues its legacy as home to new arrivals, whether immigrants or refugees. The free May 27 Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest show South Omaha Stories at the Livestock Exchange Building is a collaboration between playwrights and residents that shares stories reflective of that district and the people who comprise it. What follows are two articles I did about the event. The first and most recent article is for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it looks at South O through the prism of two young people interviewed by playwrights for the project. The second article looks at South O through the lens of three older people interviewed by playwrights for the same project. Together, my articles and participants’ stores provide a fair approximation of what makes South O, well, South O. Or in the vernacular (think South Side Chicago), Sou’d O.
South Omaha Stories on tap for free PlayFest show
Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to the south side
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Perhaps more than any geographic quadrant of the city, South Omaha owns the richest legacy as a livestock-meatpacking industry hub and historic home to new arrivals fixated on the American Dream.
Everyone with South O ties has a story. When some playwrights sat down to interview four such folks, tales flowed. Using the subjects’ own words and drawing from research, the playwrights, together with New York director Josh Hecht, have crafted a night of theater for this year’s Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries.
Omaha’s M. Michele Phillips directs this collaborative patchwork of South Omaha Stories. The 7:30 p.m. show May 27 at the Livestock Exchange Building ballroom is part of GPTC’s free PlayFest slate celebrating different facets of Neb. history and culture. In the case of South O, each generation has distinct experiences but recurring themes of diversity and aspiration appear across eras.
Lucy Aguilar and Batula Hilowle are part of recent migration waves to bring immigrants and refugees here. Aguilar came as a child from Mexico with her undocumented mother and siblings in pursuit of a better life. Hilowle and her siblings were born and raised in a Kenya refugee camp. They relocated here with their Somali mother via humanitarian sponsors. In America, Batula and her family enjoy new found safety and stability.
Aguilar, 20, is a South High graduate attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha. GPTC associate artistic director and veteran Omaha playwright Scott Working interviewed her. Hilowle, 19, is a senior at South weighing her college options. Harlem playwright Kia Corthron interviewed her.
A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) work permit recipient, Aguilar is tired of living with a conditional status hanging over head. She feels she and fellow Dreamers should be treated as full citizens. State law has made it illegal for Dreamers to obtain drivers licenses.
“I’m here just like everybody else trying to make something out of my life, trying to accomplish goals, in my case trying to open a business,” and be successful in that,” Aguilar says.
She’s active in Young Nebraskans for Action that advocates restrictions be lifted for Dreamers. She follows her heart in social justice matters.
“Community service is something I’m really passionate about.”
She embraces South O as a landing spot for many peoples.
“There’s so much diversity and nobody has a problem with it.”
Hilowle appreciates the diversity, too.
“You see Africans like me, you see African Americans,, Asians, Latinos, whites all together. It’s something you don’t see when you go west.”
Both young women find it a friendly environment.
“It’s a very open, helpful community,” Aguilar says. “There are so many organizations that advocate to help people. If I’m having difficulties at home or school or work, I know I’ll have backup. I like that.”
“It’s definitely warm and welcoming,” Hilowle says. “It feels like we’re family. There’s no room for hate.”
Hilowle says playwright Kia Corthon was particularly curious about the transition from living in a refuge camp to living in America.
“She wanted to know what was different and what was familiar. I can tell you there was plenty of differences.”
Hilowle has found most people receptive to her story of struggle in Africa and somewhat surprised by her gratitude for the experience.
“Rather than try to make fun of me I think they want to get to know me. I’m not ashamed to say I grew up in a refugee camp or that we didn’t have our own place. It made me better, it made me who I am today. Being in America won’t change who I am. My kids are going to be just like me because I am just like my mom.”
She says the same fierce determination that drove her mother to save the family from war in Somalia is in her.
About the vast differences between life there and here, she says, “Sometimes different isn’t so bad.” She welcomes opportunities “to share something about where I come from or about my religion (Muslim) and why I cover my body with so many clothes.”
Aguilar, a business major seeking to open a South O juice shop, likes that her and Hilowle’s stories will be featured in the same program.
“We have very different backgrounds but I’m pretty sure our future goals are the same. We’re very motivated about what we want to do.”
Similar to Lucy, Batula likes helping people. She’s planning a pre-med track in college.
The young women think it’s important their stories will be presented alongside those of much older residents with a longer perspective.
Virgil Armendariz, 68, who wrote his own story, can attest South O has long been a melting pot. He recalls as a youth the international flavors and aromas coming from homes of different ethnicities he delivered papers to and his learning to say “collect” in several languages.
