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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.

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

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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.

Magdalena Garcia’s dream of a museum still thriving at 25

August 27, 2018 Leave a comment

Magdalena Garcia’s dream of a museum still thriving at 25

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2018 issue of New Horizons

 

Magdalena Garcia

 

Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia has the rare opportunity this year to celebrate 25 years of a dream coming true and still going strong.

The founder-executive director of El Museo Latino in Omaha, the first Latino-Hispanic art, culture and history museum in the Great Plains, opened in 1993 because Garcia wouldn’t relinquish an idea. That idea to create a museum celebrating Latino heritage was emboldened by the empowering message conveyed by her father.

Garcia, 64, is the oldest of six sisters all born in Mexico City to Jesus and Beatriz Garcia. She did part of her growing up in Mexico, where she was exposed to fine and performing arts that inspired her.

“We returned every summer, sometimes for weeks and other times for the summer months,” she said. “Growing up I loved art and I was proud to be who I am.”

Her interest continued after she and her family moved to Omaha when Garcia was 9. She participated in traditional folk dancing from early childhood, even teaching fellow elementary school students to perform for the Our Lady of Guadalupe parish festival. She learned to make clothes from her seamstress mother. She admired her carpenter father’s handiwork restoring antique furniture. She dabbled in watercolor painting.

She comes from a family of art appreciators and creatives who all display some artistic talent.

As a young woman her life became more focused on education and employment.

“I come from a working class family. I never felt I needed anything because we had everything we needed. Always you worked toward something. It was that immigrant American Dream of if you work hard and you have a dream, it will come true,” she said.

She’s never forgotten the family patriarch’s words.

“I remember my father telling me. ‘My job is to provide everything you need – food, shelter, transportation, tuition. Your job is to do the best you can.’ He never said you have to get all As. That was never a pressure. It was just do the best you can – no skipping school, no playing hooky – that’s my expectation of you.’ Education was always very important to my parents. I don’t know how they put six girls through Catholic grade school and high school.”

Her father’s advice also drove her to follow her heart.

“When I was older, he sat me down and said, ‘You have to work, you need to be able to take care of yourself, so find something that makes you happy, that you love, that you have passion for – and go for it.’ I know that conversation happened with my sisters, too.”

The Garcia Girls are all accomplished college graduates.

“There weren’t any limitations placed on us. Starting with that belief of who you are and where you come from and that support from family was key for all of us.”

Preparing for her dream

It took her awhile to put into practice her father’s advice about heeding her heart after she was hired at Northern Natural Gas Co. through an affirmative action program

“That opened a door but that didn’t guarantee you were going to stay or advance in a career. I always felt it was important I prepare myself for any position I wanted. I checked off the requirements for education and training to make myself more qualified.”

She climbed the corporate ladder.

“My last position was as a human resources manager.”

Her passion for art still burned but was muted by the grind of a 9 to 5 workday and taking University of Nebraska at Omaah business classes at night. Still, art was as near to her office as Joslyn Art Museum across the street. An experience there rekindled her flame.

Her company made a permanent loan of its Maximilian-Bodmer Collection to the Joslyn, which in 1984 developed a national touring exhibition of these important Western art-history holdings. Garcia and some fellow employees trained as docents for the Views of a Vanishing Frontier exhibit.

“Marsha Gallagher, then-chief curator at Joslyn, welcomed us. She took us to one of the (storage) vaults. Watercolor was my passion and here were the Bodmer watercolors laying out in preparation for the exhibit. That was the moment I wanted to change careers. I said to myself, I know I need to find a way to be in a museum.'”

Garcia changed her major from business to art history.

In pursuit of her dream, she paved the way for her sisters’ higher education

“Maggie was working full-time and married when she started at UNO. I remember her taking me when she registered for classes. She wanted to expose me to that environment, to that other world,” said her sister Maria Vazquez, who went on to earn degrees from Metropolitan Community College and UNO. She’s now Vice President for Student Affairs at MCC.

When Northern merged with Enron, Garcia made the move to its corporate headquarters in Houston, Texas. However, the lure of working in a museum was too great and she left to embark on a two-year museum studies graduate degree at Syracuse University in New York.

To supplement her studies, she immersed herself in museums.

“I did volunteer work in a number of museums in my journey, including the Joslyn, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.”

All of it was preparation for creating El Museo Latino.

Her journey coincided with an explosion in America’s Latino population. She observed institutions seeking to reach that demographic through programming.

