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Paul Serrato finds balance as musician and educator​


Paul Serrato finds balance as musician and educator

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Grain elevators, not skyscrapers, fill the view outside Paul Serrato’s home now that the jazz pianist-composer is back in Omaha after decades in New York City.

Serrato was a New York sideman, soloist and band leader. When not performing, he haunted clubs to see countless legends play. An avid collector, he helped himself to rare posters of great jazz lineups at iconic spots like the Village Gate in East Harlem.

He also spent untold hours composing and trying out original tunes and arrangements. He’s released nine albums on his Graffiti Productions label. He cut his tenth in February with his regular Big Apple crew. The new CD will have a fall national release.

Serrato also wrote for and accompanied underground cabaret and off-Broadway performers.

Education is a parallel passion for Serrato, who has degrees in music (Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts) and urban education (Adelphi University). Since the 1980s he’s taught adult ESL. He taught in various New York boroughs. Since resettling in Omaha five years ago he’s been an adjunct instructor at Metropolitan Community College’s south campus.

“I love teaching ESL. I love working with international students,” he said. “It’s taught me to respect other people, especially immigrants. I’ve always been interested in other cultures, other languages. It was a natural fit for me to migrate to teaching ESL and to pursue it to the end that I have.

“I’m a great believer in bilingual education.”

He’s distressed state funding cutbacks threaten something so impactful for students.

“There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in knowing we’re helping them to acculturate-integrate into the larger scene.”

He’s outraged by draconian Trump administration measures against illegal immigrants and by Trump’s own hateful rhetoric on immigration.

Serrato has immigrant students compose essays about their new lives in America. He’s moved by their stories.

“It inspires me that I can guide them and give them an opportunity to release their emotions and feelings. It’s like nobody’s ever asked them before. Some of the papers are so remarkable. They spill it all out – eloquently, too – their feelings about being immigrants, living here, the difficulties, the good things.”

Last year he organized a program at Gallery 72 in which his Omaha students read personal accounts that his New York students wrote in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers. Serrato and his NYC students were only a few blocks from ground zero that fateful day. They watched the tragedy unfold before their eyes.

“I had my international adult students write about their impressions of that day. They were from all these different countries. They wrote eloquently about what they witnessed. I saved their essays and decided to turn it into EYEWITNESS: New York Testimonies. Though they all experienced the same event, we hear it filtered through the sensibilities of their diverse cultures.”

Serrato’s “Broadway Electronic” and “Blues Elegy” compositions provided ambient music for the readings.

“I was very proud of how that event turned out. My Metro students did a great job.”

He said the international student mix he teaches “makes me feel like I’m back in New York.”

His cozy southeast Omaha home is a tightly packed trove. Framed posters and album covers adorn walls. Photos of students, family, friends and jam cats are pinned to boards. Stacks of books occupy tables.

His music life began in Omaha, where he showed early muscial aptitude and formally studied piano.

“I began doing talent contests around town. Schmoller & Mueller piano store had a Saturday morning talent show on the radio. I won first prize a couple times.”

The Creighton Prep grad was brought up the son of a single mother who divorced when he was three.

“She was a pretty remarkable woman considering what she had to go through. There were no resources in those days for single moms.”



The Chicano artist has indulged his Latino roots via study and travel. He made pilgrimages to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to steep himself in boss and samba. His tune “Blues in Rio” originated there. A YouTube video produced by musician friend Donald Mohr features that tune matched with photos from Serrato’s Brazilian sojourns.

Bumming around Europe, he made it to Spain and grew “smitten with bullfighting’s art and pageantry.” “I began returning to Spain annually for the long taurine season as an aficionado. I’d lock up my New York apartment and fly off. My life as an artist’s model and bookstore manager in Greenwich Village made it easily possible. Such was the Boho (bohemian) life.”

His Latino roots music and world jazz immersion influences following a classical music track. He gave recitals in Omaha. Then he heard intoxicating sounds on his family’s short wave radio that changed his life.

