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Washington Garcia’s international music career finds perfect balance in Omaha

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Washington Garcia’s international music career finds perfect balance in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

UNO School of Music Director Washington Garcia’s destiny was set the first time he tickled the keys of his grandmother’s piano at age 4 in his native Ecuador.

“I’ve always considered myself blessed to know my purpose in life from very early on,” Garcia said. “That’s a gift not many people have. My family knew my mission was to come to the United States one day. They trained me from a young age to prepare for it. They had me learn English. They mentored me so I would mature to be in a leadership position.”

Though born into a musical family, he’s the only one to have made music a career. His father’s a retired neurosurgeon. His mother, a retired accountant.

His talent was so evident that by 6 he enrolled in Ecuador’s National Conservatory of Music. His first public performance came at 7. Recognizing the prodigy in their midst, conservatory leaders created a program for him. He advanced quickly enough to debut with the Ecuadorian National Symphony Orchestra at only 15.

He won several prestigious piano competitions. He made his international debut in Chile. He’s since performed all over Europe as well as in Canada, Israel, Mexico, Colombia, Japan and China.

Whatever he’s done and wherever he’s gone, he’s felt his parents’ support.

“They knew instinctively music was going to be my tool to connect Ecuador with the world. My parents opened many doors for me because of their perseverance.”

He enjoys national hero status in his native land as a recipient of the Outstanding Cultural Achievement medal – the highest recognition the Ecuadorian National Assembly awards an individual for artistic excellence.

Getting this far has meant sacrifice.

“I didn’t really have a normal childhood practicing piano five or six hours a day in addition to going to private piano and English lessons, doing regular school courses and homework and attending the National Conservatory.

“These were highly intensive academic and artistic activities I invested all of myself into. I don’t regret it. I would do exactly the same thing again.”

He feels in music he’s found the great common ground.

“Music has the power to connect us all,” he said. “When I travel abroad, language is a barrier, but the moment I perform music it connects us. Music is the language of the soul. I’ve created so many relationships and associations with people who don’t speak a word of English. They understand immediately that music is a bridge between cultures.”

The University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Music he leads is all about making connections.

Said Garcia, “Music has so many angles that impact community. We place music teachers in the schools. Our faculty tour the nation and world. We host an international music festival and visiting teaching artists.”

“We have been able to enhance our visibility on a national and international level. It allows us to bring the world to Omaha. We’re like an ambassador for the city.”

Coming to Omaha culminated a love affair with America. He first came to the U.S. in the late 1990s as a Kennedy Center Fellow in Washington D.C. That led him to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he earned his master’s and doctorate.

“I was the institute”s youngest Latin American graduate in piano performance.”

He taught there before being hired by Texas State University. He became assistant director of TSU’s music school. Then “the right opportunity” appeared at UNO. A national search for the founding director of UNO’s newly established school of music led recruiters to Garcia. He and his wife Valeria moved to Omaha in December 2015. He assumed the post the following January.

In addition to administrative duties, he’s a full tenured professor of piano at UNO.

“I run my life based on mission and one of my missions is to teach and give to others what I have received in terms of artistic and academic knowledge.”

He arrived in the middle of the school year during an accreditation review.

“It was a challenge,” he said, “but I’ve always loved challenges as opportunities to learn and grow from. Still, it almost felt like somebody dropped me from a plane and I had no idea if I had a parachute or not. I pulled the plug on what looked like a parachute. It opened and then I looked for the safest place to land. I landed and  started running and I haven’t stopped since.

“It’s been a really fast pace. We’ve accomplished a lot of initiatives and collaborations. We would like to establish the School of Music as one of the top academic and artistic institutions in Nebraska and the nation. We have    everything it takes – a great faculty and support from the community and the university – to make this happen.”

Like his faculty, he also performs. He’s played with the Omaha Symphony and he does special engagements nationally and internationally.

Every performance is an opportunity to serve.

“I pray every time before I perform that God will help me inspire those who hear me with the gift of music. I want to be for young people who desire a career in music but may not have the means what my parents were for me.”

He feels fortunate.

“The U.S. gave me a free education, a job and continues giving me the opportunity to serve others. That is why this is my home. When I go to Ecuador or anywhere abroad  I feel like a visitor. After a week I’m ready to go back home.

“My wife and I know we have a mission to complete here in Omaha. This is our family.”

He and Valeria have a 2-year-old child and are expecting their second child in December.

Visit washingtongarcia.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Expressionistic images by Elisa Morera Benn

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

 

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Expressionistic images by Elisa Morera Benn

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Costa Rica native Elisa Morera Benn of Omaha has been making art infused with the colors and passions of her tropical Central American homeland since childhood.

“All my life my surroundings have been full of contrasts. Shades of green, red, orange, a whole range of intensities and feelings. It is impossible to separate artists from their visual and emotional environment,” she said.

She’s one of four siblings born to a customs agent father and stay-at-home mother.

“My father worked hard to give his children a private education. He later managed to open his own business.”

Benn studied with masters. Each gave her something that grew her as an artist.

“With Francisco Alvarado Avella, I learned the eroticism that always covered his paintings. With Soraya Goicoechea the realism of the portrait. With Max Rojas, the use of expressionism. With Isabel Naranjo, realism. With Rodolfo Rocha, I learned how to mix all these techniques.”

Her work’s shown internationally at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France and at galleries and museums in Fabriano, Italy, Juarez, Mexico, Toronto, Canada and Houston, Texas.

Since moving to America with her husband, Dr. Douglas Benn, an adjunct professor at the Creighton University School of Dentistry, she’s consistently shown her work in Nebraska. She recent exhibited at the Artists Cooperative Gallery in the Old Market. She has work at the Burkholder Project in Lincoln. She’ll show some pieces at her studio during the Hot Shops open house in December.