“You could travel the world by walking down 36th street on Sunday afternoon. From Q Street to just past Harrison you could smell those dinners cooking. The Irish lived up around Q Street, Czechs, Poles, and Lithuanians were mixed along the way. Then Bohemians’ with a scattering of Mexicans.”
He remembers the stockyards and Big Four packing plants and all the ancillary businesses that dominated a square mile right in the heart of the community. The stink of animal refuse permeating the Magic City was called the Smell of Money. Rough trade bars and whorehouses served a sea of men. The sheer volume of livestock meant cows and pigs occasionally broke loose to cause havoc. He recalls unionized packers striking for better wages and safer conditions.
Joseph Ramirez, 89, worked at Armour and Co. 15 years. He became a local union leader there and that work led him into a human services career. New York playwright Michael Garces interviewed Ramirez.
Ramirez and Armendariz both faced discrimination. They dealt with bias by either confronting it or shrugging it off. Both men found pathways to better themselves – Ramirez as a company man and Armendariz as an entrepreneur.
While their parents came from Mexico, South Omaha Stories participant, Dorothy Patach, 91, traces her ancestry to the former Czechoslovakia region. Like her contemporaries of a certain age, she recalls South O as a once booming place, then declining with the closure of the Big Four plants, before its redevelopment and immigrant-led business revival the last few decades.
Patach says people of varied backgrounds generally found ways to co-exist though she acknowledges illegal aliens were not always welcome.
New York playwright Ruth Margraff interviewed her.
She and the men agree what united people was a shared desire to get ahead. How families and individuals went about it differed, but hard work was the common denominator.
Scott Working says the details in the South O stories are where universal truths lay.
“It is in the specifics we recognize ourselves, our parents, our grandparents,” he says, “and we see they have similar dreams that we share. It’s a great experience.”
He says the district’s tradition of diversity “has kept it such a vibrant place.” He suspects the show will be “a reaffirmation for the people that live there and maybe an introduction to people from West Omaha or North Omaha.” He adds, “My hope is it will make people curious about where they’re from, too. It’s kind of what theater does – it gives us a connection to humanity and tells us stories we find value in and maybe we learn something and feel something.”
The Livestock Exchange Building is at 4920 South 30th Street.
Next year’s Neighborhood Tapestries event returns to North Omaha.
For PlayFest and conference details, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.
South Omaha stories to be basis for new theater piece at Great Plains Theatre Conference
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Historically, South Omaha is a melting pot where newcomers settle to claim a stake of the American Dream.
This hurly burly area’s blue-collar labor force was once largely Eastern European. The rich commerce of packing plants and stockyards filled brothels, bars and boardinghouses. The local economy flourished until the plants closed and the yards dwindled. Old-line residents and businesses moved out or died off. New arrivals from Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa have spurred a new boon. Repurposed industrial sites serve today’s community needs.
As a microcosm of the urban American experience it’s a ready-made tableaux for dramatists to explore. That’s what a stage director and playwrights will do in a Metropolitan Community College-Great Plains Theatre Conference project. The artists will interview residents to cultivate anecdotes. That material will inform short plays the artists develop for performance at the GPTC PlayFest’s community-based South Omaha Neighborhood Tapestries event in May.
Director Josh Hecht and two playwrights, Kia Corthron and Ruth Margraff, will discuss their process and preview what audiences can expect at a free Writing Workshop on Saturday, January 24 at 3 p.m. in MCC’s South Campus (24th and Q) Connector Building.
Participants Virgil Armendariz and Joseph Ramirez hail from Mexican immigrant clans that settled here when Hispanics were so few Armendariz says practically everybody knew each other. Their presence grew thanks to a few large families. Similarly, the Emma Early Bryant family grew a small but strong African-American enclave.
Each ethnic group “built their own little communities,” says Armendariz, who left school to join the Navy before working construction. “There were communities of Polish, Mexicans, Bohemians, Lithuanians, Italians, Irish. Those neighborhoods were like family and became kind of territorial. But it was interesting to see how they blended together because they all shared one thing – how hard they worked to make life better for themselves and their families. I still see that even now. A lot of people in South Omaha have inherited that entrepreneurial energy and inner strength. I feel like the blood, sweat and tears of generations of immigrants is in the soil of South Omaha.”
Armendariz, whose grandmother escaped the Mexican revolution and opened a popular pool hall here, became an entrepreneur himself. He says biases toward minorities and newcomers can’t be denied “but again there’s a common denominator everybody understands and that is people come here to build a future for their families, and that we can’t escape, no matter how invasive it might seem.”
