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Home is where the heart Is for activist attorney Rita Melgares


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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  1. August 10, 2012 at 3:16 am

    Thank you so very much for this story on my Aunt who I have not seen since I was about 5 years old. I have wanted to find her for years and tell her that she has served as a great inspiration to me all of my life. Growing up, my mother always would say how my “Aunt Rita, never quit on herself, she is what I hope you will grow up and do too…go to school, learn as much as you can and never let a man try to put you down….Your Aunt Rita did it and so can you!” Hearing this through the years always made me feel so proud and made me feel like I too could do anything in the world that I set my mind to and I have. Please pass this on to my Aunt Rita and let her know I still remember and admire her deeply.
    Sincerely,
    Marjorie Melgares-Cosgrove

    Like

  1. July 24, 2012 at 1:41 pm
  2. August 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm
  3. August 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm
  4. August 19, 2012 at 5:48 pm

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