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Omaha Storm Chasers part of Minor League Baseball push to cultivate Latino market

September 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Been late posting some El Perico stories I had publsihed in July and August 2018. This is one of them.

 

Omaha Storm Chasers part of Minor League Baseball push to cultivate Latino market

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

 

Baseball has long been an international sport. Its deep roots throughout Asia, Latin America, South America,Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico are well reflected in minor and major league team rosters in the United States.

To see this Latin influence, look no further than the Triple A Omaha Storm Chasers. The current roster includes players with the surnames Torres, Lopez, Arteage, Villegas, San Miguel, and Hernandez. Others, including top prospect Adalberto Mondesi, have been with the club in 2018. Two key players with the parent Kansas City Royals, Salvador Perez and Paulo Orlando, served rehab assignments here earlier this summer.

The emergence of Latino players – they comprise 27 percent of MLBers today compared to 14 percent in 1988 – has happened as America’s Latino population has exploded. Professional baseball knows that to stay relevant to diverse audiences, it must market the game to growing minority segments represented on the field. Thus, in 2017 Minor League Baseball initiated the Copa de la Diversión series or Fun Cup in celebration of Hispanic culture. Four franchises test-marketed the series. This year, 33 franchises are participating, including the Storm Chasers.

Teams designate select home dates as Copa games featuring Hispanic-themed uniforms and names, special community guests, and traditional cultural food, music, and dancing. For Copa, the Storm Chasers become Cazadores de Tormentas at Werner Park. The team played as the Cazadores on June 7, June 21 and July 21 and will close out the Copa series as the Cazadores on Thursday, August 2 at 7:05 p.m., playing against Las Vegas.

Showing off Latin roots and playing before Spanish-speakers is “fun”, according to Chasers utility player Jack Lopez. The Puerto Rico native added, “It’s an honor to be able to participate. Representing our countries is something we take pride in.”

Rosendo Robles will sing the national anthem prior to the start of the August 2 game. A post-game celebration concert will feature performers Marcos & Sabor, Alexis Arai and Premo el Negociante.

Chasers General Manager Martie Cordaro said his organization is focused on cultivating the Hispanic market here moving forward.

“This is a long play for us that’s based in community as we create and make relationships. The long play is this is a growing population nationally and specifically here in the metro area. We want them to look at us just like they do the Henry Doorly Zoo or Funplex or Pizza Machine or Cinco de Mayo. We want to be right there with their entertainment decisions.

“Sales is really secondary to what we’re doing right now. It’s not just another immediate promotion to sale tickets. We hired a staff member specifically for the community outreach it entails.”

Venezuela native Jhonnathan Omaña, a former Montreal Expos prospect and longtime Omaha resident, was hired in January as the club’s first multicultural marketing lead.

After years of experience in marketing, customer service, and promotions, Omaña enjoys being back in baseball using his bilingual and community relations skills.

“I have the opportunity to see baseball behind the scenes, in the front office, to make connections with the community and to facilitate interactions between the players and coaches and the fans. We’re reaching out to community businesses, nonprofit organizations, and schools, and we’re at different events. I get the chance to see baseball from a whole different perspective. That’s what really attracted me the most about this position.”

Baseball runs deep in his heritage.

“I’m from a country where baseball is big. Baseball has been in our family a long time and is a big part of our family.”

His grandfather Lucindo Caraballo was a legendary player with Los Leones del Caracas and is a candidate for Venezuela’s national baseball hall of fame. Omaña was talented enough to get a look by the Expos. A younger brother played community college ball in Nebraska.

Omaña sees his job as building on the goodwill the franchise has established in its 50 years in Omaha.

“The relationship with the Hispanic community was already there,” he said. “I’m just contributing to making that relationship stronger.”

GM Cordaro acknowledged more needed to be done before Copa.

“I don’t think traditionally minor league baseball has done all it could to target all demographics,” he said. “Minor league baseball is a great sport. It draws 42 million fans a year – outdrawing the NFL and NBA combined – but there are additional groups and demographics we’re not directly speaking or had not been to prior to the Copa program.”