“I thought I wanted to be a concert pianist until I started hearing recordings by Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson,
whose records were being spun out of Chicago. I was very like blown away by these great jazz pianists.

“Hearing that stuff opened up a big door and window into other possibilities.”

Harbor Conservatory in Spanish Harlem became his mecca. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition with a concentration on Latin music styles.

“It’s like the repository of the jazz and Latin music in New York after the World War II diaspora. It’s an incredible place. You walk into that school and you walk into another world, of Latin jazz music, which I love.”

His intensive study of Spanish has extended to Latin literature and art.

He cites congo player Candido Camero as “a great inspiration.” “He could play anything. Candido made a record, Mambo Moves, with Erroll Garner, one of my favorite pianists. They play such great duets. I’ve always loved that record. I’ve tried to incorporate some of those ideas into my own music.

“I compose pieces in the bossa style, though filtered through a New York jazz lens.”

Just as Serrato’s never done learning, he’s never done teaching,

“I love education. It’s absolutely vital to me. I’m teaching all the time, as many jazz musicians do. We’re all educators.”

Visit www.paulserrato.com.

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

Leo Adam Biga

 

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Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter


Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter

©by Lei Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Since first picking up a camera in the 1960s while ministering to residents of Sioux reservations in South Dakota, the Rev. Don Doll of Omaha has become a well-traveled, award-winning photojournalist. The Jesuit priest is perhaps best known for chronicling the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people’s attempts to integrate traditional ways in nontraditional times. Two acclaimed books, Crying for a Vision (1976, Morgan and Morgan) and Vision Quest (1994, Crown), depict the suffering and resurgence of these Indian cultures through his haunting pictures and his subjects’ stirring words.

For a pair of National Geographic spreads he lived with Yupik Eskimos and Athapaskan Indians to record the daily rituals of native societies far outside the mainstream. For the Jesuit Refugee Service he captured the human toll exacted by land mines in Angola and Bosnia and the wrecked lives left behind by civil strife in Sri Lanka. For yet more assignments he went to Cambodia, Belize, the Dominican Republic and other remote locales to document the disenfranchised.

“I’ve thought of myself as giving voice to people who normally don’t have a voice,” said Doll, a fine arts professor at Creighton University, where he holds the Charles and Mary Heider endowed Jesuit Chair. “My work has generally been about other cultures — about how other people live and work. It’s been about telling people’s stories and breaking some stereotypes. As a priest, I’m formed by the faith I’ve grown into and one of the foundations of that faith is to have special appreciation for other people. And I think when you point a camera at someone it should be a loving look at that person.”

A master still photographer, Doll’s images are notable for their clarity, power and depth. Portraits, like the enigmatic ones for Vision Quest, are among his favorites. “I love making insightful pictures of people that reveal something of their character, but leave a question mark. I think any good portrait has a bit of mystery and ambiguity in it. Without raising that question, it becomes boring.”

A New Path
Major publications have long sought Doll’s talent, but he has remained selective about the projects he takes. Until recently, he used a 35-millimeter Leica to tell his stories. Now, at 63, an age when most artists slip comfortably into a safe niche, he is reinventing himself as a videographer.

While far from abandoning still work, he now mainly works in digital video and, along with writer Elizabeth O’Keefe, a former student of his who is publications coordinator for the U.S. Jesuit Conference, he is beginning to make waves in this new field. A story he shot and that he and O’Keefe edited and produced appeared on ABC’s “Nightline last year. The story, “Finding Ernesto,” grew out of a report the pair prepared in El Salvador on the efforts of Jesuit priests to reunite loved ones separated during the civil war there. A second story by the team — this one chronicling a Jesuit priest who is a kind of Martin Luther King figure in India — is being considered for future “Nightline” airing.

The El Salvador and India pieces are installments in a larger, multi-media documentary project by Doll and O’Keefe called The Jesuits: Two Thousand Years After Christ, which illustrates the Jesuit order’s mandate of working toward social justice and respecting other cultures. Additional stories for that project include a biography on Society of Jesus founder St. Ignatius, which sent the filmmakers to Spain and Italy last spring, and a look at the Jesuit presence on the reservations, which brought Doll back to his old stomping grounds.