He says recent immigrants and refugees practice more cultural traditions than he knew growing up. He and his wife, long active in the South Omaha Business Association, enjoy connecting to their own heritage through the Xiotal Ballet Folklorico troupe they support.
“These talented people present beautiful, colorful dance and music. When you put that face on the immigrant you see they are a rich part of our American past and a big contributor to our American future.”
Ramirez, whose parents fled the Cristero Revolt in Mexico, says he and his wife faced discrimination as a young working-class couple integrating an all-white neighborhood. But overall they found much opportunity. He became a bilingual notary public and union official while working at Armour and Co. He later served roles with the Urban League of Nebraska and the City of Omaha and directed the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands). His activist-advocacy work included getting more construction contracts for minorities and summer jobs for youths. The devout Catholic lobbied the Omaha Archdiocese to offer its first Spanish-speaking Mass.
He’s still bullish about South Omaha, saying, “It’s a good place to live.”
Dorothy Patach came up in a white-collar middle-class Bohemian family, graduated South High, then college, and went on to a long career as a nursing care professional and educator. Later, she became Spring Lake Neighborhood Association president and activist, helping raise funds for Omaha’s first graffiti abatement wagon and filling in ravines used as dumping grounds. She says the South O neighborhood she lived in for seven decades was a mix of ethnicities and religions that found ways to coexist.
“Basically we lived by the Golden Rule – do unto others as you want them to do unto you – and we had no problems.”
She, too, is proud of her South O legacy and eager to share its rich history with artists and audiences.
MCC Theatre Program Coordinator Scott Working says, “The specifics of people’s lives can be universal and resonate with a wide audience. The South Omaha stories I’ve heard so far have been wonderful, and I can’t wait to help share them.”
Josh Hecht finds it fascinating South O’s “weathered the rise and fall of various industries” and absorbed “waves of different demographic populations.” “In both of these ways” he says, “the neighborhood seems archetypally American.” Hecht and Co. are working with local historian Gary Kastrick to mine more tidbits.
Hecht conceived the project when local residents put on “a kind of variety show ” for he and other visiting artists at South High in 2013.
“They performed everything from spoken word to dance to storytelling. They told stories about their lives and it was very clear how important it was for the community to share these stories with us.”
Hecht says he began “thinking of an interactive way where they share their lives and stories with us and we transform them into pieces of theater that we then reflect back to them.”
Working says, “This project will be a deeper exploration and more intimate exchange between members of the community and dramatic artists” than previous Tapestries.
The production is aptly slated for the Stockyards Exchange Building, the last existing remnant of South O’s vast packing-livestock empire.
Soccer is still no where near as popular in America as football, basketball and baseball but it’s undeniably growing year by year in having a hold on people’s interest and imagination. The emergence of soccer as a prime sport at Omaha South High School gives insight into the demographics at work that will likely one day see the sport challenge the big three team sports and perhaps even overtake them, not just in Omaha or greater Neb., but around the nation. South High is a microcosm for how South Omaha has changed from its largely Eastern European population base from the late 19th century through the 1970s to a largely Hispanic, African and Asian base in recent years. Then and now many of the immigrant and refugee families drawn there have found work in the meatpacking industry, and thus the school’s nickname, Packers. This demographic transformation has had many effects, including a student population that is increasingly soccer-centric. Boys soccer head coach Joe Maass has been there since 2000, when the change was near full flower. Since then he’s taken a moribound program that couldn’t win and nobody wanted to coach and turned it into a budding dynasty. He’s done it with players of Mexican and Latin American heritage and more recently of African heritage who have played soccer practically from the time they could walk and run. These experienced, skilled and passionate players, wave after wave and class after class of them, have made South a perennial contender for metro, district and state titles. Just a few years ago it would have been unthinkable for a a high school soccer game to outdraw a football or basektball game, but that’s often what South high soccer manages to do. When the program first emerged as a force to be reckoned with a few years ago and the team made it to their first state finals, record crowds turned out and most of the fans were rooting for South. The majority of fans were Hispanic. It was a hugh love fest for the team, the school and the South Omaha community. Maass is the mastermind who’s embraced this flood of talent and passion and let it flourish. My El Perico story about Maass and the evolution of South High Soccer was published just as this year’s team has found itself and climbed to No. 1 in the rankings. With the way the Packers are playing, they will be the odds-on favorite to win their second state title in three years.
