Archive for July 17, 2012

Cumbre: Hundreds attend OLLAS conference

July 17, 2012 5 comments

I am not normally crazy about covering events because I think of myself more as a writer than a reporter.  While spending several hours at an academic and community confab I was assigned to report on is not my idea of a good time I did mostly enjoy covering the 2010 Cumbre conference put on by the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The big topic under discussion was human mobility or migration and the political, social, economic, and personal fallout of populations in flux.  It’s interesting how things work because a year or so after the event I became aware of a great book about one of the most important and underdoumented migration experiences in U.S. history – the great migration of African-Americans from the South to all points North and West.  The book by Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, is one I eventually read and wrote about, interviewing Wilkerson at some length, then meeting her before a talk she gave in Omaha.  And that sparked my beginning to do research for a story or series of stories on African-Americans who migrated from the South to Nebraska.  I’ll write that story next year in conjunction with the big black heritage celebration here known as Native Omaha Days.  And I was to have undertaken a rather epic project all about human migration for a Catholic community of missionaries but it has been put on hold.  Finally, I may be making an individual and temporary migration this fall reporting on set of Alexander Payne’s upcoming feature production Nebraska, which would find me embedding myself among the crew as they traverse from eastern Montana across much of Nebraska for the making of this road movie.  So, you see, in the midst of overcoming my reluctance to cover a migration conference I found myself open to a pattern of migration subjects and opportunities that came my way.  Would they have otherwise?  Who knows?  I’m just glad they did.



Hundreds attend OLLAS conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico


A wide spectrum of Latino concerns, including the need for federal immigration reform, swirled around the May 14-15 Cumbre conference held at Omaha‘s Embassy Suites in the Old Market. The theme was Human Mobility, the Promise of Development and Political Engagement.

The every-few-years summit hosted by UNO’s Office of Latino and Latin American Studies is part I’ll-show-you-mine, if-you-show-me-yours research exchange, part old-fashioned networking event and part open mic forum.

More than 400 registrants from near and far came to share ideas. The perspectives ranged from star academics allied with major institutions to local grassroots organizers.

Adding urgency was the divisive new Arizona law targeting illegal immigrants. OLLAS director Lourdes Gouveia said when planning for this year’s summit began four years ago immigration was a hot topic. It was expected to remain so once Barack Obama won the White House, but the health care debate put it on the back burner.

“We began to think well maybe this was not the year when the national context about immigration was really going to provide the impetus,” she said, “and then along comes Arizona. All at once we had people like Jason Marczak (policy director with Americas Society/Council of the Americas) call and say, ‘I’d like to come, is it too late?’ We had vans of people coming from Colorado and Iowa. We had people showing up from all kinds of communities in the Great Plains, besides all the international scholars from Africa, India, Latin America, Europe.”

Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and State Sen. Brenda Council kicked off the event. State Sen. Brad Ashford was a panelist and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray served as a moderator.

Beyond facilitating dialogue, Cumbre introduces new scholarship. Coordinators for the Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute’s Latino Immigrant Civic Engagement Project chose Cumbre to unveil their report’s findings of Latino civic involvement in nine U.S. cities, including Omaha. The authors tied engagement levels to several factors. Generally, the more engaged immigrants are with their country of origin, the more engaged they are in their adopted homeland. High participation in church activities correlates with high participation in civic activities. Coalitions, whether community, church or work-based, such as the Heartland Workers Center in Omaha, act as gateways for increased engagement.

But each Latino immigrant community has its own dynamics that influence participation, thus authors titled their report “Context Matters.” Co-author Xochitl Bada, a University of Illinois at Chicago assistant professor, presented the findings.

OLLAS issued its own site report, “Migrant Civil Society Under Construction.” Investigators conducted roundtable discussions with local Latino immigrants, who said that fear, inadequate education and lack of information are barriers to engagement.

Bada said Omaha is rather unique in being both a new and old destination for Latino migration, a mix that may partly account for the moderate levels of civic-political participation by the emerging Latino immigrant community here.

Respondents in all nine cities regarded the 2006 immigration mobilization marches as a turning point in Latino engagement but expressed disappointment the movement did not  sustain itself.

Among other panels: UNO economist Christopher Decker outlined Latino immigrants’ substantial economic impact in state; and UNO languages professor Claudia Garcia detailed a project delivering education programs and restoring family connections to local Spanish-speaking immigrant prison detainees.