How he came to photograph old friends in video after portraying them in stills is emblematic of his need to find new means of expressing himself and his faith. The ever-inquisitive Doll attended intensive professional workshops on Web publishing and DVD production. Part of his motivation to learn new forms was to introduce his students to Wed design, a class he has taught at Creighton, and to gain more personal expertise making CD-ROMs.

“I began to learn that just having pictures and type on a page is not enough. You also need sound and video. I saw people multi-purposing their material — interviews, photographs or whatever — and publishing them in different media.” Attracted by that idea, Doll incorporated his Vision Quest work, both the images he made and the sound recordings of interviews he conducted, into a CD-ROM but found many interviews unusable due to excessive ambient noise. “I resolved the next time I did any project the sound was going to be outstanding.” Under the instruction of veteran videographers Doll not only learned state-of-the-art audio but, much to his surprise, developed an affinity for making moving pictures.

Making Moving Pictures
Transitioning from the still to video format has meant learning a whole new set of techniques, realities and assumptions.

“Video is a storytelling medium. It’s more about the words than it is about the pictures. Before, I was making good pictures that almost supplanted the words,” he said. “Now, I’ve had to learn how to shoot a sequence — with a wide shot, a medium shot and a close up — and how to cover sequences and how to do interviews and how to put it all together. The guys who have been doing this for 20 years know a lot of tricks I certainly don’t. But I think the advantage I have is the compositional, lighting, and story skills I bring. I’m aware of every visual detail in the frame. I know how to layer a picture with meaning in every corner.”

Overall, he described as “exciting” his adventure in video. Gone, however, are the days when he could quietly insinuate himself into a scene and be an inconspicuous observer with only his small hand-held camera in-tow. Now, he lugs around a big, clattering batch of audio-visual devices that require more set-up, more cooperation, more planning.

For his first video project Doll chose a familiar subject — the reservations. Today, after completing several pieces, he feels he is hitting his stride. “I think I know how to shoot good video now. I’m getting some nice stuff. And I’m finally feeling comfortable editing, which is a whole other skill dealing with time and sound and pacing. The audio cut goes down first and then the pictures are dropped in, which is just the complete opposite of how I worked before. Have I found my voice totally in this new medium?  I’m not sure. But the beauty of digital video is that you hear people talk — in their own voice — with real fervor and passion. That’s a powerful tool for people who have something to say.”

Just Doing It
The new technology also allows anyone with the ability to bypass traditional media paths and produce Hollywood-Madison Avenue quality video on their own home studio set-up. Doll shoots with a Canon XL-1 digital video camera-sound system and edits on a dual processor Macintosh G4 (“my souped-up personal computer”) with Apple Final Cut Pro software. “We produced a program for ‘Nightline’ on it, and they were blown away,” Doll said. “Now, you can conceive a project or story or idea and, with a few thousand bucks, actually go out and do it. You can produce professional videos or movies or broadcast television programs. DVD technology is going to be really big. We’ll see a whole new generation of filmmakers.”

Currently on a leave of absence from teaching, Doll plans wrapping-up the Jesuit project (to be released as a DVD) by July and returning to the classroom next fall brimming with new ideas. “That’s how I’ve always done things. I teach for three or four years, then I take off to go do something and then I reflect on that and bring it back to the teaching experience. It’s a mutually enriching process.” As for new photo shoots, he said, “With this endowed chair I have the resources to go photograph anywhere in the world I want if I find a story I want to cover. I have the luxury of going where my heart is. It’s kind of sweet.”

Eduardo Aguilar: Living a dream that would not be denied

April 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Eduardo Aguilar:

Living a dream that would not be denied

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico (el-perico.com)


As Eduardo Aguilar walked down an Omaha Creighton Prep hallway one school day last April, he had no idea a lifelong dream would soon be secured. Counselor Jim Swanson pulled the then-high school senior out of his international relations class on the pretext of seeing how he was doing. It’s something Swanson often did with Aguilar, whose undocumented parents were deported to Mexico when he was about ten. Aguilar lived with Swanson and his family an entire year – one in a succession of homes Aguilar resided in over six years.