She and her husband reside in a near downtown home accented by her own art and by artwork they’ve collected. The couple met five years ago in Costa Rica when he visited there. They married three years ago.

Benn was no stranger to America, where she traveled on school vacations and visited an aunt in Florida.

“Once I moved here, I fell in love with Omaha, which is full of art.”

As a girl in Costa Rica a school teacher and a newly arrived classmate from Cuba affirmed her talent.

“All my life I have painted and drawn,” said Benn, who found her voice in art.

“My formal studies were in architecture but I didn’t finish. But always the drawing was in my blood,”

Like any artist, she finds inspiration in many sources. The paintings of Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt and his use of gold leaf foil are particularly influential.

“Klimt’s symbolism seems extraordinary to me – the way he uses symbolism and geometric patterns, which I always use in my work.”

Expressionism best describes her style, though she incorporates elements of surrealism as well.

“We live in anxiety about humanity’s increasingly discordant relationship with the world and accompanying lost feelings of authenticity and spirituality. I am an expressionist and as such support the rebellion to be free from academic restrictions. I want to be free in the way I express myself.”

The style fits her temperament and vision.

“These techniques were meant to convey the emotional state of my feelings and my art reacting to the anxieties of the modern world with all the problems of this particular period of time. This style allows me to have that freedom of expression.

“True art always causes an emotion in the spectator. When I succeed in transmitting the feeling I want to reflect in my painting to the viewer then I feel I have achieved my goal.””

She often deals with women’s emotional states in her work.

“Capturing the emotions and feelings reflected in a face is a challenge. I achieve feeling THROUGH a painting. Reflecting the model’s expression of joy, sadness, excitement, sensuality, for me is a challenge that I like.”

When dealing with women subjects she uses eroticism to capture mood and atmosphere.

“Why not? These feelings are part of human beings.”

After all, she said, seduction and mysticism are well known ways to captivate viewers.

“There are many ways to convey eroticism,” she said. “All of Georgia O’Keefe’s work is wrapped in eroticism and sensuality in a very subliminal way. Then there are the very criticized erotic drawings of (Gustave) Courbet’s realism, which is not my message, nor my style. I prefer the model of the painting have the expression and leave the rest to the imagination.

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Benn’s imagination sometimes supplies the human figures in her work. Other times she works from live models.

“The imaginary models are easier to work with. When one makes a painting of a live model, more is known by friends and family, so the level of accuracy has to be higher, which is more difficult. Normally everyone has a mental image of how we see ourselves, so to satisfy the model and also make the painting in your style, it’s quite a challenge.”

She makes her paintings directly on wood and enjoys the texture the surface gives her work.

“I really like how the lines of wood are mixed inside the face of my paintings. When I paint on canvas, the backgrounds go with the personality of the models. For example, I painted a friend who is a metal sculptor, so her surroundings have to be where she was born here in the USA and what she does.”

Visit http://www.artistamorera.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Lifelong fascination with history feeds Bill Gonzalez and his photo archival work at Durham Museum

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Lifelong fascination with history feeds Bill Gonzalez and his photo archival work at Durham Museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

A glass plate portrait loaded with family secrets and a chance exposure to a noted photographic collection foreshadowed the photo activist work Bill Gonzalez does today at Durham Museum.

He grew up in South Omaha the oldest of eight children of Mexican immigrant parents. An old image of his grandparents in Mexico intrigued him enough as a boy to ask questions. He discovered his maternal grandfather was a wealthy rancher who married multiple times to younger women. Then there was the tale of a great aunt in the family’s ancestral village who was hidden from marauding bandits in the lawless post-Mexican Revolution years.

“I found all that about my heritage really interesting,” he said. “The stories I heard provided me with a connection to that part of my family I never knew.”

A 1967 slideshow at South High School showing select photos of early Omaha from the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection motivated him to learn about the stories behind the people, places and events of his hometown.

“Those pictures made such a deep impression on me. Something that happened so far back led to something a lot greater in my life.”

Studying historical photos, he said, “is like looking through a window into the past.”

“You can see people as they were doing what they were doing at a certain period in time. You can’t travel into the past but you can look into it. That’s kind of neat.”

Gonzalez was always inquisitive and an avid reader.

“I mean, how many 11-year-olds do you know that read ‘The Illiad’? I was a nerdy kid. I wasn’t into playing baseball and things like that. I spent a lot of time in the South Omaha library.”

He’s the product of tough love.

“When I found out other kids got an allowance, I broached the subject with my dad. I said, ‘Popi, don’t you think I should get an allowance?’ He said, ‘Hijo, I allow you to live.’ So I started hustling – running errands for neighbors, cutting grass, shoveling snow. I got my social security card at 12. I’ve done everything – you name it.”

Nothing was as satisfying as his current Durham gig.

“The best part of my job is helping people find pictures they have personal connections to, like the neighborhood church, school, movie theater or park they used to go to. When I can find a picture that means something special to somebody, that is the best high I can get.

“Anytime I find pictures of South Omaha, they evoke memories in me, I know that part of town. South Omaha in its own right is very historic. It’s such an eclectic mixture of ethnic groups and nationalities. It’s contributed heavily to the prosperity of this town. Thousands upon thousands of people are living here today because an ancestor came to South Omaha to work in the packinghouses.”

He takes seriously the role the archive serves.

“We’re the keepers of the past. I really think what we have here and what we do here is very important. It provides a continuity of memory. Museums and archives really are the storehouses of memories of humanity.”

In searching for pictures in the Durham collections, he said, “it helps if you’re a native Omahan.”