“I think this is an opportunity to say, yes, we are the community’s ballclub, not just the traditional baseball fans’ ballclub. I think what the Copa program does is to be a little more inviting, a little more welcoming. That’s really what Jjonathan [Omaña] has been tasked with,” GM Cordaro said.

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El Museo Latino: A Quarter Century Strong

September 23, 2018 Leave a comment

El Museo Latino: A Quarter Century Strong

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

El Museo Latino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Omaha’s a livelier place today than 30 years ago because Individuals noted cultural voids and put their passion, reputation or money on the line to create iconic attractions. Blue Barn Theatre, The Waiting Room, Slowdown, Film Streams, Kaneko, Holland Performing Arts Center, Union for Contemporary Art and Gallery 1516 are prime examples.

Count El Museo Latino among the signature venues in this city’s cultural maturation. Founder-director Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia noted a paucity of Latino art-culture-history displays here. Like other place-makers, she didn’t wait for someone else to do something about it. Acting on her lifelong interest in Latino heritage, she left a business career to learn about museums and in 1993 she launched her nonprofit.

El Museo Latino got its humble start in a 3,000 square foot basement bay of the Livestock Exchange Building. The stockyards were still active, making pesky flies and foul smells a gritty nuisance. Volunteers transformed the grimy old print shop space in 34 days for El Museo Latino to open in time for Cinco de Mayo festivities.

Five years later she led the move from there to the present 18,000 square foot site at 4701 South 25th Street in the former Polish Home. Growth necessitated the relocation. As the museum consolidated its niche, it expanded its number of exhibits and education programs. It hosts events celebrating traditional art, dance, music, film and ethnic food.

The museum launched amidst the South Omaha business district’s decline. It prospered as the area enjoyed a resurgence of commerce – finding community and foundation support. From 1993 till now, Garcia’s nurtured a passionate dream turned fledgling reality turned established institution. In celebration of its 25th anniversary, El Museo Latino is hosting a Saturday, October 13 Open House from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Visitors can view a special contemporary textiles exhibition by Mexican artist Marcela Diaz along with selections from the permanent collection.

A quarter century of presenting national-international traveling exhibits and bringing visiting artists, scholars and curators only happened because Garcia didn’t let anything stop her vision. She didn’t ask permission, She didn’t heed naysayers who said Omaha didn’t need another museum. She didn’t delay her dream for her board to find a more suitable space or to raise money.

“My attitude was, let’s get something established instead of waiting for funding, for a different space, for this or that. I just thought we needed to do it now – and so we went ahead, Besides, who’s going to give us the authority to say what we can have and not?”

Retired University of Nebraska at Omaha arts education administrator Shari Hofschire lays the museum’s very being at the feet of Garcia.

“Maggie Garcia’s passion is the building block of its 25 year history. She doggedly fundraised and programmed. She recognized the need for a community-cultural identity just as South Omaha was growing with new residents.”

Hofschire added the museum’s now “a catalyst for both the past traditions of Latino history and culture and future opportunities for the South Omaha community to express itself and expand its cultural narrative.”

As a founding board member, David Catalan has seen first-hand the transformation of Garcia’s idea into a full-fledged destination.

“Underlying the foundation of El Museo Latino’s success was Maggie’s leadership and outstanding credentials in the arts  Her outreach skills harvested financial support in the form of foundation grants and corporate sponsorships,” Catalan said. “Her organizational acumen created a governing board of directors, each with resources necessary for achieving strategic objectives. The museum’s programs and exhibits drew rapid membership growth as well.

“Today, El Museo Latino is a treasured anchor in the cultural and economic development of South Omaha. Another 25 years of sustainability is assured so long as Maggie Garcia continues to be the face of inspiration and guidance.”

Garcia spent years preparing herself for the job. She performed and taught traditional folk dance. She collected art. She met scholars, curators and artists on visits to Mexico. After earning an art history degree, she quit her human resources career to get a master’s in museum studies and to work in museums. Seeing no Latino art culture, history centers in the region, she created one celebrating the visual and performing arts heritage of her people.

