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Abstract Mindz: Group gives artists a voice and showcase


Abstract Mindz: Group gives artists a voice and showcase

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico (el-perico.com)

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Abstract Mindz founder Jose Antonio “Tony” Barrales, 25, wants to give young artists what he didn’t have growing up.

The Omaha Central High School graduate started the artist collaborative in 2013, he said, to give underrepresented youth “an opportunity to showcase their talent.”

“There were tons of people in the South Omaha community whose work wasn’t being seen and who weren’t being offered the opportunities others were. I had this idea to create an arts group that would hopefully become a gallery in the future. No one would be rejected based off their art style, age, ethnicity.

“There’s a ten year build-up of passion behind this group. Growing up in traditional Mexican homes trying to pursue art as a career wasn’t something our parents deemed worth pursuing or spending money on.”

In addition to lack of support at home, he and others found inequity at school, where, he said “certain students got opportunities others didn’t,” such as mentoring. “That’s when my passion to create the group was really sparked because I was one of those overlooked kids. I was like, Hey, I’m doing artwork, too – why am I not getting a shot to show what I’ve got. I saw other people who deserved their shot and didn’t get it, and they gave up.”

Barrales wants to affirm others.

“There’s real talent out there, but people feel like they can’;t make it on their own or there’s no one to help them out. i just want people to have a free wall space where they can express who they are and show people what they do.”

Artist Ari Marquez, 28, helps run the collaborative.

“Art was like my escape for expressing my emotions. A lot of our members are the same,” she said. T”hey don’t like to verbalize what they’re feeling or going through. Instead of saying it, they draw or paint or photograph it.

“Sharing their work can help with the healing process from hardships and darkness they have. It’s hopefully an escape to express themselves in ways that maybe the adults in their lives wouldn’t accept. Some of the kids are expressing a scream for help or attention. We create a safe space for them to express without being judged.”

It’s a catalyst for work to be made and seen.

“We’ve learned there’s a whole bunch of kids who have this secret talent no one knows about,” Barrales said.

“They have that passion to do things, but they might be scared to try or don’t know who to talk to about creating opportunities for themselves.”

 

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Barrales knows from experience “it’s really hard establishing yourself in the art community.” You’re bound to be asked, what have you done? and where have you shown?

“Most of our artists do abstract art, graffiti art – things that are more urban. We want them to know that can be marketable. We have artists who’ve gone to local galleries with their portfolios only to be turned away because the professionals said their art style is not what they show in their spaces.

“That’s something we want to change. This urban art is really popping in other cities and we want it to be seen that same way here.”

He’s working on the organization becoming an LLC.

“We’re looking at getting our own dedicated gallery. We want to be based in South Omaha. Most art galleries around here are collectives, We’re shooting for the same thing. We want this to grow to where we have mentoring programs and can support locations in Fremont and Lincoln, so people can have showcases in their own communities.”

Without a space of its own, Abstract Mindz has thus far relied on partnerships to show work in loaned spaces.

“Luckily we’ve found a welcoming space in the Bancroft Street Market. Our first show in 2015 was there. We had 15 artists. Each sold one piece. That motivated us to continue.”

More shows there followed. A Day of the Dead exhibit included performance by the local band.Mariachi Patria Juvenil. The largest and longest running show displayed 50 pieces for a month at Hotel LR.

Bellevue Social Center hosted another exhibit.

South Omaha entrepreneur Macros Mora donated a booth space for the group at the Cinco de Mayo market.

Local playwright Ellen Struve has worked with the group in different ways..

“She’s been sending us to the right people to talk to. She’s been great in helping with our outreach,” Barrales said. “She also presented us a great opportunity to participate in her new play EPIC for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. We were one of the groups she did story circles with. We told our own personal stories to help create the backstory for her play.

“The high school-age kids really loved it. She did an activity to open them up to speak. It’s something they usually don’t do. They felt really comfortable in that circle. They are amazed knowing their story is implemented in this play.”

Abstract Mindz members range from high school and college students to college grads working full-time jobs. Their ranks include Shantee Zamora, Sergio Gomez, Salem Munoz and Gerado “Polo” Diaz.

Abstract Mindz presented a solo show of Diaz’s work.