“I know about places that used to be, things that happened. Not just pieces of memories, but history. I’ve got a mind like a black suit that picks up white lint or in this case little pieces of information. I am not an expert, but I know a little bit about a lot of things, and it’s all useful.”

Experience helps, too. “I’ve been here 13 years-plus, so by now I have a fairly good idea of what we have in the collections that might be pertinent. Sometimes I have to piece together information to figure out what I’m looking for and where to find it .Where to find it is the trick because we have so many collections. Usually I can narrow it down to one collection.”

 

From the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, this 1911 image was taken on top of the Union Pacific Railroad Building at 14th & Dodge streets looking east.

 

He compares the searches he makes to a hunt.

“I go out and hunt pictures down for people. It’s a lot easier now than when I started because we didn’t have any of this stuff digitized in a searchable data base. There’s still a lot of hit and miss searching. I strike out a lot. I wish I could have a picture for everything everybody wants, but I don’t. But now you can go online and search for this stuff by keywords. It makes it more accessible to more people more of the time.”

He conducts searches for “a wide range of people with a wide range of interests from personal to professional.”

Educators, historians, journalists, students, laborers, and folks from other walks of life request his help.

He works with highly educated interns and staff but feels he has something to contribute they cannot.

“Here I am a high school graduate and yet I can sit and talk to them about things they don’t have any background on.”

Gonzalez might never have done this work if not for an injury on his previous job that forced early retirement.

“I was sitting at home trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life when this came along. It pulled me back into the world.”

He began as a volunteer before joining the paid staff.

“I couldn’t have found a better position for someone of my bent who enjoys history and loves the history of his town. I don’t really think of it as a job.”

He’s discovered “there’s a whole world of people out there that have the same interest” he does in history.

The Durham photo archive is a resource for the whole community, he emphasizes.

“It belongs to everybody.  It’s available for the public to use.”

For Gonzalez, there’s nothing better than sharing his passion with others.

“I love showing my pictures to people, telling them what they’re looking at.”

He’s grown a following for his Flashback Friday posts on the Durham’s Facebook page.

He makes occasional public presentations.

“I’d like to do more of that because that’s what got me hooked on this. I’d love to go out and talk to a group of kids and maybe have one of those kids study history or get involved with the museum because of what they saw. That would be a neat thing.

“It would be full circle.”

Contact the museum’s photo archive department at photoarchive@durhammuseum.org or by phone at 402-444-5071.

The archive can be searched online anytime at durhammuseum.contentdm.oclc.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.


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Stereoscopic photo of 3rd Nebraska Volunteers in parade after their return from the Spamish-American War and the

viewfinder used to see this and other early 3D images.

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From the John Savage Collection. When Omaaha’s downtown sidewalks teemeed with people.
This is from circa 1967 outside J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store.

Diana Rogel: A life of service

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Diana Rogel: A life of service

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Diana ‘Ariss’ Rogel Mendoza

Diana Rogel

 

In the calling she feels to serve others, Diana Rogel of Omaha often addresses community needs.

“I feel like that is my reason for being here,” she said.

Rogel’s done tobacco prevention education in minority communities through UNMC’s Center for Reducing Health Disparities, She’s trained facilitators to dialogue with Latinos on sexual identity issues for a National Human Rights Campaign project, As ßLead Navigator-Program Specialist with the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership, she informed underserved groups about affordable healthcare options.

Now, as Student Advocate with the Latino Center of the Midlands, she’s working with Ralston Public Schools in the Pathways to Success Program.

“I am part of an organization and a program that wants to be that bridge for students to use to get to the next level,” she said of her LCM position. “I am a mentor to students at Ralston High School. For me the absolute most important thing is that youth feel like there are people that care about them and will advocate for them.”

Growing up, Rogel didn’t seriously consider college since she didn’t see other Latinas following that path. That changed when an adult in her life encouraged her to try. It’s what she now does for youths.

“I get to work with students that may not (otherwise) see people that look like me at school. I think representation is very important for students – to see that people like them can be successful. I don’t necessarily just serve Latino students. I serve all types of students who may feel disconnected. As an adult mentor looking out for them, I create that sense of belonging and as a woman of color, I say, ‘Look, I’m successful, you can be, too.'”

Making a difference motivates her.

“Leaving things better than how I found them really satisfies me. I know I did a good job when I’m able to connect people and those relationships build and people utilizd services because of some part that I played.”

Many community projects she initially spearheaded continue going strong today, including outreach efforts at OneWorld Community Health Centers and the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition.

“It’s really comforting to have projects be taken up by  organizations. Then I can go onto my next thing knowing it’s in good hands.

“I’m always working on the next thing, the next project.”

The University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate recently enhanced her professional development as a New Leaders Council Leadership Institute fellow.

“The Institute looks for people in the community making an impact. We learned how to be better directors and supports of nonprofits and even to create more opportunities for others to lead, to follow and to mentor through entrepreneurship. We learned all these aspects that create progressive values and communities.

“We each took on a capstone project to implement in the community and see it through. My capstone is to create a youth conference that helps youth of color identify what their next steps are after high school, whether a four-year university or a two-year certification program or a vocational school. The conference will also get youth connected with resources in the community.”

She also wants to connect young Spanish-speakers to jobs-careers where dual language fluency is in demand.

Rogel’s working with LCM and partners to make the conference a reality in 2019.

“If I see a gap where things aren’t in place for youth to be successful, then I want to be a part of creating that for them. I take that to heart,” said the mother of two, “because if I pave the road for them, then when I’m old and gray they’re going to look out for me.”

A decade ago she noted Omaha lacked a young professionals network for Latinos, so she co-founded the Metro Young Latino Professionals Association.

“I took great pride in being able to form that group because we didn’t have anything like it and we had to create it from scratch. It has a huge membership today.”