The counselor and student talked that spring morning as they had countless times, only this time school president Father Tom Neitzke joined them. The priest shook Aguilar’s hand and invited him into his office, where several adults, including media members, awaited.

“I was confused and shocked,” Aguilar recalled. “I thought I was in trouble.”

Creighton University president Father Daniel Hendrickson then informed him he was receiving a full-ride scholarship worth $200,000 funded by donors and the G. Robert Muchemore Foundation.

Cameras captured it all.

“To have that news thrown at me out of nowhere was incredible,” Aguilar said. “I just felt like God answered my prayer because it was always my dream to go to Creighton. I was so happy.

“I still can’t believe it even happened. I’m forever grateful for the scholarship donors and for the people that believed in me.”

KMTV Channel 3 news reporter Maya Saenz, who filed a touching story on him, came away impressed by Aguilar.

“He’s a brilliant and hardworking guy and I feel privileged to have met him and to have highlighted his extraordinary efforts to reach the Mexican-American dream.”

The scholarship came just as Aguilar despaired his dream would go unrealized.

“There weren’t many options for me at that time and I was thinking, ‘Maybe this is the end of my journey – maybe I’m not going to go to college.’ I was in a bad mood about it that same day.”

After learning his good fortune, he called his parents, Loreny and Jose Aguilar.

“They were extremely excited to hear I’m continuing my education, especially at Creighton University, because they knew from a very young age I wanted to go there, They’re absolutely humbled their son received such a generous gift to attend such a prestigious place and that people believed in their son.

“Even though not having them here physically hurts, they’ve motivated me throughout. They’ve given me words of wisdom and advice. They’ve definitely pushed me to be best that I can.”

Aguilar also appreciates the support he’s received in his folks’ absence, first at Jesuit Academy, then at Prep, and now at CU, where he’s finishing his freshman year. He didn’t get to say goodbye to his parents, who are general laborers in Tijuana, when they got deported. He and his older brother Jose relied on family and friends.

“It was a very traumatizing experience,” Aguilar said. “I felt powerless. It really opened my eyes to the harsh place life can bring you at times. It definitely made me mature a lot faster than my peers.”

Jesuit Academy staff rallied behind him.

“They assured me everything would be okay, I decided I had to kick my academics into gear because it was the only thing to get me ahead without my parents here.”

Three months after that sudden separation, Aguilar and his folks were reunited in Mexico. He lived three years there with them.

“I enjoyed it down there with family. I learned a lot. It really humbled me and made me into the person I am today. Now, I’m just happy to be getting my education. I don’t really care about material possessions.”

By 13, his yearning for America would not be denied.

“I realized in Mexico I wouldn’t have the same opportunities I would here. My mom was very hesitant about me coming back because I was so young. But she agreed. Leaving was very difficult. I came back with a family member. I ended up staying with him for awhile and then i just moved from house to house.

“It’s been a journey.”

Few of his peers at Prep knew his situation.

“The majority of them found out on graduation day, They were surprised because they never saw me upset or sad. I was always smiling, happy. They were astonished I was able to go through all that, but it’s due to the support system I had.”

Prep staff took him under their wing his four years there.

“Jim Swanson has been a great motivator. He and his wife served as my second family. When I needed them the most, they opened the doors to their house to me. I see him as my second father. I have the utmost respect for him and his family.”

Aguilar also grew close to art teacher Jeremy Caniglia

“He left a great impact on me. I still reach out to him.”

Aguilar used art and slam poetry to process and express his intense feelings.

In college, he’s found professors sympathetic to his plight. He calls CU Vice Provost for Enrollment Mary Chase “one of my go-to persons,” adding, “She always checks up on me.”

“It really means a lot to me to have extra structure and support and to know these people actually care and believe I have potential to do something in life,” Aguilar said.

He’s studying international business and corporate law in CU’s 3-3 program, which will allow him to earn an undergraduate degree and a law degree in six years instead of seven. His dream job is with Tesla Motors, which produces mass-market electric cars.