“He was a little more mature in his craft and body of work,” Barrales said, “so we gave him an individual showcase. He’s one of the main artists we have who wants to make this his career.”

Members pay minimal dues and get help with framing, portfolios and marketing.

The group’s planned next show, Visual Sounds, is in need of a venue. Participating artists were asked to create a large piece based on a song of their choice.

“This collaboration of music and visual arts will be our first interactive gallery. As spectators view each artwork they can put on headphones to listen to the correlating song.”

A place and date is in the works.

Follow Abstract Mindz on Facebook.

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

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Maya community asserts indigenous self-identity and roots itself in relationships


Part I:

Maya community asserts indigenous self-identity as a people

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

EDITOR’S NOTE:

In a two-part series, El Perico looks at the local Maya community through the eyes of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos.

In this first installment, he discusses the challenges faced by his indigenous displaced people in asserting their identity and being understood.

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Guatemala’s tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free have come north for decades seeking new lives in the United States, Among them, the Maya comprise an indigenous minority group who escaped persecution by the Guatemalan government. Over time, they’ve made lives for themselves around America. A small community of perhaps 1,500 people of Maya origin live In Nebraska – mostly in South Omaha.

Luis Marcos left Guatemala at 16. After living in California and Iowa he settled here in 2005. Two years later the self-taught Marcos helped form the local Maya community center, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim. It’s where his people practice their traditional culture and support each other in adjusting to life here and getting others to understand their plight as a displaced people.

Everything about the center, located at 4513 South 32nd Street, is steeped in Mayan ways and informed by the experiences that brought its members to America. Even though Marcos is its executive director, he said, “Our process of decision-making is very collective. We are a community.”

His story echoes that of other Mayans.

“I left Guatemala in 1989 due in part to the war and the genocide happening against my people at the time. The state was recruiting young people my age for forced military service where I would be trained to go back and kill my own people. Lack of educational opportunities was another reason I decided to emigrate.”

Where his story diverges from most is his involvement in Maya governmental affairs. Comunidad Maya’s mission is rooted in social, cultural and political concerns.

“We basically desire to keep our identity,” Marcos said, “and be recognized as a displaced indigenous people and respond to the complex needs and aspirations of the Maya community.”

Macros acknowledged getting a fix on his people’s heritage can be elusive for outsiders since the Maya are dispersed in several Central American nations and yet Spanish is not their first language,

“If we’re sitting face to face you would readily assume I am Hispanic or Latino because I look like one. If I tell you I come from Guatemala, it will seem to confirm I am Hispanic or Latino. The reality is we are not. I am lucky to speak Spanish and English fluently but that does not make me Latino or Hispanic or Caucasian. I just speak the languages. I am not of those cultures. I don’t even understand those cultures, as much as I try.

“That becomes a life and death situation for us when it comes to encounters with the health system. Because of the historical discrimination against indigenous peoples and the desire to avoid pain, most likely a Mayan would indicate they speak Spanish and nod to whatever you’re saying, without really understanding what’s happening when it comes to their health.”

His organization bridges those information gaps.

“Any activity we do is done with the objective of educating the health, educational system, legal systems and religious institutions. Recognition of us as a displaced indigenous people is really important. It has taken a lot of education and explaining.”

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Though he said Omaha and other American cities  are “very welcoming,” there’s still ignorance where Maya are concerned. Many people he meets believe the Maya disappeared hundreds of years ago when the great civilization they built was dismantled by conquerers. Though subjugated, the Maya retained their culture.

“It has not been easy,” he said. “We invite people from the wider community to our festivals so we can introduce our music, our dress, our language. That’s when the recognition, welcoming and support come.”

The Maya still have much to learn about this country.

“It hasn’t been easy for us to understand the values of the wider community. There’s been a lot of lessons for us to learn. Where we have shared our experience, our culture, our language, we also have learned from the dominant culture and from other cultures values that give us hope to be a flourishing community. It’s been a painful experience but also joyful at times.”

The intent, he said, is to help others understand “we are one people as defined in international law.”

“We have our own language, story of creation and spiritual sovereignty. We have clearly defined territories. We have our own philosophical understanding, government and way of organizing socially. We are a people and a people in international law has a right to self-determination.”