She’s seen El Museo Latino gain national status by receiving traveling Smithsonian exhibits. One brought actor-activist Edward James Olmos for the Omaha opening. The museum’s earned direct National Endowment for the Arts support.

In 2016, Garcia realized a long-held goal of creating a yearly artist residency program for local Latino artists.

Her efforts have been widely recognized. In 2015 the Mexican Government honored her lifetime achievement in the arts.

With the museum now 25 years old and counting, Garcia’s excited to take it to new heights.

“I don’t want us to just coast. I don’t want it to get old for me. For me the excitement is learning and knowing about new things – even if it’s traditions hundreds of years old we can bring in a new way to our audiences.

“We want to continue to challenge ourselves and to always be relevant by finding what else is out there, where there is a need, where do we see other things happening. Hopefully that’s still going to be the driving force. It has to be exciting for us. We have to be passionate about it. Then how do we bring that interest, love and passion to do what we said we’re going to do and to make it grow and fulfill needs in the community.”

She cultivates exchanges with Mexican art centers and artists to enrich the museum’s offerings. A key figure in these exchanges is artist-curator Humberto Chavez.

“We have connections with artists and centers in different parts of Mexico because of him,” she said. “He’s a professor of art in Mexico City and he was head of all the art centers throughout the country. He’s very well connected. That’s a huge window of opportunity for our artists here and a real plus with our residency.

“We’re not just giving artists a place and time to work and a stipend, but trying to provide them some other opportunities they wouldn’t necessarily be able to get.”

She said she hopes “to expand our network of working with other institutions as well as other artists “

Besides exposing artists and patrons to new things, Maggie’s most pleased when art connects with youth.

“I had a group of elementary students come in to see an exhibition of traditional shawls, Some of the boys and girls said, ‘What are those things doing here?’ Then as I talked about the different fabrics and colors, how the shawls are worn, what they mean, how they’re created, all of a sudden the kids were oohing and aahing at the rainbow of materials and history..

“When we came to a map of Mexico showing where the shawls were made, the kids were asking each other, ‘Where are you from?’ One said, ‘I don’t know where I’m from, but I’m going to go home and ask.’ Another pointed at the map and said, ‘Well, I’m from that state.’ Suddenly, it was accepted by their peers and so it was okay to value who they are.

“I see that all the time here. It’s very satisfying.”

Satisfying, too, is seeing the fruition of her dream reach 25 years.

“The journey has been an adventure. It hasn’t been easy. There’ve been challenges, but I thrive on challenges. If someone says, this is the way it’s been done forever, all the more reason to say, why not make a difference.”

Visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.

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.

South by Southwest: Omaha South High Soccer Builds Makings of Dynasty on Diversity

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

South by Southwest: Omaha South High Soccer Builds Makings of Dynasty on Diversity

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The feel-good story of Omaha South High School’s boys soccer team nearly got lost in the aftermath of last week’s state championship game. The Packers lost 4-2 to Lincoln East at Creighton’s Morrison Stadium. Marring the action was a small group of Lincoln East fans waving American flags during the contest. In the post-game rush celebrating the win some East fans littered the field with fake U.S. resident “green cards.”

Few among the record 5,800 in attendance actually saw the incident, which happened amid a tangle of bodies. When reporters on the scene informed South Coach Joe Maass what occurred he confronted East coach Jeff Hoham.

In the ensuing flood of media coverage the offending East students were suspended. Students and officials from the schools have expressed outrage and regret. Messages have been exchanged. A face-to-face dialogue convened. All to work through the hurt feelings. Practically everyone agrees the insults were racist taunts targeting predominantly Latino South. The provocative symbols inferred illegal status in what is already a tense climate over immigration. East has a largely white student body.

What should have been a capstone moment for South, whose graduation ceremony was held blocks away before the game, instead became fodder in the growing culture war. South officials say the stunt was just the latest insensitivity the school’s endured.

