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Home is where the heart Is for activist attorney Rita Melgares

July 20, 2012 6 comments

In the collective public consciousness attorneys tend to fall into extreme categories: either as public defenders or prosecutors, or as those who fight for the little guy and those that represent the interests of big business or big government or the super rich.  Rita Melgares is definitely on the side of the Everyman or Everywoman.  She has some serious cred to back up her community oriented, social action mission as an activist attorney looking out for the underdog.
 
photo
Rita in 1971 at Adams State, ©Nielsen Library

Home is where the heart Is for activist attorney Rita Melgares

©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Activist attorney Rita Melgares was a divorced single mother of four from the Southwest when moved here to attend Creighton University Law School. She didn’t intend staying. But 35 years later she’s still here, still helping her people, doing legal work for newcomer families, handling juvenile justice cases and some criminal law.

This mother and grandmother is still raising kids. She shares a home in Benson with a son who is a single father. She helps rear his three youngest, whom she refers to as “my boys.” It’s the latest path on a journey that’s kept family at the center of things.

Mexico is where her ancestral lines extend. New Mexico is where both her parents came from. She can trace her genealogy back three centuries there. Southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley is where the former Lourdes Rita Martinez was born and raised. But Omaha is where her interest in law and social justice coalesced. Her parents Esquipula and Jose Martinez modeled service for Rita and her seven siblings.

She said her parents did not join groups or pull boycotts, but expressed a sense of grassroots social justice by helping people in need. She recalls her folks feeding the less fortunate and working with the police to make sure the neighborhood was safe.

The Martinez children fulfilled an expectation of achievement and service. “All eight of us have an undergraduate degree and several of us went on to advanced degrees,” she said. “Three of us are attorneys. My sister is a retired schools administrator.”

Growing up Latino meant dealing with racism. The experience of oppression provides context for her work in protecting people’s rights. “The racism against Latinos had its own flavor in the area i grew up in. You felt it, you knew it, and it continues,” she said.

Another vital experience was the social ferment of the 1960s.

“I’m a product of the ’60s. I was fascinated with the civil rights struggles and I wanted to march with the people, I wanted to be an active participant in those struggles. Two of my brothers were very active in the anti-war movement and the Chicano movement in the Southwest. When we came of age there was a movement of people you could join. It was both noble and exciting. I matured into that. It’s an interesting part of my life and I don’t think I’ve ever left it behind.”

Thrusting herself into the fray had to wait because she married right after high school and became a mom. Her invovlement came while earning a secondary education degree at Adams State College and then teaching English there.

“I challenged every course I could and I graduated with honors from college in three years and I became an activist. The Chicano movement was working very hard to democratize the campuses of the Southwest and so I was active in the student movement. César Chavez and the farm workers union was very strong in Colorado. I also had the background of northern New Mexico and the land grant issue. Those were the pressing issues in that environment.”

Feeling she could make more impact outside  the classroom, she followed two of her brothers in the study of law. She was accepted by several schools but chose Creighton. Her experience there was bittersweet.

“Creighton prepared me very well as an attorney but it was one of the loneliest experiences in my life. I was far from home, the only Latino in the College of Law and there was no social activism. The dean pulled me aside very early in my freshman year and gave me the name of the director of the Chicano Awareness Center (now the Latino Center of the Midlands) and said, ‘I think you should go and meet those people.’ I think he had a sense that with the social activism I came from I wouldn’t last at Creighton if I didn’t have something that would anchor me in the community.”

Melgares said she “became a great friend” of the center. She took a leave from school to work with youth there, along the way reconnecting with her cultural and social activist roots. “A lot of the same issues we found everywhere existed in Omaha. I could participate in the people’s movement here and it was doing that when I really fell in love with South Omaha. I realized this was where the struggle was, this was where i could find the nexus to Omaha and to my soul and spirit, and so I’ve just always been close to south Omaha since then.” Her office is a converted duplex at 3927 So. 24th St.

She served on the center’s board, one of many south Omaha boards she’s served on.

Upon graduating from Creighton in 1979 she won a fellowship that placed her with the Omaha Legal Aid Society, where she worked nine years with the disenfranchised.

Following a stint with a downtown law firm she made the break and went on her own in 1994. Family law became her focus. “That’s where I saw you could make a difference in helping people pull their lives together. It’s been my privilege to work for the undocumented. It is not a popular community to work for. Immigration issues have a huge impact on family. Unfortunately it can be a very negative influence, a very sad outcome when you have families separated, when you have parents always looking over their shoulder because deportation is on their back, people afraid to move right or left because they have no documentation.”

The disruption is made worse by the recession. She said it’s hard enough for U.S. born or visa holding citizens to find a job in this climate, but even harder for those with no social security number, little schooling and limited English. She bristles at critics of immigrants, saying south Omaha’s rejuvenation is due to the newcomer population.

