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Itzel Anahi Lopez: Young Latina on the rise

March 24, 2018 1 comment

Itzel Anahi Lopez: Young Latina on the rise

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

Rising young Latina professional Itzel Anahi Lopez is making her mark.

This past spring the 20-something earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Bellevue University. Her studies included marketing and communication arts.

She wants to be a CEO, but she already successfully launched her family’s popular restaurant, Maria Bonita, 1921 Missouri Ave., a year ago in August.

According to Lopez the eatery attracts everyone from South Omaha residents to suburbanites to visitors from Mexico. Her mother Miriam is head chef and her father Miguel the jack-of-all-trades assistant. Both her sisters work there.

Lopez manages the busy catering operation that serves major community events, including the Latino Heritage Awards Banquet and Cumbre.

“What we offer is very unique, very personalized. We decorate our banquet tables. It’s all authentic, flavorful, colorful. We go above and beyond.”

The restaurant’s received high praise for its authentic, homestyle food, inspired by the cuisine from the family’s native state of Hidalgo, Mexico, and for its colorful, festive decor. The warm, floral greens, blues, purples, oranges and reds are on a mural adorning the west wall, on signs out front, and on the table tops inside. Miriam’s handmade arts and crafts hang on the walls. Homemade, hand-wrapped candies occupy a display case.

Even the menu and website (www.mariabonitaonline.com) continue the theme.

The distinctive look is a homage to the family’s homeland.

“Where we’re from. it’s just sun all year long,” said Lopez. “My grandparents owned a huge ranch, growing watermelons, papaya, you name it.”

She said her father would harvest the fruit and bring it to the local market, where the entrepreneurial family sold not only produce, but flowers, tacos and craft items.

“My grandmother used to garden. Lots of flowers. Very colorful. That was transmitted from my grandmother to my mother, our mother transmitted that to us. This is what we grew up with — colors, flowers, gardens. It was just all in our lives, So, when we opened this place, we wanted to transmit that in the color scheme. We admire our culture, we love our customs, we want our traditions to still be here.”

Wherever Lopez’s path leads, she said faith and family will be front and center in her life. Education, too. The Omaha South High graduate was the first in her family to attend college. A younger sister followed in her footsteps, just graduating from Creighton University. The sisters’ youngest sibling starts at Central High School in the fall.

Itzel was 14 when she came to America. After a year in ESL classes she was proficient enough in English to join regular classes at South, where she excelled academically and in extracurricular activities.

“I love South and South loves me. They have been very supportive of my restaurant and we support South any way we can.”

She earned South alumni scholarships and other financial support, opting for Bellevue University, where she said she “fell in love with the small class setting and personalized attention from teachers.” Gina Ponce was her mentor and advisor. Her biggest influence though is her mother:. “My mom’s definitely my role model. She’s done great things.”

She’s grateful her father’s dream of sending his girls to college is being fulfilled. “My dad’s dream came true, that’s quite nice,” she said. She’s humbled by how far her family’s come in America in only a decade.

“It’s very satisfying,” she said. “I’m very proud of my family.”

Studying for a master’s may be her next move on the path to “help minorities reach their goals. That’s my passion. That’s why I do all the things I do.” Her community service includes Cinco de Mayo coordination, South Omaha Arts Institute educational outreach and Community Learning Center site supervision (Castelar).

Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol

March 24, 2018 1 comment

Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Self-described social justice warrior, activist and community organizer Amor Habbab-Mills cannot sit idly by while lawmakers decide her fate as a Dreamer and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient.

With President Donald Trump’s deadline for Congress to revamp DACA unmet last fall, she organized a September 10 rally in South Omaha. Dreamers and allies gathered to show solidarity. She then shared her story in a Lincoln Journal-Star op-ed and in the locally produced documentary and play We Are Dreamers.

“It was great because people got to know a little more about our struggle,” she said.

Two weeks ago, with the March 5 deadline looming and redoubled U.S. immigration enforcement efforts placing more undocumented residents in detention, awaiting possible deportation, tensions ran high. True to her “drive to speak up against injustice,” she led a group of Nebraska Dreamers to Washington D.C. to join United We Dream demonstrations demanding Congress act to pass protections and paths for citizenship. It did not.