“There’s been incidents throughout the season and throughout my 11 years here,” said Maass. “It’s always been there.” Principal Cara Riggs said “inappropriate comments” have been directed towards “not just our boys soccer team, but also our nearly all African-American boys basketball team. They too have suffered from similar situations.”

She noted frustration with schools “minimizing” such events but credits East staff and students for trying to make things right.

As inevitable as it may be for what transpired to be headline material in the raging immigration debate, the greater lesson is how a team from a diverse inner city school achieved great heights and didn’t take the bait when egged on.

Maass has guided the program from awful to elite. Fueling the turnaround is talent from feeder South Omaha and Bellevue soccer clubs, notably Club Viva. The mostly Latino players bring a fluid style of finesse, quickness, creativity he terms “beautiful to watch. The average kid comes here with natural foot skills and an understanding of the game. A lot of the fundamentals are there.” Plus, he said, “they want to play passionately.”

South’s lone non-Latino player, junior Alex Stillinger, came from Viva, too. He was South’s leading scorer in 2010 and he calls playing for South “an honor.” He and his teammates describe themselves as “family.” Junior Guillermo Ventura, whose brother Eric made the squad as a freshman, said, “all my teammates are my brothers.”

MATT DIXON/THE WORLD-HERALD

Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, people playing sports and outdoor

 

The coaching staff is a mix of ethnicities, including Greece native Demitrios Fountas.

Diversity is not isolated to the soccer team, said Riggs: “Our students who live in a very diverse school population…are respectful of each other’s cultures and differences.”

The Packer faithful at the state title game included Latinos and non-Latinos. “It gives us some real pride to have the power back in one of the sports,” said South High grad Tom Maass, an uncle of coach Joe Maass. Sergio Rangel, who knows several South players, said the team’s success “is a good thing for the community.”

Coach Maass believes South’s new Collin Field came to fruition when alums and backers of largely Eastern European ancestry put their faith in the Latino-led soccer program as the school’s best chance at reclaiming its long dormant athletic glory. The regulation soccer field offers a decided home advantage. South’s unbeaten there.

His first five years brought only a handful of wins. But steady progress has resulted in three state tourney appearances in four years. In 2010 the program set a school record for single-season wins, 20, and achieved several South High soccer firsts: a No. 1 ranking; a district championship; a win at state; and a championship game berth. As departing senior star Manny Lira put it after South finally beat its longtime nemesis, Creighton Prep, in the state semifinals, “It’s history within history within history.”

“Yeah, this is huge, I can’t even put it into words right now,” Maass said after South beat Lincoln Southeast for the District A-3 title. “We’ve been building to this with every little stepping stone. Every year we’ve improved a little bit. Where we’re at and where we were are two different stories. It’s been a complete reversal. People used to pat me on the back and say, ‘Oh you’re making the kids so much better.’ Now when I beat their teams I don’t get that anymore. Now it’s kind of like they can’t stand me.”

The truth is, anytime South plays a Millard, Papillion, Westside or Prep, there’s a clash of inner city-suburban, poor-wealthy, Latino-gringo. Maass said despite some bigots most opponents “respect us in the end. People actually believe we’re good now. We’ve closed the gap for sure. It’s not a fluke, it’s the real deal.”

More important, he said, is how South soccer “is building a lot of pride within our community and our kids.”

“The community has something positive to look at now at South rather than the low test scores or low graduation rates,” said Guillermo Ventura. “The community is appreciative of the school and the kids and what we have to offer.”

Before the state championship game against unbeaten and nationally ranked Lincoln East Maass said, “I’ve been telling everybody regardless of the outcome of this game the community interest and support and enthusiasm I’ve seen from all walks of life far outweighs whether we win or lose, and it’s always kind of been about that here until the tradition’s built. Then I suppose it’ll be about winning championships.”

Even after the loss, he sounded upbeat, saying, “This is the best game I’ve ever been to in terms of crowd support, South Omaha support. I’ve never been so proud to be from South Omaha in my life. Seriously. This is the pinnacle.”