This daughter of immigrant parents (her mother’s from Mexico and her father’s from El Salvador) grew up in Los Angeles. At 19 she moved to Omaha to be near her godmother and to pursue higher education.

“I really had a passion to learn more about my own culture and history. I helped reactivate the Latino student association on campus (UNO). My involvement got me noticed by the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies – OLLAS. I pretty much got recruited to be a part of that program.”

While a UNO student she worked as an OLLAS intern, went on a service learning trip to Peru and did field studies among Latinos in rural Nebraska communities.

“It made me realize the only way to help my community is to learn about it and to be a resource. That’s what I sought to do once I graduated – to build bridges and to get connected.”

Her role models include fellow Latinas Lourdes Gouveia, the former director of OLLAS, and community activist Marta Nieves.

Through Gouveia, Rogel said, “i’ve learned how to have tough conversations with people who feel disenfranchised and discriminated against.” Rogel said she’s inspired by the leadership Nieves shows and her ability “to bring people together.”

Rogel serves on the Nebraska Democratic Party’s Latinix Caucus board.

“Once I’m a little bit guided. I just take it and run.”

Looking ahead, she said, “I do see myself continuing to serve where I see gaps. I also see myself running a nonprofit that develops skills for youth, particularly in language.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Marta Nieves: Woman with a purpose

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Image result for marta nieves omaha

 

Marta Nieves: Woman with a purpose

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Community advocate and organizational development expert Marta Nieves, 81, nearly always finds the silver lining.

“I’m a visionary. I can envision so many positive things,” said Nieves.

The bilingual Nieves has family roots in Cuba. Born in Tampa, Florida, she grew up in New York City, where she learned life lessons from her grandmother Theresa.

“Her philosophy has really impacted me,” Nieves said. “She was very open and thought everybody is worthy of being treated with dignity if they are honest and respectful. The word spread to anybody coming from Cuba, ‘Go to Theresa’s house and she will give you a good meal and be supportive.'”

Nieves comes from a strong line of women.

“The women in my family were brilliant but they didn’t get far in school. If they had the opportunities I had, they’d be in the history books. I said, ‘It’s not going to be that way for me or for my kids.’ I was the first one in my family to go to college. I’ve been a determined person my whole life and I’m not going to change now.”

Her family moved from Tampa to escape discrimination. NYC’s melting pot shaped her life.

“I’m very grateful I grew up in a multicultural environment. That diversity’s helped me to get along with many different kinds of people. I’ve developed a natural trust of people. That belief has held me in very good stead my entire life. I make a choice to set aside any preconceived notions.”

Before pursuing higher ed, she used her hand-arts skills.

“I went through the Central Needle Trades High School in New York. I got placed in one of the better (fashion) houses when I graduated but then I got married and moved to Washington D.C. I’ve always been a doer, so I went to work at a milliner shop in Maryland.”

She moved with her career U.S. Air Force husband from station to station, including Ankara, Turkey, the Philippines and Great Falls, Montana. When, in 1969, they moved to Bellevue for his final post at SAC headquarters the couple had four kids. Upon his retirement, they made Nebraska home.

Through all her travels and experiences, she’s never wavered from core beliefs.

“I care about what happens to people. I have an undergraduate in psychology and a master’s in social work. I chose social work specifically because it gives me many avenues to work on the positive side of things. A lot of social workers try to fix problems. My philosophy is you need to do prevention so the problem doesn’t arise in the first place. The different organizations I have worked with all have prevention in mind.

“If I can make the world a better place for others, it’s making it a better place for me and my family.”

Though she’s mostly worked with nonprofits, she enjoyed an 11-year career at United Healthcare, where she guided “culture change.”

“I still run into people who tell me they never found another work environment like we had there.”

For the national Girl Scouts council she helped develop programs that allowed Latino employees to increase their educational attainment and get promoted. One program enabled her to finish college and become local girl scouts program director.

She’s taught cultural competency, change management, conflict resolution and team work for many groups. She facilitates enhanced interpersonal relationships within organizations. Clients learn to identify biases and negative attitudes and to adopt positive mindsets.

“A big part of the work I’ve done in all these organizations is build self-awareness. The decision making is up to the person. but the self-awareness has to be there or nothing changes.

“I’m a systems person. If I have a vision and can gather people around me to share that vision, it’s amazing what can happen. You can’t tell me something can’t be done because I’ve done things people said couldn’t be done. I’m a problem-solver.”

She balanced her consulting work with Nebraska Democratic Party politics. She helped form and chaired the state party’s Latinx Caucus. At the last state convention, she passed the torch to others.

“I’m so proud of the new Latinx Caucus team,” Nieves said. “They are a dynamite group.”

She’s paved the way for more Latino involvement in the party as volunteers, voters and candidates.

But these are hard times for her party.

“We’re battling two things: the fatigue people feel because of this president and the tremendous divide.”

Nieves wants people to know their voice matters and they can make the change they want by voting.

She mentors young Latinos she views as future leaders  through Latinas Unidas and other groups.

“We have so much talent in the Latino community. Lots get recognized but not enough. They don’t always have the connections. The key thing is that you see the opportunity. Latino people are very humble people as a rule. That sometimes makes it difficult to navigate this competitive environment and fight for what you want.”

“It’s important emerging leaders get on track, meet the right people, so they can blossom to their full potential. I’m always keeping my eyes open for possibilities to enhance other people’s lives. That’s my legacy.”

Her children and grandchildren are also her legacy. The opportunities given her have benefited her family.

“It’s a true gift. I feel we have been given so much I have a responsibility to contribute, so I want to pay it forward. That’s the story of my life. I want to see people happy and fulfilled. It’s such a joy when that happens.”

Her human relations and civic engagement work has netted her many honors and awards.