Thus, those affected like her remain in limbo with DACA provisions slated to end pending a new program.

She’s in the process of obtaining her Green Card.

Before she and her fellow travelers could make the trip, they had to find funds to cover air fare. United We Dream picked-up meals. She donated the hotel tab.

“We raised $1,676,” she said. “It was nice to see our community had our backs and they wanted us to go to D.C. This trip was so important to me and the local movement.”

The Omaha contingent arrived Feb. 28 and returned March 6. They were joined by activists from Centro Hispano in Columbus, Nebraska. The groups coordinated schedule to walk in a planned march.

“My goal was to be there when the Dream Act passed. I had a lot of hope the government would act on March 5 or before,” she said. “I wanted to be there to witness history happen. It did not happen. It was sad. But it was good to be there with other Dreamers. We just get each other. We know exactly what each other has been through. We all share the same heartbreak, the same roadblocks, the same fears.

“The trip opened our eyes about what’s going on in our government and how the Trump administration is pushing its racist agenda on our community.’

She won’t soon forget the experience of rubbing shoulders with thousands of kindred spirits, voicing pro-DACA chants, carrying signs with slogans, and seeing some protesters engage in acts of civil disobedience that resulted in arrest. All unfolding in front of national symbols of power, including the White House.

“It was empowering. It was a breath of fresh air and a reminder we’re not alone in the fight. it made me feel not as afraid, not as worried. It put things into perspective.

“The march was really the highlight of the visit. That’s why we went there. We walked to Capitol Hill. We had an ‘artivism’ moment where we put some paper flowers on the ground that read: ‘We Rose Unafraid.’ We wanted to beautify the word undocumented to bring attention that we’re not afraid” (and not apologetic).

“It was a great experience. It opened my eyes to how much support we actually have,” trip participant David Dominguez-Lopez said.

The local group plead their case to Nebraska Republican Congressman Don Bacon.

“We did a (peaceful) office takeover of Rep. Bacon’s office,” Habbab-Mills said. “We went there because he’s said he supports Dreamers. We appreciate that. But we don’t appreciate him supporting bills, such as the Secure and Succeed Act, that will harm our community.”

The proposed legislation seeks to secure the border, end chain migration, cancel the visa lottery and find a permanent solution for DACA tied to building a wall.

“We were there sharing our stories, chanting and asking him to not vote for the Secure Act. It’s this horrible bill that would build a stupid wall, give more money to the Department of Homeland Security so they can do raids and put more agents on the street.”

Given the Republican majority’s anti-immigration stance, Habbab-Mills is leery of promises. Distrust intensified when leaked government memos revealed discussions to use the National Guard to maintain border security

She’s concerned “more families are going to be apart” in the wake of immigration crackdowns.

“On a personal level, if my mom were to get pulled over by a cop who does not like immigrants, she faces a good chance of being deported. The fact I cannot help her, breaks my heart. Under the current political climate, we need a way to protect family members under attack.”

Another goal of the trip was “to plant the seed of social justice with the Dreamers who went,” she said, “and that’s what’s happened,” adding, “Everyone’s ready to get things going back home to stop the Secure Act.”

“it inspired me to learn more and be active in my community and to work with Amor and the rest of the ‘D.C. gang,'” said Dominguez-Lopez.

Habbab-Mills traces her own social activism to seeing disparity growing up in Mexico City and to doing Inclusive Communities camps here. She earned high marks at Duchesne Academy and Creighton University. She founded the advocacy group Nebraska Dreamers. She works as a legal assistant at a law firm and is eying law school. She hopes to practice immigration and human rights law.

Meanwhile, she amplifies Dreamer’s voices for change.

“If we’re not the ones speaking up, who else will? We want people to know we are educated and even though we cannot vote, we have the power to influence people on how they vote. Social media is huge for us.

“Bringing awareness to the issues is a way of creating change. Planting that seed will bloom into a more just society one day. I think it’s a duty to speak up when something’s not right. If i don’t, I’m part of the problem.”

Follow Nebraska Dreamers on Facebook.