Maass feels with the pipeline that’s in place it’s just the start of something big.

“I hear stories now of middle school kids wanting to come to South and play soccer, and so I’m hoping we can build on this and create kind of like an every year trip to state and possibly win a state championship.”

Graduated goalkeeper Billy Loera, who set a state record with 37 career shutouts predicts “there’s a lot more to come.”

Roger Garcia: Servant Leader

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Garcia Makes Community Service his Life’s Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Origiinally appeared in Omaha Magazne

 

Roger Garcia fits squarely in the mix of young professionals taking their turn at leading Omaha.

As a former special assistant to Mayor Jim Suttle on urban affairs and community engagement, Garcia kept close tabs on issues impacting Latinos. Today, he continues doing the same as a community volunteer and activist with his eyes set on earning a master’s degree in public administration to prepare for the non-profit leadership role he expects to assume one day.

His community focus right now extends to serving on the boards of Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska,the  Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Brown-Black Coalition of Greater Omaha. He also works with the Latino Academic Achievement Council and the South Omaha Violence Prevention-Intervention Initiative.

He chairs the Nebraska Democratic Party Latino Caucus, which actively addresses issues like redistricting and immigration.

He’s so busy he’s had to hand over the reins of the Omaha Metro Young Latinos Professional Association he founded and led.

His deep concern and involvement keep him attuned to what’s going on and to where he and the organizations he represents can help.

“I do need to know what’s going on in the community and to see where we can help out if at all possible,” he says.

Everywhere he looks, he sees young professional making a difference.

“It’s definitely a growing community that’s being sought after more and more. Lots of people are wanting to know where we stand and what our opinions are. They want us to get involved because we bring that new energy or new mind frame. Our technology-social media skills are in demand.

“I think it’s a population that will definitely gain in influence. Clearly, we’re the leaders of tomorrow.”

He’s glad the distraction of the mayoral recall election has passed and the city administration and the community can move forward as one.

“Luckily that’s over and we can focus on just bettering the community.”

For Garcia, there’s no higher calling than public service.

“I love working with people, I love trying to help people better themselves. It’s just something I truly enjoy doing. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to serve.”

Roger Garcia: A Young Man on the Move

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Roger Garcia is a young man in a hurry.

He took a job in Mayor Jim Suttle’s office last June at age 22, a full year short of graduating from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Now, eight months into his position as Community Liaison this dual psychology and Latino/Latin American Studies major is slated to earn his bachelor’s degree in May.

He can hardly wait. Next up is an Omaha Board of Education bid and then either law school or pursuing his master’s in psychology, an educational-career path he said he chose “because of my love of interacting with people, which ultimately leads to a love of helping people and serving people.”

Growing up, first in Los Angeles, then in Schuyler and Columbus, Neb., Garcia was precocious, alway excelling in school and involved in community activities. His parents’ split-up in L.A. precipitated his Honduran immigrant mother Margarita coming to Neb. with Roger and his two older brothers. His mother had a cousin living in Schuyler.

The culture shock was profound.

“It was completely different going from a humongous city to a tiny Midwestern town of about 6,000 at that point,” said Garcia. “I had never seen snow, I had never seen cows. The demographics were completely different. I was just one of about three maybe four Latinos in my class. Today, if you go to Schuyler it’s like 95 percent or more Latinos in the elementary school. It’s pretty interesting how it’s changed.

“It did require adjusting but ultimately I truly liked the Nebraska lifestyle, even the small town lifestyle.”

After two years in Schuyler, where his mother worked in a meatpacking plant, the family moved to Columbus. The Garcias again found themselves part of a small minority community.

“Being a Latino newcomer, especially to those small towns, there’s a lot of good experiences and there’s a lot of bad experiences as well,” he said. “I don’t like to dwell on the bad experiences but they did happen. Of course, there’s a lot of racism in smaller towns, going as far as violent acts I saw towards my friends. Luckily no physical violence was done to me but there were things like random yelling at me and my family.