“I saw where Latino art collections were located. It made me aware for the first time there were only four Latino museums (then) in the whole United States: New York City, Chicago, Austin and San Francisco.

“It made me stop and think, why not one here in the Great Plains? Why not Omaha?”

Thus, the seed for El Museo Latino was planted.

She applied for a paid internship at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC but was surprised by a full-time job offer. Though flattered, she wanted to fast-track her master’s, so she did a part-time paid internship instead at the Los Angeles County Museum, which was preparing to host a traveling Mexican art show.

“I worked in the education department putting together some of the programming and training, writing materials, teaching docents.”

That experience further stoked her desire to make a Latino museum happen here. Reinforcing that desire were state mandates to bring multiculturalism into school curricula. Nebraska put it into effect in 1993.

“All those things were on my mind,” said Garcia, who was ready to take the best art opportunity afforded her.

“I was at a time in my life when I was going to pick up and go wherever. But this was still home.”

 

An art class/workshop at El Museo Latino

 

 

Realizing the dream

She decided to share her dream with community leaders. She’d already “drafted what mission and focus such a museum would have and what it would need in terms of 501c3 status and a board.”

She approached activist-educator Jim Ramirez with her vision. He organized a meeting with other movers and shakers including then-Omaha Mayor P.J. Morgan and arts enthusiast David Catalan. She made a presentation. The group toured the site she’d fixed on – a former print shop in the Livestock Exchange Building.

Where others were cautious, she was determined.

“The expectation was we’re going to do it. Who wants to help and be part of it. I signed the first contract with the Lund Company for that Livestock Exchange space.”

She didn’t let objections to the rough shape of that 3,000 square foot space stop her.

“There were holes in the wall. There were pools of grease and ink.”

Some thought it couldn’t be a museum.

“But I thought it could be. It wasn’t much, but it was a good start.”

All the work to get it secured and cleaned happened with sweat equity. There was no budget.

South Omaha was undergoing a major transition. The South 24th Street business district was dead and the immigrant-refugee resurgence just beginning. The Big Four packing houses were long gone. The stockyards on their last legs.

“We had to put a screen door on the entrance to our museum to keep out the flies.”

It took a big effort to repurpose the old print shop.

“Everybody we could pull in pitched in. Family, friends, their friends. We’d come in in shifts.”

It was an all-day, every day push for Garcia. “I’d go home, get a shower, take a quick nap and back I went.”

Her father helped restore the huge, beautiful windows that featured oak trim and copper fixtures.

“About a week before we were scheduled to open, I get a phone call from the owner of Designer Blinds in Omaha. He asked, ‘What are you going to do about the windows?'”

Though gorgeous, the windows let in excess sunlight not safe or conducive for the display of artwork. She’d thought of painting over or covering them but it was a week before the opening and they were still exposed.

The owner wanted to send a salesman with samples but Maggie kept begging off, saying she had no budget. She finally agreed to a visit and selected a style just to be rid of him. Later that day the owner called to point out she picked a non-energy efficient model. She repeated it didn’t matter since she couldn’t afford them anyway. Then the owner revealed he was donating the blinds and their delivery and installation for free.

The blinds went up opening day. They went with the museum when it moved to its current building in 1998.

Carpeting was donated by the Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Garcia also got her former employer to donate desks, panels and partitions.

“Some we’re still using.”

To assemble the opening exhibits Garcia called on local artists and tapped her own collection of Mexican textiles cultivated on her travels.

“We opened with two exhibits. One with local art, including painting and sculpture, and the other with textiles from my travels. That was the beginning.”

The museum got the space in April and opened May 5, which is the Cinco de Mayo observance of Mexican independence. The renovation took 34 days from start to finish. Each year, El Museo Latino co-celebrates its opening with Cinco de Mayo.

The museum might have located elsewhere. Area colleges courted it for their campuses, Some pressed for an Old Market or suburban site. But she insisted it  operate independently and be situated near its base.

“We needed to be autonomous and we needed be in the Latino community of South Omaha. It should be in the community it represents and belongs to. The neighborhood doesn’t depend on the museum but there’s that support and connection, even if its just visual. The purpose of a museum is to serve its community, but I think ethnic museums have even one more connection with their community.”

The state multicultural mandate gave fledgling El Museo Latino an in with student tours. Founding board member Jim Ramirez proved a powerful ally and networker.

“He was very instrumental in getting the museum in front of superintendents and principals,” she said. “We’ve always worked with schools to get students here.”