The energetic Nieves vows, “I will continue to mentor, support, empower and encourage. It’s a passion.”

Follow Marta on Facebook.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Onward and upward is theme of Yarina Garcia’s life and her work with young people

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Onward and upward is theme of Yarina Garcia’s life and her work with young people

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Yanira Garcia

 

As the first in her immigrant family to graduate high school and college, Yarina Garcia, 29, felt her parents’ pride as she advanced in her studies. 

“My dad always emphasized, ‘Your job is to go to school and do the best you can.’ I remember him repeating to me every day, ‘You gotta learn English. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to do things for yourself in this country.’ I took that message to heart,” said Garcia, who with her two younger sisters was born in Mexico..

“Once we all learned English, my dad said. ‘You guys have to graduate from high school.’ He never really mentioned college, but I just took it as I have to go as I high as i can. As a senior I heard all my friends talking about going to college, so I took it upon myself to pursue that.”

The Omaha South High and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate has become the family’s trailblazer. She’s currently working on her master’s degree. After a foray in media and communications, she’s found her niche as Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at UNO. The bilingual Garcia helps many first-generation students and their parents navigate the higher ed maze.

“I love helping students who are still learning English and struggling, who are lost in the system because they just got here or they don’t understand what’s next or how to move forward in their academic goals.”

Information is power, so she gives prospective students and families what they need to make informed decisions about options and opportunities.

“I find myself playing the role of an educator more than anything else. Even for our U.S.-born students or students who’ve been here many tears, the college application process can be tricky and tedious.”

It becomes even more daunting when applying to multiple colleges or universities.

“It’s complicated. A lot of our Latino parents don’t understand how it works. My job is to help parents and students understand what UNO offers and to hold their hand and walk them through the process. It’s important they see me as a person they can trust and open up to. The conversations definitely get very personal. If I know exactly what their situation is, it makes it easier for me to find resources.

“Some parents are undocumented and they need to know if their son or daughter can still qualify for financial aid or scholarships. My goal is to make sure there are no barriers for students looking into applying at UNO. I want to help be that bridge between them and the school so that they can fulfill their dreams.”

Even though not in her job description, she said she feels duty-bound “helping students not just get here but to actually finish and walk away with a diploma.”

“It’s very important for me personally to know that what I do matters to somebody, somehow. Seeing those results brings a lot of fulfillment.”

She works closely with her alma mater, Omaha South, as well as Bryan High School.

“A big part of my heart is students from Omaha South.”

She’s pleased her two younger brothers are following her lead. The oldest is a UNO sophomore. The youngest is thinking college, too.

Leaving a legacy is important to Garcia, who’s worked hard to realize the family’s aspirational goals in America.

“Just last year I was able to become a legal permanent resident through marrying my husband (Roger Garcia).

The middle sister is in the same process. The little sister is still a DACA recipient.”

Her brothers were born in Nebraska and are U.S. citizens. Ironically. they’re able to travel freely to Mexico and back while Garcia, her sisters and parents have been unable to return to their homeland.

Now that Garcia’s new permanent legal status means  she can travel without restrictions, she said, “I’m dying to go back to Mexico. I was really excited to make it this year because it’s 20 years since I left.” But since she’s expecting her second child in January she must wait.

Her own immigrant journey has made her an advocate for Dreamers and DACA recipients. She said she’s spoken to elected officials to help them “understand our story and to hear our voices.”

“Once a Dreamer, always a Dreamer,” she said. “More than anything, it’s an experience

A 2014 internship with NBCUniversal Telemundo in Washington D.C. meant working on immigration issues.

“It was journalism on steroids every day.”

She returned to be part of the inaugural radio news team at Omaha Noticias (Lobo 97.7 FM). She enjoyed it, but burned-out working long days for little pay.

She tried freelancing but found it too unstable. Then she found her professional home at UNO, whose communications department she started in. Her work brought her in contact with the undergraduate admissions team and when a position opened there she was encouraged to apply. She got hired and was recently promoted.

“I love communications and a lot of my job is creating bilingual outreach pieces. I’m definitely passionate about it. I’m doing an integrated media master’s from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.”

She and husband Roger Garcia, executive director of Centro Latino in Council Bluffs, have their own side business, Garcia Consulting Group. The couple apply  her communication and his administrative expertise, along with a shared passion for community advocacy, to Latino-based nonprofits and entrepreneurs.

“We saw a need for a bilingual or Spanish communications group with a specific niche reaching out to Latinos. We both want to use our talents and knowledge to benefit the community.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Community activist Dulce Sherman follows servant-leader path set by her minister father

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Community activist Dulce Sherman follows servant-leader path set by her minister father

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Dulce (Mejia) Sherman has spent years campaigning for Nebraska Democratic Party candidates, but one office seeker’s bid consumes most of her time now: her own. The novice candidate is vying for an at-large representative spot on the Millard School Board in the November general election.

This self-described community activist’s desire to serve comes from the example set by her late father, Rev. Mario Mejia, who was a Spanish Assemblies of God minister.

“He was a very compassionate, patient person,” Sherman said. “He was not judgmental. He would take a step back and observe and not be reactive – even if people were not very kind to him. He was very committed to helping people in his ministry.”

Her parents were from Mexico, where her father was a muralist. Sherman and her five siblings were born and raised in the U. S. Their first language was Spanish, not English. The family lived in Grand Island and Minden, Neb. as Majia established churches around the region.

“My mom didn’t speak English or drive, so there was limited adult interaction for her. Her life and my dad’s life was really about the church.”

It wasn’t unusual for the family to leave home Saturday for services, then attend a weekend-long church conference, and get back Monday morning.