“But there’s a lot of good things that came from living in those small towns. It’s a great peaceful atmosphere. Most of my friends were Caucasian and I learned a lot from them and their families. And I am bicultural as far as having that small town Nebraska experience and learning the cultures of my parents.”

His father’s from Mexico and his step-father’s from Guatemala. His dad’s been out of his life for some time, his mother only remarried a few years ago and his brothers don’t share his passion for education. His mom pushed him to achieve.

“She’s always promoted my getting an education and she’s been there for me through my process,” he said. “She always wanted me to get those straight As and that really influenced my desire for knowledge in general, something that’s very big in my life. I love to read — history, literature. I have a passion for knowledge and learning.”

His interest in politics and government was stoked by the events of 9/11. He became a news junkie fixated on U.S. policies, issues. Upon graduating high school and enrolling at UNO his interest shifted to events closer to home. Two important figures in his life became UNO’s Lourdes Gouveia and Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, who gave direction to his social justice bent.

“They got me involved in some political and voter mobilization campaigns. I learned a lot about policy that directly affects the Latino community. So they’ve definitely been mentors to me. I appreciate both of them.”

Garcia became an advocate and organizer with grassroots initiatives aimed at overturning anti-immigrant legislation. His role: educating the community about the impact of bills and encouraging people to participate by letting their voices be heard.

“I have a passion and a drive to just help people, stand up for them, in an educated and professional manner of course. I need to be informed on the topics.”

He worked with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies, the Anti-Defamation League and the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. His interest and experience coalesced when he worked on the Suttle campaign doing bilingual phone calls, canvasing South 24th St. and connecting then-candidate Suttle with local Latino leaders.

After Suttle’s victory Garcia posed ideas to the new mayor and staff about interacting with the Latino community and they liked his ideas so much, he said, “they offered me a position.” He chairs the South Omaha Advisory Committee he created himself.

“One of my main objectives coming into this is just making sure people within the community have a direct line of communication to the mayor’s office,” said Garcia. “Some people feel detached from government, that it’s hard to get straight answers, so I wanted to make sure people felt they could contact us directly and they had a source that would reliably reply to them.

Since the mayor can’t be everywhere, as a community liaison I can go to meetings for him. That’s a big part of it, being in the community, seeing what the needs are, what the happenings are.

“That’s why it’s so important to meet so many organizations and people, so they can feel comfortable that if they have any question they can just call me and they will get an answer. Sometimes I’ll join a committee or a board just to be at the ground level in the community with some projects, helping out in whatever we can utilizing city services.”

There’s no where he’d rather be.

“Doing community service is just something I love to do, so to incorporate it into my job, that’s beautiful.”

A Talent for Teaching and Connecting

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

A Talent for Teaching and Connecting

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Liberty Elementary School kindergarten instructor Luisa Maldonado Palomo has reached the top of her field as a 2010 Alice Buffet Outstanding Teacher Award-winner.

The Gering, Neb. native is the grade leader at her Omaha school. She heads outreach efforts to parents, many of them undocumented, through the Liberty Community Council. She’s a liaison with partners assisting Liberty kids and families. The school engages community through parenting and computer classes, food and clothes pantries, and, starting in the fall, a health clinic.

Colleagues admire her dedication working with the school’s many constituents.

“She truly reaches the whole child —  behaviorally, academically, socially, emotionally — and then steps beyond that and reaches the family too,” said Liberty Principal Carri Hutcherson. “We can count on her to do a lot of the family components we have at Liberty because she gets it, she has a heart for it, the passion, the drive, the focus, all those great things it takes. She’s an expert practitioner on so many levels.”

But there was a time when Palomo questioned whether she wanted to be a classroom teacher. While a Creighton University education major she participated in Encuentro Dominicano, a semester-long study abroad in the impoverished Dominican Republic. She described this immersion as a “huge, life-changing experience” for reawakening a call to service inherited from her father, Matt Palomo.

“My dad has spent his whole life doling for others,” she said. “He comes from a migrant worker family. He gave up a college scholarship to work so he could help support his nine brothers and sisters. From the age of 15 he’s been involved with the Boy Scouts as a scout leader. He just celebrated his 45th year with the Boy Scouts of America.