Shes adamant about focusing on Latino art, culture, history year-round – not just for Cinco de Mayo. There’s an inexhaustible reservoir of rich material to draw on.

“If you live to be a thousand, you’ll never see everything that’s available or that you could see here.”

The museum’s built support by selling memberships and attracting grant support and donations. The Nebraska Arts Council, Humanities Nebraska and the National Endowment for the Arts are among its funders.

 

Se exhibe Arte Plumaria de docente nicolaita en Estados Unidos

El Museo Latino

 

Making the museum international

Garcia’s been intentional establishing international ties with art scholars, curators and artists in Mexico.

“That had been taking place before the museum opened. I would travel to different places to feed my interest in art. In my two years of graduate work I spent part of the summers in Mexico City at universities there meeting department heads and artists.

“In Houston, waiting to get into grad school, I took some classes at Rice University, whose gallery showed a photography exhibition curated by several artists. One of them was Cristina Kahlo (great niece of Frieda Kahlo). “That’s when i met Cristina. We corresponded and anytime I was in Mexico City we would meet. She introduced me to artists. The artists there knew what I wanted to do and were aware when the museum opened. They knew it mean exhibition opportunities.

“I did research on Mexican muralists. Over time I continued to build those connections.”

Garcia’s parlayed those connections by having Mexican artists and scholars visit. Cristina Khalo’s had several exhibits there. A frequent visitor is educator, photographer, mixed-media and installation artist Humberto Chavez. Garcia feels fortunate having a friend of the museum as well-versed and connected as Chavez is in Mexican art circles. His extensive travels and work expose him to diverse artists and art communities.

“We’ve worked with professor Chavez since ’95. Over the years we’ve had his work in a number of exhibitions. We’ve worked with artists and art organizations he’s been associated with in different parts of the country.”

Chavez said the work he’s brings to Omaha highlights different art strains in Mexico.

“We have different centers of art in different states of Mexico. I am trying to show the production of each center.”

Several years ago at El Museo Latino he curated work from the graphic workshop, La Parota, in Colima.

“It’s become very known in Mexico. In this space a lot of very important national and international artists have emerged or come there to produce different projects of graphic arts.”

Just as Garcia values this ongoing association, Chavez appreciates his Omaha ties.

“Having this new connection with artists was very important to me.”

In Omaha, he said, he’s found a kindred art family 1,500 miles from Mexico City. He looks forward to the relationship continuing.

“For all my life, I hope. Yes, I like to come, I like the artistic life in Omaha. I like for Omaha artists to come.”

El Museo Latino now operates an artist residency program that benefits form these cultural exchanges..

Chavez came from Mexico to do an extended artist-in-residence program but also to mentor to local artists.

“We also brought Carlos Tortolero, president and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. If you’re a Latino artist, that would be one place you would want to exhibit your work. It’s an opportunity to bring our resident artists to their attention.

“These experiences expose our artists to another point of view and provide opportunities for them to grow. We’re opening windows or doors for our resident artists because of our connections in Mexico and there might be opportunities to have residencies down there.”

By sharing work, ideas, contacts, she said, “we’re helping each other,”

Connections sometimes happen in unexpected ways.

“A dance group from the University of Chihuahua traveled here under the auspices of the Mexican Consulate. They ended up coming to do a performance. Over the years that university and other universities have sent us professors to do residencies. It’s also a great opportunity for our students to go there to study. It goes both ways. Many families that have students in our programs travel back to Mexico during their vacations.

“There have been people who’ve really believed in what we’re doing and want to find ways to help us and open up doors, not only for us but for artists of whatever age and level.”

Setting down roots and growing

El Museo Latino soon outgrew its space in the Livestock Exchange Building and in 1998 moved to its current site at 4701 South 25th Street.

“We looked for about a year at different buildings,” Garcia said.

The former Polish Home became the top choice for its size (18,000 square feet), proximity and historical significance (it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places).

“I had never been in this building before,” Garcia noted.

The brick walls, red tile roof and manicured courtyard reminded her of a Mexican hacienda.

El Museo Latino at first leased only the north wing with an option to purchase the entire building. Then, “in July ’98,” Garcia said, “we exercised our option and took over the rest of the building.”

What had been the ballroom-reception hall became the main galleries. The bar became a classroom.