“I always admired my dad because after he would finish ministering during the day, he went to work at a factory job. It was a huge commitment. He had a really strong work ethic that’s very much embedded in me.”

Sherman remembers helping her late mother pick potatoes in a field. But her real focus was on getting an education – something her parents always stressed.

“Four of us completed college. Two of us have a master’s level degree.”

Sherman earned her bachelor and master’s degrees at Bellevue University. She may pursue a law degree. Her attainments are part of how she honors her father.

“I was really close to my dad and I learned a lot from him. He was my role model. I wanted to be like him. I really wanted to help people.”

That calling led her to Human Resources as her career.

“I love meeting new people. It feeds my soul to have conversations about their dreams and help them be the best that they can be.”

After years in HR positions at Omaha for-profits, she joined One World Community Health Centers in 2017.

“I didn’t really feel I was making a difference in where I was at before. I decided I needed to go work for a nonprofit and give back to my community. Now I feel I’m able to help the Latino community in that servant leadership role just like my dad did.”

She likes that One World walks the talk.

“Other organizations have a mission on the wall. Here it’s a mission people live by. They really care about what they do. It’s very rewarding working for a place that’s really making a difference.”

Culturally, it’s a good fit, too.

“For the first time in a workplace, I’m called by my Latino name. It’s a really diverse organization I can call home. We currently employ about 86 percent Latinos and 85 percent women.”

Politically active since the 1990s, she said, “I’m very passionate about ensuring our Latino vote is represented. Women, children, healthcare, immigration and DACA – all things I’m passionate about – I feel are at risk and need representation.”

She feels obligated to help because of what she’s done.

“I’m a first-generation American who’s been able to go to college, learn two languages and go somewhere and do something with that. Not everybody has that opportunity.”

She was indecisive about seeking office when fellow politico Christian Espinosa Torres encouraged her to run. The school board made sense since her four sons graduated from Millard Public Schools.

Besides, she said, “some board members have been there a long time and I want to shake it up and bring some change.” Her platform emphasizes “making sure we have enough funding for special education and  suicide prevention.”

Two of her sons are gifted and two have special needs. Her experience with the district’s processes for students with learning and attention issues motivates her to be “an advocate” for parents navigating the system.

“I can be the voice for them.”

“Suicide prevention has impacted my home as well,” she said. “Anytime there’s a child with a disability, there’s going to be some emotional aspects tied to that. I am passionate about equipping these kids so they can be successful in life and handle that.”

She wants to make the district more “inclusive of everyone regardless of race, gender, abilities.”

She participated in a July 25 Women Who Run event, where, she said, “It was empowering to see how many women are running for office. I am especially proud there are several women of color running.”

Canvassing has convinced her that most “people don’t know much about the school board and its purpose and how the education system and budget process works.”

Family members working on her campaign include her sister Esther Mejia, owner of E Creative, her husband Allen Sherman and her four sons.

Balancing a campaign around work, family and volunteering is a challenge. She’s an at-large delegate for the state Democratic Party, a member of the professional networking-educational group, Latinas Unidas, and she’s active in the Women’s Fund Circle advocacy group. She also serves on the Latino Center of the Midlands board.

In June. the Women’s Center for Advancement honored her for her community service at its “Tribute to Women” event. That same month at the state Dem convention she was elected Latinx Caucus Chair – succeeding her political mentor, Marta Nieves.

With so much on her plate, she said, “I’ve learned that no matter what you stay grounded to your values and you don’t waver in times of conflict.”

In this divisive era, she said, “I think it’s really important we aren’t viewing things as a bi-partisan situation. We should be thinking about how we want our children and grandchildren to be taught and treated and what we’re willing to do to make sure the course were taking as a society respects humanity.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Omaha Omaha Fellow

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Jose Maldonado pictured with another Opera Omaha Fellow Kate Pomrenke

 

 

Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Opera Omaha Fellow

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico,com)

Jose Luis Maldonado concedes the improbability of how he became an opera singer. But that just makes him more eager to share his tale because if it could happen to him, than who knows how many other potential vocalists are out there without even realizing it?

Part of his role as a first-year Opera Omaha Fellow in the Holland Community Opera Fellowship is exposing young people to an art form that may be foreign to them.

The California native grew up around the East L.A. area, where the strains of opera are rarely heard. He comes from a musical family. His father played piano in L.A. salsa bands. His grandfather, Jesus Francisco Maldonado, played saxophone in Mexico, where he’s known in Cuahutemoc Chihuahua as El Botas.

Jazz and Sinatra were some of Maldonado’s other musical influences. From an early age he set his sights on following his grandfather as a saxophonist. He studied hard and became proficient.

In high school his varied activities in band, sports, student government, public speaking and tutoring led his football coach to call him “a renaissance man.”

By his junior year he’d formulated a plan for college. He would study music and business (his father’s in real estate) with an ultimate goal of attending USC and playing in the Trojan marching band.

But then fate threw him a curve. With no suitable artist to sing the national anthem for an all-school assembly, he volunteered, even though it meant singing in public for the first time before thousands. Until then, all he’d done was imitate Rat Pack crooners for friends. He nailed the anthem by mimicking Robert Merrill but it was Jose’s rich baritone that won over the crowd

Then, at his senior graduation, a teacher made him promise to take a voice class in college before she handed over his diploma. He vowed he would. He kept his vow at Rio Hondo Community College but only as a courtesy. Then an unexpected thing happened.

“I ended up really enjoying it. The vibrant teacher. Ann Gresham, made it more than singing. She lured me back to the class every semester by saying, ‘If you want to know your real voice, you should come back next semester,’ because I was still mimicking.”

He credits touring music shows she created that he performed in at schools with honing his stage presence and sparking his interest in community outreach, which is the focus of his Opera Omaha Fellow work.