Cumbre’s hallmark is gathering under one roof different players. Speeches, panels, workshops, town hall meetings, Q & As and breakout sessions provide opportunities for these wonks, worker bees, policymakers and service providers to interact.

Princeton University scholar and Center for Migration and Development director Alejandro Portes has attended all four Cumbres. The Cuba native said he made his 2010 keynote address on Latino immigrant transnationalism accessible to Cumbre’s diverse audience. The Creighton University graduate said, “I think bringing the community and the scholars in the same room is one of the things I like about it. The organizers have great talent in bringing these different constituencies together.”

Another featured speaker, journalist, author and University of Southern California communication professor Roberto Suro, said what distinguishes Cumbre is “it attracts really A-list, blue-ribbon people from the academic world and at the same time a very broad swath of people who work on the ground. It’s the only conference I know of that does that. There’s a reason the room’s full.”

In his address Suro spoke about “reimagining” Latino migration policies in both the sending Central and Latin American countries and in the receiving United States.

“Through gatherings like this,” Suro said, “what you see is people broadening the horizons of policy discussion and starting to think about reformulating issues, adding to the agenda and starting to develop the kind of understandings and intellectual framework that might permit better policy in the future.”

Suro told the audience that researchers and activists like them are well ahead of policymakers and politicians on the issue and give him reason for optimism.

OLLAS assistant director Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado said some of what happens at Cumbre “is bound to be carried” to global forums,” adding, “and that to me is probably the highest compliment for what we try to do in bringing all these people together.”

Xochitl Bada, co-principal investigator of the Latino immigration Civic Engagement Project, said Cumbre “has a very important public aspect. Unlike most academic conferences, it’s conceived “as a report back to the community.” She said the fact the summit is free makes it inclusive. “That’s very unusual.” She said another mark of Cumbre’s open door approach is the simultaneous translation, from Spanish to English and from English to Spanish, it provides to ensure that “language is not a barrier.” She called Cumbre an important vehicle for “public discourse” and “public dissemination.”

Rev. Ernesto Medina, pastor of St. Martha Episcopal Church in Omaha, moderated a panel discussion on human rights, work and community membership. He said he appreciates the opportunity Cumbre presents “to see things holistically” and to put “different communities and different passions” in the same room to find common ground.

Though many differing views were voiced, some consensus emerged: immigration reform must happen but the current partisan climate makes it unlikely soon; criminalization of migrants is punitive, narrow-minded, counterproductive and damaging to families; today’s nativist anti-immigration arguments echo those of the past; lawmakers need good data about immigration to make good policy; Latino immigrants can be fully engaged in both their country of origin and American society; remittances made by Latino migrants to their native countries are crucial to those economies.

Roberto Suro said the full contributions of the recent Latino migrant wave can only be weighed when second generation children reach adulthood. He advocates Latino immigrants be viewed as more than merely a subsistence labor force.

National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Countries executive director Oscar Chacon called for more “robust” organizations like his that represent Latino immigrant interests and celebrate their cultural differences while working toward “common cause.”

Alejandro Portes warned if the rhetoric and actions of anti-migrant forces continue “it could usher in ethnic unrest, and there’s absolutely no reason for that. I don’t think it will get that bad because of Obama in the White House and the federal government at some point is going to enter the situation and bring some kind of immigration reform.”

Turning kids away from gangs and toward teams in South Omaha

July 17, 2012 9 comments


Omaha’s had a problem with gangs for a quarter century now.  Most American cities share the same scourge, more or less.  It’s good to be reminded that law enforcement efforts to deal with the problem don’t begin and end with patrolling hot zones or investing crimes or making arrests, they also include grassroots community engagement to try and steer young kids away from the pull of gangs into positive activities.  The following story I wrote for El Perico a few years ago describes the community prevention-intervention work of one cop in Omaha, Det. Tony Espejo with the gang unit.


Turning kids away from gangs and toward teams in South Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


For Omaha Police Department Gang Unit detective Tony Espejo, being honored as National Latino Peace Officers Association Officer of the Year in Austin, Texas earlier this month brought full circle the community service his parents modeled for him.

As long as he can remember, he said his folks, Juana and Ezequiel Espejo, “have been advocates in the community…Growing up, we always opened our house up to people. My mom is a big advocate in the YWCA. A lot of people know her. She’s had a huge hand in helping a lot of immigrant families.”

Today, Espejo, who’s married with two children, serves that same community working out of the Southeast Precinct. It’s a different environment than the small, tight-knit environment he knew as a boy. Families then were more cohesive, youth activities more numerous.The Gross High grad dropped out of college, then entered the military.