The museum presented a centennial anniversary look back at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. That 19th century fair likely included the state’s earliest public display of Hispanic heritage. In doing research for the museum’s commemoration of the event, Garcia discovered Mexico sent a cultural exhibition and official delegation.

“The exhibit was installed in the International Building. It included Aztec things and samples of products, such as beans and gold. In addition to Mexico, other Latin countries sent things. Panama, for example, sent a replica of the canal.

“It was nice to make that connection. I’ve often wondered if everything got sent back to Mexico or if it’s sitting somewhere here in Omaha.”

 

Family Fun Day

 

Exhibitions-programs express art, culture, history

Each El Museo Latino exhibit has its own life. Whenever possible, Garcia tries having featured artists at their exhibit openings. “That’s important,” she said.

For Garcia, “a new exhibit is an opportunity to research and learn about an art form or perhaps a new approach.” Part of her role is to bring to light an exhibit’s social, cultural, historical context. “I think if you can bring more aspects of that culture, it’s richer and it becomes more aligned and true.”

Former UNO Center for Innovation in Arts Education director Shari Hofschier said the museum “provides a showcase for rich Latino heritage and traditions,” adding, “It is a regional gem in the quality of its programs and exhibitions.”

Founding board member David Catalan said the museum’s “enriched our community.” Hofschire said it not only provides a cultural background to the Latino community but to the wider community. They refer to Maggie as “the building block” and “foundation,” respectively, of the museum. Both credit her passion and leadership for its success.

Recognition has come to Garcia from various quarters. In 2015 the Mexican Government honored her lifetime achievement in the arts with an award presented locally by the Mexican Consul.

The museum’s permanent collection is mostly photographs, prints and textiles, with some sculpture. “We do have a lot of folk art,” Garcia said.

A history of Latinos in Omaha is on permanent display. Humberto Chavez made the exhibit’s photo portraits.

“He was at the end of a Bemis Center residency. I loved his work and I shared with him I wanted somehow to document Latino presence. He decided it had to be in black and white (with accompanying bios). We worked up a set of questions, many having to do with why and how immigrants came here. We made contact with people in the community. I accompanied him to the sessions.”

The project prompted Garcia to reflect on the immigrant story of her own family and other families.

“I know we ended up here because I had an aunt who moved here many years before us. Many times families will go where there’s a relative. You’re not going to be totally alone, you’re at least going to know somebody who can help you get started.”

The prevalence of meatpacking and railroad jobs here was a big draw the first two thirds of the 20th century.Many folks came escaping poverty or civil unrest.

“Some people we documented heard Omaha had jobs.Some talked about first coming to Kansas City or Chicago before settling in Omaha.”

She said Omaha came to be known as a good place to find work and to raise a family. It didn’t have the overcrowded slums of other major metropolitan areas.

“Ninety-nine percent of those who fled come for a better life – to make money, to send back or to go back.”

Some elders described the Mexican revolution. When rebels Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata went through a village, they took boys as soldiers to fight in the war. The guerilla armies then were similar to the ones that preceded or followed them in history.

Where home is

Something she means to document is the length of time it takes for an immigrant family to consider their new surroundings home.

“You move to America, but you always think, we’re going to go back. It’s home, but it’s home temporarily.”

She said that way station attitude was her family’s, too, “until we moved back to Mexico for a year and realized we didn’t fit there.”

“Things didn’t work out.”

When she was in her late teens she and her family made that aborted move – she completed her junior year of high school in Mexico – before deciding to return to America.

“It’s a different way of life down there. Once we came back, this was home. It’s a different mindset. We can always go back to visit – but this is home.”

 

Edward James Olmos

 

 

Always something new

El Museo annually hosts six or seven traveling exhibits.

“My new favorite is whatever I have up now,” Garcia said. “Over the years there’s been some really special ones and we’ve featured some major artists.”

The 2001 Smithsonian exhibit, Americanos: Latino Life in the United States, featured 120 photographs depicting the diversity of Latino life.

To promote the exhibit, Garcia selected “an image of this peasant man posed against a field of flowers.”

“He’s holding these beautiful yellow tulips in his huge hands. It was the most beautiful representation of who our working people are out in the fields.”

The size of the show maxed out the museum.

“We used every inch of space in our galleries. We even used the stage.”

A special added attraction with the show was the participation of actor-activist Edward James Olmos, who helped organize and promote the exhibit and appeared at each opening on its national tour.