“They breathed life back into south Omaha. Nobody’s getting rich on South 24th St. but my gosh the economic wheel is being moved and it’s being moved on the backs of the immigrant community. It’s exciting. I think the watering of the cultural roots helps the entire community. Everything Latinos bring with them, from whatever their country of origin, they share with each other and with the larger community. I think they help Omaha and Nebraska in every which way. I understand the numbers overwhelm schools and health care, but the numbers also bring spirit and economic life.”

Her passion for her people has seen her throw herself into the life of the Latino community. “You don’t gain a community’s trust just because you want to or you’re a good person or you have a good heart. I think you have to work at the vineyard first, and I did that,” she said.

Battling to gain Latinos an equal place at the table “wasn’t easy,” she said, but she “kept knocking at the door, sometimes gently, sometimes pushing” herself in. “I think long after I’m gone we will still be trying to dialogue meaningfully about race.”

Being twice recognized with lifetime achievement awards for her work in the Latino community, she said, only “underscores” the fact that despite not being from Omaha “I have really matured here and worked hard here. Wow, lifetime achievement, I guess I have spent a lifetime in Omaha. And it’s been a very good life.”

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Old Market-based artist Sora Kimberlain: A life in art

July 20, 2012 3 comments

By now I have met many artists and while I make no claims to be one myself it’s pretty apparent to me that creatives more or less share a core set of traits in common, so much so that when I visit an artist’s studio I usually feel right at home there, even if they do sculpture or painting or make music as opposed to what I do, which is journalism.  There’s a process in each form or medium and the workspace, which may double as a living space, as in my case, is an assemblage of the tools and ideas and falsestarts and finished products that are a part of that process.  One of the artists whose studios I visited is Sora Kimerlain, and her spaces perfectly reflect her life in art.
 Modern Arts Midtown
Sora Kimberlain, ©photo by minorwhitestudios
Old Market-based artist Sora Kimberlain: A life in art
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine

Painter, drawer, sculptor, installation artist Sora Kimberlain visited Omaha in the early 1980s. The kindred spirits she met here convinced her to stay.

The Cincinnati native lived in Calif. then. The fresh-from-art-school bohemian came to see an Omaha friend and soon got swept up by Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman and their experimental Omaha Magic Theatre.

For years Kimberlain helped create touring, multi-media, performance art-theater pieces that broke the Fourth Wall. The OMT has since closed, but its impact remains.

“Creating the installation pieces in the theater is really altering a space. Sometimes I see that influence come out in my sculpture work,” she said, referring to her small bronze figures in self-contained environments and convergent, theater-like installations.

Her work often depicts flowing figures interacting with the spaces they inhabit. The figures’ charged presence alters the lived environment around them.

“The moving image, the kinetic part of it, has been a strong piece of who I am going way back to art school,” she said. “My painting has always been more on the expressionistic side, so from the very beginning I was intrigued about the energy of people.”

A new series of paintings captures the ephemeral, effervescent figure in motion.

“It’s kind of a continual inspiration for me, this very kinetic energy, and that basically at our core we’re real electrical beings. I love that, I find it endlessly fascinating.”

She enjoys the physical, tactile experience of making art. Each medium she works in, she said, gives her “a different fuel” for what she wants to express.

On one level or another her work reveals narrative.

“We are the stories written on us and we’re the stories that we give off in that energy,” she said. “If it’s not a tattoo, it’s something else, a scar or something we say or the way we move, it’s something distinct about us. We all have these amazing stories that are kind of intrinsic to who we are. It’s always in flux.”

 

 

The tension of seeking permanence amid life’s fluidity is a new theme of her work.

“I’m really interested right now in the juxtaposition of the things that we think are really lasting in our lives with the impermanence of it all. It’s that thing about, Where are we all going? We take things so seriously sometimes.”

Kimberlain said a work is only truly finished “when somebody engages with it, somebody wants to live with it,” adding, “When they buy it and take it home, the work is complete now, it’s got its home.”

She’s exhibited locally at the Bemis and the RNG Gallery and farther afield in San Francisco, Sicily and Bali.

“A huge passion is seeing other parts of the world,” she said. “Whenever I get that opportunity or luxury, I’m off. I get such inspiration from other cultures.”

As much as she loves “going in and out” of Omaha, what keeps her rooted here is “a lot of great friends,” including her interior design life partner. The longtime downtown resident is “content” with her neighborhood in the shadow of the 10th Street Bridge. She has a studio in her “perfect place” apartment at the historic Bull

Durham Building in the Old Market and a second studio a couple blocks away.

The growing Omaha arts community pleases her. While she doesn’t make much of an income from art, she said, “I try to live true to what I am.”

Visit Sora’s website at www.sorakimberlain.com.

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