“Renewable energy has always fascinated me and Elon Musk (Tesla founder-CEO) has always been one of my idols.”

Thus far, Aguilar said, “College has been an incredible, eye-opening experience.”

Aguilar hopes his personal story empowers others caught in the immigration vice.

“If this can serve any person going through a similar situation or hardship and help them to succeed, then I’m totally for that.”

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions – “The Descendants” next on tap Saturday, April 21

April 19, 2018 Leave a comment

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions–

“The Descendants” next on tap

Saturday, April 21

Join me this spring for my Metropolitan Community College Continuing Education non-credit class–

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Saturday mornings @ DoSpace

Take this opportunity to explore the creative process of Indiewood filmmaker Alexander Payne through screenings and discussions of his more recent work. The book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” serves as an informal guide for this appreciation of the American cinema master who calls Omaha home. Don’t be surprised if some film artists drop in to share a few things about Payne and their own cinema careers.

Optional textbook available for purchase the first night of class for $25.95. If you register for all five classes, you can purchase the book at a discount for $20. Must be 18.

Register for all five classes and get one free!

The class has five weeky sessions meeting at MCC at DoSpace

Saturdays, 04/14-05/12

9:30am-12:30pm

Instructor:

Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Alexander Payne: Paris Je t’aime, 14 Arrondissement, Hung, et cetera.

Between “Sideways” and his next feature, Payne directed two short works: “14 Arrondissement,” his installment for the omnibus film “Paris Je t’aime;” and the pilot episode for the HBO series “Hung.” He and Jim Taylor also did write-for-hire gigs on blockbuster movies (“Jurassic Park III”) and Payne produced films as well.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, April 14

9:30a-12:30p

Alexander Payne: The Descendants

After a hiatus, Payne enjoyed a triumphant return to features with “The Descendants.” This tale of a man coping with a family crisis marked Payne’s second project with a mega-star (George Clooney) and second feature shot outside Nebraska (Hawaii). This was the filmmaker’s first experience writing a feature without Jim Taylor and his script work won him his second Oscar.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, April 21

9:30a-12:30p

Alexander Payne: Nebraska

Many years had passed since Payne made a film in his home state and he returned to make arguably his most artful to date, “Nebraska.” Distinguished by its fine ensemble cast, rural settings, black and white photography and Oscar-nominated script by Robert Nelson, the film follows a father-son road trip of healing and discovery. The small pic didn’t do much at the box-office but it was warmly received by those who saw it.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, April 28

9:30a-12:30p

Alexander Payne: Downsizing 

Payne ventured into new territory with “Downsizing,” his first big visual effects film. For it, he collaborated with a-name-above-the-title star in Matt Damon, who headed a large international cast, and re-teamed with old writing partner Jim Taylor. The late 2017 release filmed in Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto, Norway and other spots has an original take on looming world crises.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, May 5

9:30a-12:30p

Alexander Payne: Recap/Looking Ahead

Few filmmakers have accumulated a body of work of such depth and quality as Payne has in two decades. He’s given us much to think about already but he may only be at the mid-point of his career, which means there’s much more to come. It’s fun to speculate on what might come next from him. We we will screen excerpts from his films to date and discuss what Payne’s work has meant to world cinema thus far and we expect to see from him in the future.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, May 12

9:30a-12:30p

 

Rosales’ worldwide spiritual journey intersects with Nebraska


Rosales’ worldwide spiritual journey intersects with Nebraska

©by Leo Adam Biga, Origially appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Victoria Rosales is a seeker.  At 27, the Houston, Texas native is well-traveled in search of self-improvement and greater meaning. She’s dedicating her life to sharing what she knows about healthy living practices. Her journey’s already taken her to Ireland, England, Kosovo, Vietnam, Alaska, Mexico and Costa Rica.