“He was here for the opening,” Garcia said. “I got to pick him up at the airport. He was like, ‘Mija!’ – just like you saw him in Selena. It was wonderful to meet him. He spent two days here. He wanted to talk to our youth, so we contacted the Boys Club and they brought several vans full of kids. We filled a big room.”

Other notables who’ve visited include network television journalist John Quiñones and civil rights leader and former president of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Raul H. Izaguirre. Nebraska community leaders and elected officials have also visited.

Another Smithsonian exhibit, Our journeys, Our Stories: Portraits of Latino Achievement, showed at El Museo in December 2006 through January 2007. Two of the portrait subjects attended the opening.

With whatever exhibition is up, the museum programs related workshops and events around it. For this past summer’s contemporary textiles exhibit by artist Marcela Diaz, whose work represents the traditional textile fiber art of the Yucatan Region using natural fibers of cactus and coconut, the Yucataz artist came to present a fiber art workshop. Other artists did subsequent workshops.

The Diaz textiles show continues through December 16.

The annual Day of the Dead exhibit will run from October 13 through November 17. It will be complemented by traditional paper-cut workshops,

Also showing this fall is a photo exhibit by Garcia’s old friend and colleague, Humberto Chavez, titled TESTIGOES. from October 20 through December 1.

In January, the museum presents Tintes Naturales, an exhibit of natural tints textiles from Mexico.

Whenever there’s a show related to the Mexican Revolution, dance program students learn the dances of the period and perform them to live music.

“They research how people dressed, they create costumes. It’s almost like the men and women frozen in time in photographs jump from the wall as you see the dances and hear the music of the period,” Garcia said. “All of a sudden it comes alive through several art forms. Combining them is fantastic.”

El Museo’s dance program and troupe are among ongoing activities that happen year-round.

“It has a life of its own, It’s youth and adults. When the museum opened that was one of the first programs we started with. It’s been a standing program ever since.”

 

EML

Taking stock

Institutionally, Garcia said, “we continue to grow –

maybe not as fast as we should.” “Programmatically,” she said, “there’s more requests coming in, so I’m trying to find a way to grow to the next level where we can be reaching out to the community to many more people. I want it to grow. That’s what I want.”

More staff’s needed and that means more funding.

“We can’t now go to very many schools to bring programs there. We need somebody to manage contracting and developing more outreach. It’s still a small group managing all that now.”

Things may not be as far along as she’d like, but 25 years educating and entertaining the public is no small feat. All she has to do to know the museum’s making a difference is to look at who’s enjoying it.

“This summer we had an outdoor screening of Coco and the courtyard was full of families. To plan something and then see the reaction of people is satisfying.”

Seeing visitors, especially children, walk through the galleries and respond to the work, she said, “makes the exhibit worthwhile and makes the museum worthwhile.”

“If we can only touch one student, it’s worth it.”

When school groups arrive she knows kids are not yet sold on being there. “But once you start talking to them and sharing information and they start asking questions, you’ve got them engaged, and that’s fantastic,” she said.

Tour groups are the museum’s lifeblood. Some 50,000

patrons visit the museum yearly.

“We know people are coming from all over the metropolitan area,” Garcia said. “A lot of them are coming from outside Omaha,”

Harvesting heritage

El Museo Latino is a direct expression of Garcia sharing her love of heritage with others.

“It is paying tribute, it is focusing on our culture, our traditions. It is satisfying.”

It’s also a reminder of how she never abandoned her roots. She said relatives from Mexico who’ve visited the museum told her, “When you left for the United States we thought you were going to forget about everything. How can you so far away have come full circle to have a passion for who you are and your roots when there are many of our own kids that don’t care or value it?”

Garcia is familiar with the pattern of people distancing themselves from their past.

“You see it there, you see it here,” she said. “They view it as something they left behind –  we don’t want to know anymore about it because we want to become mainstream Americans.”

But Maggie and her museum celebrate the totality of what it means to be human.

“The whole idea of this is that you can be whoever you are without forgetting where you come from and without denying this rich culture that we have. That doesn’t mean you have to choose either loving your county or loving your roots. You do both. You can be all of that.

“I’ve always been proud of my heritage. I’ve never denied coming from Mexico. At the same time, America is home.”

Her whole family’s volunteered there. Her sister Silvia Wells is managing director. As each Garcia Girl’s found success, the whole family’s shared in it. Their legacy lives on in part through the museum. 

The museum’s commemorating its 25th anniversary throughout the year, including an Open House on Saturday, October 13 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.

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

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.

 

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