He’s participated in conventions with otter Maya leaders from around the U.S. and. he said, “We have chosen to identify not as migrants or refugees but as displaced native people. That’s the path we have chosen.”

That path, he said. is “very similar” to the experience of Native Americans.

“The root cause of our suffering as indigenous peoples in the western hemisphere goes back to the Doctrine of Discovery. This series of papal bulls decreed we can’t govern ourselves and we can’t own land. They declared our land ’empty land.’ European nations used the doctrine as a way to justify their invasion, domination and exploitation of the continent.

“In the process of assimilation you either become Christian or you die. That was the experience of the boarding schools native people’s suffered in, where we were forbidden to speak our language.”

Further binding the Maya with Native Americans, he said, is their spiritual beliefs.

“The spirituality of indigenous peoples is the same. It’s earth-based.”

Formal working relationships exist between the Maya and the Omaha tribal council in Nebraska.

Visit pixanixim.org

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

Next week: Part II – Rooted in relationships

___ ___ ___

 

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EDITOR’S NOTE:

In a two-part series, El Perico looks at the local Maya community through the eyes of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos.

In this second and final installment, he describes how the community center he leads and the overall Maya community here rely on relationships to advance their mission of autonomy and integration.

Part II: 

Maya community rooted in relationships

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

If a nonprofit is to thrive, it needs partnerships. That’s especially true for the Omaha nonprofit Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim. It represents a minority community of indigenous people, the Maya, who have fled persecution in their Central American homelands.

The center serves Mayans who’ve come here from Guatemala and other troubled nations where they have suffered oppression and violence. The Maya were drawn to Nebraska in the late 1980s-early 1990s by meatpacking and manufacturing jobs. South Omaha is home to most of Nebraska’s Mayan population today.  The Maya community center is located there. Much of its programming centers around celebrating and preserving traditional arts and culture. Some of its key activities are based in and supported by relationships with the larger community.

Those relationships include a pastoral care program with the Archdiocese of Omaha  for Catholics of Maya origin, a Maya Community Health Collaborative through the Creighton (University) Medical Students Association and initiatives with the University of Nebraska Center for Reducing Health Disparities, One World Community Health Centers and the Immigrant Legal Center.

“We educate our community and the legal system on our preexisting rights as indigenous peoples to travel our continent, we provide accompaniment to people seeking political asylum and we provide contributions to attorneys,” Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos said.

The Maya are an insistent but “loving, peaceful people,” he said. “What we want is a true understanding of historical events and to start over from a common  understanding of where we have come from.”

The community center marcos leads presents cultural events throughout the year that incorporate traditional art, music and dance. The group also promotes a health initiative and a youth mentoring program.

Maya youth are paired with area college students to expose them to post-secondary opportunities.

“Most of our youth will be first-generation college students,” he said, “and  we want to plant the seed that college is the ultimate goal.”

English language classes are offered at the center.

Maya are often mistaken for Latino-Hispanic. While they share similar features with their Spanish-speaking bretheran, most Maya are not fluent in Spanish. Instead, they have their own native language.

 

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The organization weathered a 2014-2015 crisis that saw some key local leaders detained and deported.

“It was a very difficult experience to recover from,” Marcos said. “We didn’t do much for a long time. We had to regroup. We were successful in securing the release of two of our leaders.”

The center has since resumed a nearly full menu of events and programs. Resiliency in the face of hardship is engrained in its people.

“We stay together. We survive. We’ve survived multiple cycles of violence and genocide and all this stuff, so we stick together no matter what,” Marcos said.

Following that episode, the local Maya community has focused on civil and human rights.

“We work to implement the United Nations declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples. On that we work closely with the Huehuetenango Maya government. Now we have an extension of the Huehuetenango government in the United States. We have a Maya parliament with presence in California, Iowa, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Nebraska. We have a council of elders. I am one of them.”

Mayan communities across the U.S. “are connected on many different levels” and well-established by now. “We have come a long way.,” Marcos said. “We have been fortunate to have very harmonious relationships with institutions, faith traditions, nationalities.” This includes a deep relationship with the Catholic Church. Locally, a partnership between the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Diocese of Huehuetenango, Guatemala sends delegations there.

Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim is supported by the Omaha Community foundation and other groups.

“The Latino community has taken us under their wing,” Marcos said by “inviting us to have a presence at the Cinco de Mayo festival.

The local Mexican consulate invited the Maya community to be part of a binational celebration.

A current exhibition of indigenous Mayan textiles at El Museo Latino includes education programs that highlight various aspects of this traditional culture.

All are opportunities to share the Maya story.

“We continue to articulate our presence as a people as opposed to letting ourselves be assimilated into the dominant culture,” Marcos said. “We have been able to tell our stories.”

 

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Omaha playwright Ellen Struve has presented another avenue for sharing the Maya story. Intrigued by the culture and charmed by the people, she became active with Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim and then researched a new play based on the lives of Maya and the stories in their ancient sacred text, the Popul Vuh.

“She’s very loved in the community,” Marcos said of Struve. “She’s learned our Maya language. She’s very open-minded to our concerns. We invited her to be a member of our board of directors. We’re really honored to have her in that role.”

EPIC is the name of the play Struve developed with Mayan themes and shorelines. it will be performed May 29-31 at Metropolitan Community College’s south campus.

“This will be a way to empower, highlight the community and the culture,” Marcos said of the production, “and to show that as an indigenous people we can contribute something to the wider society. I think this will be good for others to know us better, which at this time in our history is what we need most.”

For more information on the Maya community center, visit pixanixim.org. For details on the play’s showtimes and venue, visit http://www.gptcplays.com/playfes.

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

South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference


South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Among the melting pot South Omaha subcultures.that Ellen Struve’s new play EPIC dips into is the Maya. The Omaha playwright’s original work will premier in three free performances May 29-31 at 7:30 p.m. on Metropolitan Community College’s South Omaha Campus, ITC Building 120, at 2909 Edward Babe Gomez Avenue.

EPIC is part of the PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries program in MCC’s Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC). Program works are developed through community engagement that playwrights and directors do with residents. Struve met with several South Omaha groups in researching EPIC.

Abstract Mindz Collaboration was one.

“They’re an artists collective of very creative, talented young artists,” Struve said, “They have a fabulous amount of energy that sort of pops right off the walls.”

Additionally. she met with the artists behind the South Omaha Mural Project, whose works depict various South O cultures. The group’s prepping a Maya mural to be completed this year.

 

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Ellen Struve

 

Finally. Struve reached out to Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, an organization of indigenous Mayans whose oral histories inform both the mural and EPIC.

“Witnessing people overcome trials with bravery and compassion is incredibly inspiring and certainly every one I’ve met at Comunidad Maya Pixan Oxim has done that time and time again while exhibiting an overwhelming sense of compassion,” Struve said.

“I have found there a wish for well-being for our shared humanity despite many obstacles. Executive director Luis Marcos, for example. came to America from Guatemala at 16. He taught himself English and Spanish. He’s trilingual. His people have been persecuted. There was a genocide against the Maya in the 1980s. To not only survive but to maintain such a strong sense of community and compassion and a deep appreciation for the arts is inspiring and connects with my own values and interests.”

 

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Maya community members

 

Struve already volunteered at the Maya community center when GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler asked her to create an original PlayFest piece.

“I immediately thought of Luis and how much I admired Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim,” Struve said, “and asked if he would be interested in partnering with us. He was.”

The project dovetailed with related interests that bleed into Struve’s life, including a passion for immigration rights. Her play The Dairy Maid-Right examines issues about immigration in Nebraska. She’s advocated for DACA rights through the Heartland Workers Center. She interfaced with Dreamers while working at a Chicago music school. More recently, she’s discovered a Latino ancestry she never knew. She’s still deciding “how to creatively process” her own family story.

EPIC draws on the Popol Vuh – an ancient book of sacred Mayan stories – and it’s intersection with stories of first and second generation Americans.

Luis Marcos asked her to adapt it.

“It’s a beautiful epic poem I was unfamiliar with prior to working on this,” Struve said. “It tied in beautifully with the artist narratives and the idea of murals. I developed a narrative about a company of young artists creating a mural in South Omaha that turns out to be about the Popol Vuh and the way it speaks to our current moment and the ways we can make a better world.”