From her Salt Lake City home, she handles communications for Omaha-based Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism. Its husband-wife team, Chris and Phileena Heuretz, lead workshops and retreats and author books. Rosales met them at the 2012 Urbana student missions conference in St. Louis. She took their contemplative activism workshop and participated in retreats at the Benedictine Center in Schuyler, Nebraska. The experiences enhanced her spiritual quest.

“I remember writing in my journal, ‘I love their message and mission and I would really love to do the work these people do.’ And now – here I am,” Rosales said.

Meditation came into her life at a crucial juncture.

“I was in a season where the idea of resting in the presence of God was all that I longed for.”

A few years earlier she’d left her east Texas family to chart a new path.

“I am a first-generation high school and college graduate. I’m carving my own path, but for the better – by doing things a little bit differently. In that way, I definitely see myself as a trailblazer for family to come.”

She grew up an Evangelical Christian and attended a small private Christian college in Michigan, where she studied literature, rhetoric and storytelling.

“The idea of telling a story and telling it well and of being careful in the articulation of the story really began to come alive for me. I began to pursue avenues of self-expression in terms of word choice and dialect.”

As a child enamored with words, the tales told by her charismatic grandmother made an impression.

“I was heavily influenced by my grandmother. She captivated an audience with her storytelling. I was raised on stories of her childhood coming out of Mexico. It was very much instilled in me. I see it as a huge gift in my life.”

But Rosales didn’t always see it that way.

“Growing up, it was like, ‘Here goes grandma again in Spanish. Okay, grandma, we’re in America’ – shutting her down. When she passed away, reconciling those prejudices became a huge part of my journey. I moved to Mexico for that very purpose and spent time living with my distant relatives, mostly in Monterey, to truly embrace what it means to be this beautiful, powerful, sensual Latina and honor that part of who I am.

“Part of creating a safe place for others to show up as who they are is feeling safe in my own skin and appreciating the richness of my Hispanic heritage.”

Self-awareness led her to find a niche for her passion.

“It started with me being really honest about telling my story with all of the hurts and traumas. I could then invite in light and life, healing and redemption.”

Her work today involves assisting folks “sift through the overarching stories of their life and to reframe those narratives in ways more conducive to personal well-being.” She added, “It’s moving from victim mentalities into stances of empowerment through how different life experiences are articulated. I developed my own practice to help people journey through that.”

She calls her practice Holistic Narrative Therapy. It marries well with meditation and yoga. She’s learned the value of “silence, solitude and stillness” through meditation and centering prayer.

“In silence you take time to sit and listen to find the still small voice within, the rhyme and reason in all the chaos and loud noise. In stillness you learn to sit through discomfort. In solitude you learn to remove yourself from the influences of culture, society, family and expectation and to be comfortable with who you show up as when no one else is watching. Those are the roots and fruits of the contemplative life.”

Doing yoga, she believes, “is the embodied expression of dance with the divine.” After attending a yoga resort-health spa in Costa Rica, the owners hired her to conduct Holistic Narrative Therapy sessions. She said everything about the setting invited restoration – “the lush jungles, the pristine beaches, the blue waters, the food that grows there, the music, the vibe.”

After that idyll. she roughed it by working as a wilderness therapy guide in Utah with youth struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation.

“Being one with the elements provides a lot of space for growth. I was just naturally attracted to that. That was a great experience.”

En route to starting that job she was driving through Zion National Park when she took her eyes off the road and her SUV tumbled down a cliff. She escaped unharmed but chastened. This heady, strong, independent woman needed bringing down a notch.

“I was falling into a trap of playing God in my own life. You don’t want to take rolling over a cliff to learn a lesson, but I guess I needed to be knocked off my center to re-land on something fortified and true.”

She now works for a Salt Lake youth therapy program.

“My dream is to open a community center for people to come and experience restoration and what it means to be fully alive, fully human.”

She rarely makes it back to Neb., but she did come for Gravity’s March Deepening Retreat in Schuyler.

“I am a firm believer we can only extend the love to the world we have for ourselves. That’s truly what these retreats are for me – to fill my own tank so that I can go out and serve the world to the best of my abilities.”

Visit http://www.facebook.com/public/Victoria-Rosales.

 

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).

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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