“He’s always worked with underprivileged youth, Hispanic or Caucasian, in our small town. He’s such a role model for so many young boys who’ve gone through that program. He has such a sense of what’s right and wrong and he’s instilled that in my brother and sister and I.”

 

Luisa Palomo (standing) talks to Primarily Math Cohort 3 LPS on June 6.Luisa Palomo (standing) talks to Primarily Math Cohort 3 LPS on June 6.

 

In the Dominican Republic Luisa felt connected to people, their lives and their needs.

“You work, take classes and live with families,” she said. “You learn the philosophy and the why of what’s going on. You really learn to form relationships with people, which isn’t something that always comes naturally to Americans. Here, it’s always more individualistic and what do I need to do for myself, whereas in a lot of other countries people think about what do I need to do for my community and my family.”

The communal culture was akin to what she knew back in Gering. When she returned to the States she sought to replicate the bonds she’d forged.  “I came back wanting that,” she said. Unable to find it in her first teaching practicums, she became disillusioned.

“I was ready to quit education and my advisor was like, ‘Nope, there’s this new school in a warehouse and Nancy Oberst is the principal and you’ll meet her and love her — give it a shot before you quit.’ So I went there and loved it and stayed there. Nancy and I just clicked and she hired me to teach kindergarten.”

Liberty opened in 2002 in a former bus warehouse at 20th and Leavenworth. In 2004 it moved into a newly constructed building at 2021 St. Mary’s Avenue. Oberst was someone Palomo aspired to be like.

“She’s so dynamic and such a good model,” said Palomo. “She has such a vision for how a school should be — it shouldn’t be an 8:30 to 4 o’clock building. Instead it should be a community space where it’s open all the time and families come for all kinds of different services, and that really is the center of the community.”

Oberst and many of Liberty’s original teachers have moved on. Palomo’s stayed. “We have a core group of parents who have been with us from the old building and they know I’m one of the few teachers who have been here all eight years,” she said. “They’ve seen what I do. They know Miss Palomo is the one who spent the night in the ER when Jose broke his arm and started a fund raiser when Emiliano’s house burned down. They know me and they trust me and they let me into their homes.

“They know I’m coming from a good place.”

She said one Liberty family’s “adopted” her and her fiance. The family’s four children will  be in the couple’s fall wedding.

Hutcherson said Liberty is “the hub” for its downtown neighborhood and educators like Palomo empower parents “to feel they’re not just visitors but participants.” Whether helping a family get their home’s utilities turned back on or translating for them, she said Palomo and other staff “step out of the walls of this building to get it done.” For two-plus years Palomo mentored a girl separated from her parents.

“It’s that whole reaching out and meeting our families where they’re at,” said Palomo.

Liberty’s holistic, family-centered, “do what’s best for the child” approach is just what she was looking for and now she can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“I really love it here. We’re not just a teacher in the classroom. We do so much to really bring our community into our school so our families can come to us for all these different activities and for help with different needs. It’s one of those things where we let them into our lives and they let us into theirs, and we’re both better for it.”

She’s proud to be “a strong Hispanic” for kids who may not know another college graduate that looks like them.

Palomo recently earned her master’s in educational administration from UNO. Sooner or later, she’ll be a principal. Hutcherson said when that day comes “it’ll be a great loss to Liberty but a great gain for the district.”

Perez finds home away from home in York


Perez finds home away from home in York

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in March 2018 issue of El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

It seems like destiny now to Brianna Perez, the ex-York (Neb.) College softball standout and recent Nebraska Greats Foundation recipient. She dreamed of playing on a national stage. Instead, she eded up 1,500 miles from home at tiny, private York in southeast Neb., where she overcame injury to become a diamond legend. Then, when more hard times hit, she discovered an entire community, even some strangers, had her back.

Perez was a star high school competitor in her native Madera, California. She suffered an ACL tear as a junior when, covering second base, her cleats got stuck in the dirt and her left knee torqued. She came back strong her senior year. But missing time didn’t net the exposure she needed to land a major college athletic scholarship.