“I wasn’t doing bad things but I wasn’t doing great things. Boy, the Marine Corps got me on the straight and narrow, it got me organized. I grew up is what I did.

When he returned home, he found a new immigrant population reenergizing the area. But there was a new problem: unsupervised youths running the streets, trafficking in drugs, engaging in driveby shootings.

“The graffiti and gang problem was probably the biggest shocker for me,” he said. “When I left in 1992 it was just starting. I think there was one Hispanic gang in south Omaha and I knew all the kids in it. We used to play sandlot baseball and football together. I came back and these guys were full blown gangsters and there were three or four different gangs by then. Before, there was not the violence I all of a sudden walked into here. This wasn’t the south Omaha I knew.”

Back home his desire “to make things better” prompted him to become a cop.

“There weren’t a lot of Mexican police officers at the time, you rarely saw any on the street,” he said. Eventually assigned his old stomping grounds, he joined the gang unit in 2004. He said, “I kind of looked at it from a problem-solving aspect. Why are these kids doing this? What is the root of the problem?”

In 2005 the example of two men he met planted a seed. In Chicago, Bob Muzikowski channeled kids from the notorious Cabrini-Green projects into baseball. Locally, Stoney Hays funneled kids into Boys and Girls Club activities. Espejo liked the idea of recruiting at-risk kids away from gangs into something structured and positive. His first inclination was baseball, but the youth he ran into had other ideas.

“I would drive around on patrol and see all these different groups of kids playing soccer.

I didn’t know anything about soccer, but it’s huge for these kids.”

He formed a soccer league with help from the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers Association. It’s grown from six to 18 teams. He enlists kids he happens upon.

“There’s always a leader,” he said.”I find that kid and make him responsible. I let the group pick their own team name, colors, uniform. It means something to them. I want the kids to be proud of being from south Omaha.”

He said young people crave “a sense of belonging. They’re ripe for the picking.” His intervention program tries reaching kids before gangs do.

He and fellow officers volunteer as coaches. The consistency of positive adult role models, he said, “is probably the biggest thing missing in a lot of families nowadays.”

Participation’s free. Uniforms provided. But, he said, “we aren’t just giving it out, they have to put out and practice.” They have to act right.

“We emphasize we’re not just coaches, we’re police officers, so if you do get in trouble we’re going to find out about it, and we’d hate for you to embarrass us because we’re here to help you guys out. I’ve had my disappointments. Two leaders turned out to be little gangsters. I recently arrested one of my guys. I take it personally, because I took my chance to change them. I can’t be there every day for them. You can only carry them so far. At some point you gotta let ‘em go, and hopefully that little bit of time we spend with them, they’re going to make the right decision.”

The relationships built, he said, allow kids “to see officers in a different light. It humanizes us. And it gives officers an idea of what it’s like to live down here for these kids. A lot of them come from dysfunctional homes. They tell us their problems.”

The kids he started with are graduating high school and moving on with their lives.

He’s since added a baseball league. He wants to expand his efforts into north Omaha.

Along with mentoring kids, he educates parents about the dangers of gang involvement. He said his bilingual skills and respected family name “open up doors for me.”

He described his award as “huge.” Meeting distinguished Latinos in Austin, he said, “was a big inspiration. Now I know I can achieve higher, I should achieve higher. It means a lot for me to be even considered that caliber of person. But I wouldn’t be where I’m at if I didn’t have other officers and volunteers helping me out on their own time.”

With 300 kids participating, he needs more fields, volunteers, sponsors. “This thing’s only limited by funding,” he said. “It’s a huge commitment, but it’s the right thing to do.”

To donate or volunteer, call 402-510-1495.

Institute for Latin American Concern at Creighton has Dominican focus

July 17, 2012 3 comments

Like a lot of institutions for higher learning Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. offers students, faculty, and staff various international outreach opportuntiees that follow under service learning immersion trips.  Some of Creighton’s most enduring such programs operate through its Institute for Latin American Concern or ILAC, which focuses on the Dominican Republic.  The following story I wrote a few years ago for El Perico newspaper provides a primer on some of the experiences available to the Creighton community there and the give back participants engage in with the native population.
Institute for Latin American Concern at Creighton has Dominican focus
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico

In the mid-1970s a pair of Cuban exiles who became Jesuit priests assigned to Creighton University saw a need to increase North American awareness of developing nations in the region. Revs. Ernesto Fernandez-Travieso and Narciso Sanchez-Medio formed the Institute for Latin American Concern.