Masterful: Joe Maass leads Omaha South High soccer evolution
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Omaha South High soccer coach Joe Maass enjoys being part of a transformation that’s seen his soccer program blossom from awful to brilliant and his school rise from woebegone to thriving.
He was 26 when he got the job in 2000. That’s unusually young for a big school head coach but it wasn’t like candidates were busting down the doors. Slowly but surely though Maass turned that no-win situation around. He now has South soccer a perennial contender and a point of pride for the school and community it represents.
South has built a near dynasty on the strength of mostly Latino players who’ve become the new face of the more than century-old school. Michael Jaime became the first Gatorade Nebraska Boys Soccer Player of the Year (2013-2014) from South, one of several all-state players with Spanish surnames the school’s produced. In 2010 Manny Lira was the captain of the all-state team. Those players and several others went on to earn college scholarships.
For the ninth consecutive season South’s regarded as a major threat. The No. 1-ranked Packers opened the season with 10 straight wins. Since their first and only defeat of the year, 1-0 to Papiliion LaVista-South on April 13 in the Metro Conference championship game, they’ve beaten traditional rivals Omaha Westside and Omaha Creighton Prep, and on April 20 they avenged their lone loss to Papio LaVista-South. They’ve come together as a team despite injury and suspension.
Maass says the prospects for his 2015 team are promising.
“As a unit we’re really good. I have a lot of pretty good players but there’s not like one or two players miles ahead of everybody else in the state, so this is definitely going to be a team year where a lot of different kids contribute. I think making state would be a fair goal and then maybe when we get there…”
Anything can happen. Only a few years after being a losing team, South made its first state final in 2010, the game infamous for the “green card” incident when opposing fans threw mock green cards on the field to insinuate South players were illegal immigrants. It was the most public in a long line of racial insults directed at South.
Maass says he was proud of “the way his team handled it,” adding, “The kids didn’t retaliate – they stood up for the team and school and for what was right and wrong.”
South then put together arguably the greatest season ever by a Neb. Class A boys soccer team in 2013, going 23-0 en route to the state title, setting many records in the process. Elite Soccer Report named South the top team among states where soccer’s a spring sport.
“We won the whole thing and we did it the right way,” Maass says.
None of it seemed possible 16 years ago.
“Everything that’s been accomplished I would never have imagined. I have a huge sense of pride in that and in knowing that if I stopped coaching tomorrow South High soccer’s still going to be pretty good because we’ve built a strong program.”
Not bad considering what Maass started with.
“The guy who was the head coach before me saw I had some energy and passion, so he stepped down and recommended me to replace him. The truth is nobody else applied, so they just gave it to me because essentially nobody wanted that job. There was nothing desirable about it. It was not very forgiving.
“The program was pretty bad back then. The school really didn’t fund the program. The uniforms were really old. The sport of soccer didn’t get much attention or respect, especially down here.”
Besides low interest and expectations – South won eight games his first four years – it was hard getting kids to play and fans to follow.
“I had somewhere around 11 or 12 players. The first practice there were 15 kids on the field and four of them were off the streets, they weren’t even students. I only had one senior. The next year it was maybe 13 to 15 players. Then 18. Each year it just grew a little bit.”
He scoured South O parks and fields for promising talent and before long gifted players, even some elite club players, filled his rosters.
The facilities were subpar until Collin Stadium opened in 2009, giving the by-then vastly improved program a distinct home advantage with its full-sized soccer field.
The one constant, Maass says, is that “the kids were great kids.” “But,”
he adds, “I don’t think anybody saw South going from being the worst team in the state to what it is now. We’re pretty much a projected top 10 team every year and that’s where we want to be – a top 10 team that everybody has to kind of somewhat fear.”
These days the program gets 100-plus students trying out and carries 80 to 90 players across its varsity, junior varsity and freshman squads. Grads are getting scholarships to play at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Bellevue University and other schools. Several are coaching for South, including Leo Enriquez and Cesar Lira, and several others are coaching for club teams or competing schools.
Where South soccer used to be an after-thought, it’s now a conversation starter. Cara Riggs was South’s principal when Maass engineered the turnaround. More than all the wins, she appreciated the way Maass cared.
“Joe sometimes comes off as tough, maybe even gruff. Underneath that exterior is a very soft-hearted, compassionate man who cares very deeply about the kids he works with. He has high expectations of your hard work and he’s willing to go above and beyond for you and your success. His loyalty to South High, its students and South Omaha is as strong as a Mack truck.”