York entered the picture because her aunt Roni (Arellano) Miller played there – graduating in 2001. She’d been a Madera softball star herself. She, too, dreamed of Division I glory before finding her destiny at York. She took Perez on her campus visit and was happy when her niece enrolled on scholarship there. But the homesick Perez lasted only one semester.

“I was closed-minded and not open to the culture of York College. It was different from what I was used to,” Perez said.

She returned home to be near family and friends. She attended Reedley Junior College, where she played ball two years. But leaving York the way she did never felt right. She pined to get back. An unexpected opportunity to do that arose when Miller took the York head coaching job and called to recruit her niece. who had two years eligibility left, to come play for her.

“I was given the opportunity continue my education and softball career, so, I took a leap of faith and decided to go back,” Perez said. “That was the best decision I ever made in my life. I got more involved and made friends I will cherish the rest of my life.

I’m really happy with the way things worked out. I definitely think  everything happens for a reason. The relationships you build at a small school like York College are things you can’t really replace or get anywhere else. I think everything happened the way it was supposed to.”

Having her aunt as her coach helped.

“What I learned from her was not only how to be a better player but how to be a better person. I really appreciate that because I use it now in my everyday life.”

Miller’s husband, Kenny Miller, assists coaching the team and Brianna helps out, too.

“Roni and Kenny are two of the biggest influences in my life. I live with them and help coach with them. They’ve been huge mentors. They’ve helped me grow as a person. If I have questions about life and need advice, I know i can always go to them.”

Perez needed support when, as a York junior, she had the same ACL injury she endured in high school. This time, she made a shoestring catch and as she came up to throw the runner out at home, she stepped in a hole and the same ligament twisted and tore.

“Having already been through it once, I knew what to expect. I learned it was just a set-back to reaching my goals and that I had to work twice as hard. I also learned to be mentally tough because there were many days when the pain was too much and I didn’t think I could do it. But with the help of family, friends, teammates and coaches, I was able to push through.

“I think it has made me more mentally tough for difficult situations in life.”

Just as before, she came back strong. For her 2016 senior campaign she played outfield and batted .433 with an .803 slugging percentage. Her 68 hits included 22 doubles and 12 home runs. She drove in 55 runs. She became the Panthers’ first softball All-American.

Then she got tested again when she fell behind paying medical bills from the knee surgery she underwent. A collection agency threatened legal action.

“It was scary and embarrassing. I didn’t really know what to do.”

She depleted her few resources traveling home to be with her mother, who was fighting pancreatic cancer. “I worked three jobs just so I could afford to go home.”

Then her car broke down. “It was a pretty tough year.”

That’s when she learned about the nonprofit Nebraska Greats Foundation that helps ex-athletes in need.

“It’s been such a blessing in my life,” Perez said of the foundation, which paid off her debts.

Her mother has made a full recovery.

Perez views everything that’s happened as a gift.

“It was completely worth it. It’s made me into the person I am today.”

She left after graduating only to return for her master’s in Organizational and Global Leadership. She compiled a 4.0 GPA. She hopes for a human services career.

“I’m passionate about helping the less fortunate and homeless. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work with that.”

She works in admissions at York, where one day her younger sisters, also softball phenoms, may follow her.

“I tell them all the time, ‘Don’t let anything hold you back.’ I showed them that it can be done. They’re capable of doing that and so much more. They might have offers to play softball at bigger schools but,” Perez said, it’s possible” they could continue the family legacy there. “They’ve come out to visit and they like it a lot. I’ll support them in whatever they want to do.”

Perez is enjoying coaching.

“It’s really cool to see players accomplish something they didn’t think they were capable of. When that happens, you see their confidence go up and carry over into everything else they do. That’s satisfying.”

Though she may not stay in York, she said, “It will always be a little home away from home for me. I’ve been given so many opportunities through York College.”

Lea más del trabajo de Leo Adam Biga en leoadambiga.com.

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