The program originally focused on raising consciousness through immersion experiences in the Dominican Republic, a nation of physical beauty and abject poverty. As ILAC’s evolved, its mission has, too. Creighton students and professionals venture there to provide medical-health services and to engage in cross-cultural exchanges.

Creighton annually sends 500 volunteers. Teams of medical surgeons, dentists, specialists, ophthalmologists, nurses, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists and students visit different times of the year. A water quality control team and a law team also go. Area high school students visit, too. The groups vary in size.

Creighton physical therapy program director Julie Ekstrum said the trips offer “a profound experience. Personally, I can’t help but be impacted by the amazingly generous and warm people. Professionally, it challenges me to think more creatively about how I do physical therapy and care for people by making do with fewer resources.”

Ekstrum has been to the D.R. eight times.

Holly Fuller, ILAC director at Creighton, first went to the D.R. as an undergrad.

“I just absolutely fell in love with the experience, the sense of community, and the friendliness and willingness of the people to be open and to take you into their family,” said Fuller, who now spends three months a year there. “It’s very rarely I feel lonely — there’s too much going on.”

Fuller said she applied for her present job in response to “a calling” she felt to address the needs of people beset by unemployment, chronic disease and subsistence living. “I just can’t imagine sitting around hoping that somebody else is going to fix it.”

Holly Fuller

Over time, ILAC’s presence in that poor Caribbean island nation that shares the same land mass as Haiti has increased. The ILAC center, La Mision, near Santiago in the northern reaches, has been built-up into a complex housing clinics that serve rural campos residents. ILAC clinics also operate in remote mountainous territories.

A major thrust is educating Dominicans about preventative care. Village leaders are trained to conduct basic screenings.

“Without the cooperadores and promodores we would not be able to do any of the programs that we do in a legitimate fashion,” said Fuller. “They are one hundred percent our liaison to the different communities. The Dominicans are the experts in their own culture and in their communities, so we really do rely on them. That’s really the only way you can make a successful, sustainable long term program. There’s also mutual collaboration — they share their gifts and talents with us and we share ours with them.”

Dominican native Radalme Pena directs ILAC activities in the D.R., where he heads the nonprofit NGO Centro de Education Para La Salud Integral or CESI that CU’s affiliated with. In an e-mail, Pena, said Creighton visitors “are openly accepted” by Dominicans because of the school’s long-term commitment there. “Creighton students and professionals contribute to the lives of Dominican rural families in a number of ways,” he said. “First, many groups that come to the country help change the infrastructure of rural villages by building schools, homes, aqueducts and bridges” and by serving medical missions at the ILAC Center and in outlying communities in the Cibao Valley.

“Finally,” he added, “these groups contribute to the spiritual development of Dominican communities” through “an intercultural exchange rooted in basic Gospel values and Christian faith.The cross cultural exchange…breaks down stereotypes, builds bridges and creates a world less fragmented and more unified.”

“What ILAC does is kind of two-fold,” said Fuller. “We provide quality health care to people who don’t normally have access to it, but what we really do is help transform Creighton students’ lives. Part of that transformative process is exposing students to the reality of living conditions that most of the world experiences and developing in students a responsibility for being be a part of the solution rather than sitting on the sideline.”

Creighton Public Health major Leah Latenser has made two trips to the D.R. and is prepping for a third this summer. In an e-mail she described how she’s been impacted: “I gained significant perspective on my responsibility as a citizen of the world to stand up for the justice of all people.”

During her visits she worked on a clean water project and an aqueduct, supervised a rural health clinic and assisted women’s groups. For Latenser, Third World poverty is no longer abstract. “Each one of these stories now has a face, a name, and they are a member of my family,” she said. “It makes these issues much more real and urgent.”

When the Haiti earthquake struck in January, ILAC’s Holly Fuller went to the D.R. two days later and helped assist a series of Creighton medical teams that cared for injured refugees over the next month in the southern border region. She’ll be back in June to facilitate CU’s summer program, when 75 students and 20-some professionals go. Three thousand Dominicans are expected to be served.

Pena said as the D. R. has exported the materials and technical knowledge necessary to rebuild the Haitian infrastructure, “bilateral cooperation and relations have improved greatly.” Creighton relief efforts have played a role in the recovery and healing.

For more information about ILAC programs, visit or call 280-3179.

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