Tobias Maertzke, a German exchange student who played at South a few years ago, lived with Maass and his wife while going to school there. “He’s like a family member almost,” Maass says.
Maass acknowledges he’s softened and matured since becoming a father. He and his wife have two children.
“I’ve mellowed quite a bit. I’m still fiery but not overly fiery like I used to be. The first couple years i was probably a little bit rough actually. I had a great understanding for the game but maybe not an understanding for all the kids, whereas now I feel I understand the kids, the game, how the referees work. I feel the refs respect me, so they’re not as quick to give me a yellow card if I step out of line.”
Riggs says South soccer made a positive impact far beyond the field.
“The success of Joe’s soccer program has been a definite booster for school pride and community respect. The success helped put South back on the map and recognized again in the Omaha community.”
Maass, whose roots are in that neighborhood, says, “The sense of community that came back to South Omaha is just amazing to me.”
Having built South to be an elite program and kept it there, Maass is not sure which feat is more difficult.
“It was really hard to get there but it’s hard to stay on top though because more kids are playing the sport now and other schools are starting to mirror the things we’ve done.”
Of all the achievements South’s attained, including district and metro crowns and records for most goals scored and most shutouts recorded in a single season, the 2013 state title stands out.
“Winning a championship at South after they hadn’t won one in years was big. It felt great to feel our program was on top of the world.”
Championships and records are nice, he says, “but at the end of the day” it’s the relationships he forges with “the kids” and following their life pursuits that matter most to him.
“I see them out in the community. It’s interesting to see where they end up. I hope in some way I’ve impacted these kids. That by far outweighs everything else.”
Just like the team’s Twitter page tag line reads, “We are a family, friends and a team with one big heart.. Packers.”
Art and community meet-up in artist’s public projects; Watie White mines urban tales
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Omaha artist Watie White’s humanist public art projects reveal the narratives of transitional urban neighborhoods. The dynamics of locations and the people living there shape his site-specific works.
Three 2014 projects, one completed and the others in-progress, all connect to community organizations whose social justice missions “align” with his own.
“The kind of organizations I am most attracted to are the ones who make a splash with a handful of incredibly passionate people that affect the lives of many families,” he says.
His new All That Ever Was, Always Is exhibition at two abandoned homes slated for demolition in northeast Omaha continues his work with Habitat for Humanity. In 2013 he repurposed an empty home in the same area with original paintings symbolizing the family that lived there and the neighborhood it was part of. He installed prints in the window frames. After the exhibit came down, the condemned house was razed. A vacant lot sits in its place awaiting a new build.
Habitat executive director Amanda Brewer says White’s projects add depth to the agency’s blight remediation work: “They celebrate the rich history that comes with older homes and neighborhoods. The time and respectfulness he puts into getting to know the neighbors, the history of the neighborhood and involving neighbors in his project strengthens Habitat’s efforts to involve the entire neighborhood in our work.”
The house(s) Habitat loans him – for his new project he tackled side by side houses at 1468 and 1470 Grant St. – become cultural excavation sites and art canvasses. He insinuates and immerses himself by doing interviews with neighbors and, where possible, with folks who lived in the dwellings, combing through contents for artifacts and narrative clues, taking photos, using subjects as models.
All of it inspired 51 original paintings he made for the two current structures. Acrylic vinyl prints were installed since July 19 and remain up through year’s end. The houses will then be razed for new homes to go up in their place. His assistant Peter Cales salvaged materials to make benches and tables as communal gathering spots. White’s planning public dinners and conversations at the site.
Dialogue’s a hoped-for by-product of the The Wheels Keep Turning murals Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska commissioned him to create. The agency provides legal, education, advocacy services for immigrants. The murals will go in immigrant-rich areas in South Omaha, North Omaha, Benson and Little Italy. White describes the subjects as “inspirational people every day making a positive influence in their neighborhood.”
Elisha Novak. JFON program director and mural project coordinator, says the murals are intended to shine a positive light on immigrant contributions and to empower more immigrants to share their stories.
“We will also host a series of public meetings, discussions and lectures around the unveiling of the murals to engage the public in a constructive dialogue about immigration-related issues. Additionally, we hope to increase awareness of immigrants and their needs, while incorporating a path to services through JFON.”
Among the models are 78-year-old Mexican immigrant Ramona Silva Gonzales and South Sudan refugee Mary Aketa George, a program officer with the Southern Sudan Community Association. White’s drawing on Ramona’s recollections of her and her cousins picking flowers in the fields of the farm she grew up on and singing ranchera songs. He’s incorporating Mary’s memories of the harsh refugee camp life she endured and how the experience motivated her to help people.