As much as he liked singing, he considered it a hobby, not a career path. He was still stuck on his USC dream . But his best-laid plans got disrupted after he sang a German song for his final.

“That song really changed my perception of what a singer is,” he said. “The way she had me learn this song was so deep and specific. It was not just learning and translating the words but relating it to the culture and why it was written and honoring the composer and the librettist for that poetry.

“At the end of the song I closed my eyes and repeated this phrase (lyric). I felt this energy. I opened my eyes and everybody was in tears. There was silence, then applause. It was just this beautiful experience.”

When the teacher asked to see him privately after class, he thought he’d somehow messed up.

“She asked, ‘You felt that in there, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’  She said, ‘I know you’ve achieved what you wanted to at the school and you’re going to be moving on. I’m very proud of you. But I would not be doing my job if I didn’t ask you this,’ and she looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Do you want to be an opera singer? Because I can get you there. But it’s going to take a lot of work.’

“I was speechless because I never thought to be a singer. i remember, frozen, looking at her and saying. yes, but I didn’t consciously make a decision. She said great and told me about another college where the state would pay for my lessons. I just kind of nodded and walked away in shock.”

What he’d done didn’t sink in until he got home.

“Back in my room I yelled out, ‘What did I just do?’ Because the opportunity to realize my dream was right there in front of me. I worked really hard to get straight As. Counselors from USC and Rio Hondo made sure I met all the requisites. There it was and I just threw it away to become a singer.”

“But as soon as I yelled out, I felt this epiphany. In my mind I saw this blender with everything I was mixed in it and what poured out was opera singer. I just remember saying, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’ Like magic, the calling was there for me. I haven’t looked back since.”

He continued music studies at Cal-State Fullerton. The woman responsible for putting him on the path to opera, Ann Gresham, became his private instructor.

An unforgettable experience occurred at Cal-State in a production of The Merry Widow. For the first time. his whole family saw him perform, even grandpa Jesus, who disapproved of his choice to make a life in music.

“My grandfather was not on board with me being a singer because of his experience with the musician’s life. He worried I wouldn’t be able to support myself. I’ll never forget his face when I walked out after the performance. He was just crying. It completely changed his perception. That was impactful for me. Now my Papi Chuy is my biggest fan.

“To be able to convince him that way spoke volumes for how much conviction I have for what I do. He saw I was going to be successful.”

Jose, 29, paid homage to him when, in a gibberish rant his character The Baron makes, he inserted Spanish words in the middle of the German operetta.

From Cal-State, Maldonado went to Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he graduated with his master’s in May. He gave the school’s commencement address. At the ceremony he got to meet two music icons who received honorary degrees: Opera tenor Placido Domingo and Latin jazzman Paquito D’Rivera.

In July he played the lead in a production of Falstaff for the Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance Opera Festival. Arroyo, a famous soprano, created the foundation to help emerging artists like Jose get professional opera experience.

Since starting his Omaha fellowship in August, he and his peer fellow  have engaged the community. They performed an outdoor concert at Turner Park. They’ve worked with the Learning Community Center of South Omaha and Nelson Mandela School. They performed at Buffett Cancer Center and Gallery 1516. They facilitated classes at the Omaha Conservatory of Music.

Jose is scheduled to perform with the Omaha Youth Symphony at an Omaha Area Youth Orchestras concert  on November 11 at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum.

Wherever he goes, he wants his story of defying expectations to inspire others.

“I didn’t come from a traditional classical background. I’m very proud to say I was made in America with Mexican parts. I’m very proud of my culture. But I’m also an individual, I’m an artist, and I don’t have to be bound by walls or comfort zones or perceptions or interpretations. If i can help shine that upon people and let them choose for themselves what’s possible for them, then I’m doing my job.

“I encourage anybody that feels restricted or limited to break those barriers. Part of it is taking responsibility to take the actions that you can create to step forward and to find those opportunities and angels in your life.”

He wants to continue giving back by creating a cruise line that operates as a business nine months out of the year and that holds an intense summer training program for performing and visual arts students.

“To be able to offer this summer training program completely free is a dream of mine,” he said.

He also aspires to sing with his hometown Los Angeles Opera and at Palacio de Bellas Artes, Teatro Degollado and Teatro Aguas Calientesin Mexico.

Meanwhile, he loves being an Opera Omaha Fellow because it allows him to give back.

“It’s exactly how I began in music. We don’t just come and sing. We build relationships with community partners, We meet their needs. We plant the seeds of opera and we also get to nurture those seeds.”

He appreciates, too, that the two-year fellowship provides professional development opportunities.

“We have coaching every week with Opera Omaha Head of Music Sean Kelly. On top of our salary we get a professional development stipend to use to have voice lessons. It’s inclusive of flights and accommodations. We budget that as we need to continue our growth as vocalists – honing technique and advancing skills

 

That’s something I really cherish. I feel valued not only as an ambassador but as an opera singer.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Holiday book sale: “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

December 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Holiday book sale:

“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

by Leo Adam Biga

For you and/or the film lover in your life

Retails at $26

Now on sale for $20 directly from me

(while supplies last)

Acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne uses satire to take the measure of his times. Award-winning writer Leo Adam Biga draws on 20 years covering the writer-director to take the measure of this singular cinema artist and his work.

 

 

Film scholar-author Thomas Schatz (“The Genius of the System”) said:

“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist.This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.”

National film critic Leonard Maltin said: “Alexander Payne is one of American cinema’s leading lights. How fortunate we are that Leo Biga has chronicled his rise to success so thoroughly.”

Available at this special sale price only by contacting me here or at:

402-445-4666 or leo32158@co.net

 

If you want a copy mailed to you, send a check for $25 (includes shipping and handling) made out to Leo A. Biga, along with your return address, to: 

Leo A. Biga

10629 Cuming St.

Omaha, NE 68114

Please indicate if you wish a signed copy.