Having attained personal and professional goals, Alina Lopez now wants to help other Latinas

March 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Having attained personal and professional goals, Alina Lopez now wants to help other Latinas

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

When new UNO Office of Latino and Latin American Studies community engagement coordinator Alina Lopez appears at public forums and school assemblies to tout OLLAS academic programs and scholarships, she speaks from experience.

This 2017 magna cum laude University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate found OLLAS opportunities herself as a volunteer and a Next Generation Leadership scholar.

Embedded in her outreach is a desire to help Latinas pursue higher education. She doesn’t want them deferring their dreams due to challenges like those she faced as a young mother in a domestic violence relationship. She lets aspirants know obstacles don’t need to prevent attaining goals. She delayed her college studies a decade until leaving her abuser. Once free, she shined in the classroom and blossomed as a woman and as a professional.

Born in Michoacan, Mexico, she was 3 when her family moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., where they lived until she was 12. Then they moved to Ogden, Utah. Concerns about undocumented status and the death of her grandfather prompted the family’s return to Mexico. Though an exceptional student, she struggled in Mexican schools and convinced her parents to let her return to the States.

She joined an older sister then living in Bellevue, Neb. Lopez graduated from Bryan High School – the last of five high schools she attended.

“I think I grew to be okay with change. I can adapt very well. But when you’re 15-16, parental guidance is essential. Not having that was the toughest part.”

Lopez married young and began having children. She’s the mother of five today.. She was an Omaha Public Schools ESL specialist and administrative aide at her alma mater, Bryan, where she helped coach girls soccer. Assistant principal Tracy Wernsman emboldened her.

“She was a mentor who was like an angel sent from God,” said Lopez. “She talked me through things like, ‘If you leave that relationship, you’ll be okay, you can do it,’ and so in 2011 I finally had the guts to say, ‘No more.’ Tracy told me I had great potential and needed to pursue college. Once I became liberated, I pursued it.”

Another strong influence has been Spring Lake Magnet principal Susan Aguilera-Robles.

“She is a great role model for me. She’s gone through a lot and dedicated her life to helping others. Being the principal of a school takes a lot. I know she has really bad days and really good days, but she’s made it work

and she makes it look easy.”

Lopez worked multiple jobs to support her family while earning an associate’s degree from Metropolitan Community College. Then she enrolled at UNO.

“Trying to figure it all out was very challenging and stressful, but well worth it.”

None of it was possible without first taking her life back.

“It makes you a stronger person. For a woman to get out of it is empowering. It makes you want to mentor other females going through the same. You don’t want anybody else to go through what you went through.”

School provided sanctuary and affirmation.

“After being divorced, you feel like a failure. When I enrolled in college I wanted to feel good about myself and to make up for lost time. It was a personal goal to attain a 4.0 GPA and I did it. I’m hungry to learn. I’m hard on myself. I want to give the best of me. I know what I’m capable of and so I push myself. School has always been my safe place. When I’m studying, it feels peaceful, so I’ve dedicated myself to school.”

She’s now eying a dual masters program in public administration and social work. She expects to earn a  Ph.D. as well.

Her curiosity extends beyond books. She participated in an international student program that took her to Hong Kong for five weeks last summer, where she joined other students from around the world. “I thought if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it, and it was life-changing. If I could go back, I’d do it all over again.”

She went beyond her job description at Bryan to influence young people.

“I was drawn to the kids who carried the most challenges with them. I wanted to know who they were, what they were going through. I also encouraged Latinas to seek post-secondary scholarships. It felt really good.”

While studying at UNO, Lopez became a regular in the OLLAS office and when the community engagement coordinator post opened, it seemed a perfect fit.

“Every single thing has led me to this point. I saw UNO and OLLAS offered the opportunity for more growth and academic success. We’re here to support students.”

She envisions one day realizing another dream – “to start an organization dedicated to young Latino women.” “I feel sometimes we let our culture oppress ourselves,” she said, “especially the immigrant community. We tend to look at our culture as more important than anything. For me, the thought of divorce was not even an option because when you marry, you marry until death do you part. A lot of women stay in a bad life and don’t receive support from family to leave it. I wish to help Latinas who don’t find support elsewhere.”

Lopez, who formed a single parent group at UNO, has come a long way herself.

“It’s been quite the journey.”

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