White hopes his murals, including one up at JFON, 2414 E St., “shifts the perception of what the immigrant and new Nebraskan face is.”
He’s placing the murals near where the subjects’ live. Ramona’s will be at the Intercultural Senior Center she’s found a second home at.
White’s inCOMMON Community Development project, You Are Here, will feature Park Avenue district murals and prints along that mid-town drag, plus a 100-foot tall banner mural on the Park North public housing tower, 1601 Park Ave., all reflecting diverse residents’ lives. Jay’s an itinerant musician with dreams of his own nightclub. Anthony’s a street activist-poet spitting do-the-right-thing rants.
inCOMMON director Christian Gray says the art’s meant to reduce the “disconnection and marginalization” public housing residents often feel,” adding, “This goal connects closely with InCommon’s mission of uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods in its effort of including-incorporating public tower residents within the life of the surrounding community.”
White knows the banner mural will draw much attention.
“It’s a resident community and people walk that neighborhood and this thing is just going to be gigantic. It’s going to loom over that neighborhood. It will inevitably be what everyone takes out of that community. It’s going to be so much louder than anything else. It will be the largest thing I’ve done. It feels like a lot of responsibility.”
His challenge is finding the right aesthetic-content balance. He wants the banner to feel of the community, not imposed on it. Neither too rosy, nor too negative but a “powerful” evocation of “personal, lived experiences – I want it to have that feeling their voice is in it.”
Park Avenue’s similar to the North Omaha section he’s worked in. Both feature compromised, underserved neighborhoods. He came to do houses in North O when he couldn’t find suitable mural spaces there.
“I was wanting to work in that community but there aren’t traditional walls to work on.”
When Habitat offered him condemned homes, he says, “I was like, ‘Yes, that gets me there, I can do something with that.'”
Paintings in the studio become something different installed behind broken glass in the distressed neighborhoods they reflect and inhabit.
“There is no way to see them in the same way when you drive through the neighborhood to get there. You park, you maybe say hi to the people sitting across the street, maybe people come over. All that changes those paintings a lot.”
Once in place the images generate questions and conversations, For him, it’s about connecting to the neighborhood and adding benefit to it.
“There’s a distinct shift in the community that starts with the people that had something to do with it. They then kind of own that space and that neighborhood in a way they didn’t before. For the models there’s a certain self-esteem boost from having their head be five feet tall in some capital A art that ends up in the paper. Part of this process is getting people to tell me their stories they don’t think are important and then have me treat them as important.”
The resulting media coverage gives subjects, their stories and neighborhoods a new currency, he says.
“All those things I feel like make this project better.”
As a white affluent artist dropping in on black poverty, he relies on partner organizations with deep stakes there to open doors for him.
“It gives me legitimacy in a community that is not mine. it allows me to have conversations with these people.”
Still, it takes time to build trust and rapport.
“It took the people on that 1400 block of Emmett a little while to kind of warm up to me and tell me those more true and awkward stories. It was several interviews in before I heard about the Hell’s Angels on the block and the role they played. They provided a safe space, they threw these parties and events that built community. The people really liked them. There was never a problem or racial issue with them.”
A neighbor, Miss Maybel, was inspired enough to start her own motorcycle club.
White traced the 1468 house to the family that last lived there, the Tribbles, whose matriarch, Jessie Tribble, was a single mother with aspirational dreams for her children.
Not everything White uncovers is positive.
“In doing these I feel like as an artist I have an obligation to express as much of the truth as I can find. Inevitably that leads me having to figure out what to do with unpleasant things.”
A daughter, Oretha Walker, confided a brother’s in jail for murder. White expressed in images positive and negative things about him. InCOMMON’s Gray says White’s careful handling of personal narratives like this dovetails with its own community listening approach.
“We believe under-resourced neighborhoods are rich with people who have dreams, talents and stories that can be leveraged toward community change and transformation. Watie has a highly unique talent for calling out these dreams and stories from within the communities he works.”
White also put in images discoveries from the 1470 house. An absentee owner rented it out as a daycare, then it was abandoned, then gutted by fire. A 1918 playbill from the long defunct corner Grand Theatre shows up as cinema bathing beauties. A piece of wall paper with John White penciled-in – the artist’s father’s name – gave Watie White permission to integrate his father and son in images.
Follow the artist’s projects at watiewhite.com.
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)
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)