 

As screen veteran Yolonda Ross from Omaha enjoys today’s black renaissance, she gears for next big career move

December 12, 2018 1 comment

Yolanda Ross

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As screen veteran Yolonda Ross from Omaha enjoys today’s black renaissance, she gears for next big career move

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

In her two decades as a working screen actress Omaha native Yolonda Ross has seen Black Cinema explode and women filmmakers assert themselves. She’s “making it happen” herself as a recurring character in Showtime’s The Chi after recurring parts in How to Murder Your Wife, The Get Down and Treme. She’s in HBO’s latest hit Random Acts of Flyness. She plays opposite Patricia Clarkson, James Caan and Toby Jones in the new indie feature Out of Blue.

Next spring, she breakouts behind the camera for her feature writing-directing debut, Scenes from Our Marriage. It shoots in her adopted hometown New York City with the same production team from the 2012 short Breaking Night she wrote-directed. She’s also executive producing and starring in Scenes. She and Clarke Peters are husband and wife theater artists dealing with professional challenges, jealousy, infidelity and race.

Omaha native Tim Christian’s Nightfox Entertainment is co-producing.

Ross left Omaha for NYC to pursue a fashion career. The multitalented artist (she also sings and paints) is glad for more opportunities today than ever.

“Yeah, this is a great time to be a black creative in our industry,” Ross said.

The emergence of Shonda Lynn Rhimes, Lena Waithe, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, Terence Nance and other black TV-film players marks a wave if not sea change.

“Things have improved some,” Ross said. “I think it’s great there’s more people of color telling their own stories and not having pretty much the white race telling everybody else’s story. It makes for more specific voices for people to really see themselves on screen. It’s from a more authentic place because it’s coming from the people that live it.

“There’s still a lot of change that can happen though. There needs to be more people of color on the other side as far as green-lighting and distributing because you can produce things, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get picked up.”

Ross has also seen her industry change in terms of how talent and content get discovered.

“Now having the Internet very much planted in the middle of everything, because you can stream everything, definitely has broadened the industry and made it smaller at the same time. There’s a whole crop of people that are stars now for not really doing anything but talking to a camera telling you about something, which is not actually acting.

“They’re just very different things.”

She sees a content glut.

“I feel it’s all very saturated right now. There’s an overload of material out there. You have to really look for the quality stuff. As far as acting, I feel if you are at the top of what you do in your work, the cream of the crop still rises no matter the clutter. You just have a lot more to get around than before because everybody’s jumbled up into one big industry.”

Concurrent with these trends are new funding, production, distribution mechanisms to help women get their work seen and supported.

“It’s wonderful,” said Ross, who’s worked with many women directors (Cheryl Dunye, Reed Morano, Carol Morley).

Her upcoming feature is getting love from Level Forward, a female-run production company supporting women’s stories and women of color.

Her project is also nurtured by Film Independent and its Fiscal Sponsorship Program, which opens the door to nonprofit funding for independent filmmakers and media artists. The Friends of Mary Riepma Ross (no relation) Media Arts Center in Lincoln, Nebraska made a grant to her project through the program.

“My film is also going to be in Film Independent Fast Track,” Ross said. The film financing market held during the LA Film Festival helps producers-directors “fast track” their projects via intensive meetings with executives, financiers, agents, managers, distributors, granting organizations and production companies.

Meanwhile, Ross, who’s worked with Denzel Washington, John Sayles, David Mamet and Baz Luhrmann, continues keeping good company. Being part of Terence Nance’s Flyness is the latest example.

“I think Terence is one of those voices we need to see. We need his Afropunk voice. We need voices like his. We need Lena Waithe’s voice. We need my voice. We need these different kinds of voices with black skin to show that we are not all the same. We don’t all think the same, we don’t all process things the same.”

Ross has prepared to make her own feature for years.

“I’m really psyched about it. We have a lot of things to say. I’m so ready. All the directors I’ve worked with, all the Sundance labs I’ve done, all the different mediums I’ve worked in – it all helps with making my own first feature film. Also, I feel I understand how to deal with other actors to get emotion without over-talking, overdoing things – but just letting people do their work.

“My experience working with so many people allows me to get the best actors, and they’re willing to do favors, which is great. In terms of production, I understand how to get things in an efficient way because I’ve dealt with so many different types of situations. I’m able to look at things from the outside in and from the inside out, where sometimes directors kind of get stuck in the writing or the set. I also have a strong team around me to keep me on track so that I can lock down and streamline what I want to get in a moment, in a scene.”

Doing Breaking Night was “extremely important,” she said. “I needed to learn every step in making a film – from writing it to getting it out to festivals. Not only did I learn everybody’s job, I dealt with everything from insurance to licensing music. I needed to understand the business side. It’s helped me preparing to make this feature. I can talk to my producers about different elements and guide the project in a way that will be bes as far as time, money, creatively, everything.

“I like the producing aspects of filmmaking.”

Her screen journey began in earnest with her breakthrough in the 2001 HBO movie Stranger Inside.

“When you’re in it, sometimes you don’t look back on it because everything is about the next job. You’re always striving for more. Whatever you did in the past is great, but it’s also the past. But I’m very thankful to be here and to be able to have touched people in various ways. I’m thankful to continue to work on great projects and to be able to support myself by doing my passion, my art.”

She’s never forgotten her roots.

“I’m always down to do things in Omaha. I was just there (May) at the Dundee Theater for a panel on women in television. Supporting artists there is totally my thing. I feel seeing people who grew up in the same setting as you living their dream is a really powerful thing.”

Visit yolondaross.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

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