Struve and director Michael John Garces from Los Angeles conducted story circles with artists and Maya community members. The resulting script dramatizes ancient sagas and personal tales of South O natives, migrants and refugees who, Struve said, “are experiencing events in their lives reflective of events in the Popol Vuh. “Some of their stories are definitely impacted by the current immigration policies in the U.S.,” she said. “There are also timeless family stories of sons and daughters having second generation issues with first generation parents and timeless issues of artists coming into their own and connecting with a really important piece of art, the Popol Vuh, that is part of our hemisphere.”

 

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Popul Vuh

Struve considers the Popul Vuh “a fabulous document of a great civilization akin to the The Odyssey or the Egyptian Book of the Dead.” She even learned a Mayan language. “It has been a complete joy for me.”

Her play is in Maya, Spanish and English.

“Not only is it exciting to bring these community stories to the stage, but we’ll do it with production elements that are exciting for me to work with.”

In addition to community members acting on stage, certain things will be represented via shadow puppetry.

“I’ve always wanted to work with a puppeteer and we have a wonderful puppeteer and designer in Lynn Jeffries.”

Jeffries, who works with Garces at L.A.’s Cornerstone Theater Company, enjoys bringing the Popul Vuh to life. “It’s a fabulous story just on the level of storytelling. It’s funny and complex and has a lot of things that lend themselves to puppetry,” she said. “There’s a lot of action. It’s a very fluid mode of storytelling with multiple layers and characters who are often one thing and another at the same time.”

The production will use overhead projectors to make small shadow puppets manipulated on stage. Local artists will bring their own aesthetic to the figures.

Rather than a limitation, puppetry is a luxury.

“You can create a lot more with shadow puppetry because you can make a bunch of small things out of paper and fill the room with them,” Jeffries said.

Garces called puppetry “a wonderful theatrical device.” “Particularly for any element on stage that is supernatural,” he added, “it gives it life theatrically in a way that doesn’t feel forced as sometimes it does when people wear costumes. Audiences will accept things that puppets do and will really go on a journey with them in a way that’s harder to achieve with actors embodying those same features. Shadow puppetry allows us to more evoke things than do them. It’s quite a supple medium. I like that a lot about it.”

Technical aspects aside, Struve aims for audiences to have their curiosity peaked about Maya culture.

“I hope people learn more about the literature and the contribution the Maya community is making to make our city a more vibrant and exciting place to live.”

 

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Michael John Garces

 

Garces became familiar with Maya culture and the Popul Vuh years ago working with a theater company and writers collective in Chiapas. Mexico.

“The experience of working on Mayan-themed shows had a big impact on my career. It’s part of what led me to work at Cornerstone and it’s a reason why I embraced theater community engagement work.”

This marks the fourth time Garces has come to Omaha to flesh out a South Omaha-based play for the Great Plains festival.

“All the plays are an attempt to answer the questions, how did we get here and where do we go from here. These are vital origin questions. All these folks in the community are, like all of us, trying to figure out how to move things forward.”

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South Omaha Mural Project

 

Collecting the stories of EPIC fed his already “intense curiosity about South O denizens and allowed him to “delve much deeper into a wider range of this community where I’ve developed relationships.”

“If you’re going to be a serious theater practitioner,” he said, “you have to genuinely cultivate the part of you that is curious because if you don’t you’re just not going to have quality engagements with the subject matter you’re working on.”

There’s nothing he’d rather do than community engaged theater that grabs audiences.

“I’m very blessed to do the work I do and I’m grateful for it. It is hard work, but it’s satisfying and joyful.”

As for Struve, she said, “This has been a really humbling way to approach theater for me because my job is to serve the people who have contributed their stories and experiences to the project. It’s incredibly rewarding. It takes it out of your ego and it gives you a different kind of purpose than perhaps you had before.”

Visit http://www.gptcplays.com/playfest.

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

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

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gonzalez was always inquisitive and an avid reader.

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

He’s the product of tough love.

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

Nothing was as satisfying as his current Durham gig.

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

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

He takes seriously the role the archive serves.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

He compares the searches he makes to a hunt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He began as a volunteer before joining the paid staff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He makes occasional public presentations.

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

“It would be full circle.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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.

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