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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.

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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.

Life Itself IV: Links to stories about South Omaha and the Latino community – Past and present


Life Itself IV: Links to stories about South Omaha and the Latino community – Past and present
 
Find these and many other stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions at Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories:
 
Having attained personal and professional goals, Alina Lopez now wants to help other Latinas
 
Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol
Roni Shelley Perez:
A Nebraska Great gets her due
https://leoadambiga.com/2018/02/01/roni-shelley-per…xt-broadway-baby/
 
Gabriela Martinez: 
A heart for humanity and justice for all
 
Park Avenue Revitalization & Gentrification:
InCommon focuses on urban neighborhood
https://leoadambiga.com/2018/02/25/park-avenue-revi…ban-neighborhood/
 
Boxing coach Jose Campos molds young men
https://leoadambiga.com/2018/02/01/boxing-coach-jos…-molds-young-men/
 
Juan Vazquez:
From couch potato to champion pugilist
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/11/22/from-couch-potat…hampion-pugilist
 
Maria Teresa Kumar and Voto Latino dig down on civic engagement
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/11/16/maria-teresa-kum…civic-engagement/
 
Rony Ortega follows path serving ever more students in OPS
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/10/22/ortega-follows-p…-students-in-ops/
 
Finding Home: 
David Catalan finds community service niche in adopted hometown of Omaha
 
New OLLAS Director Cristián Doña-Reveco eager to engage community
 
A book a day keeps the blues aways for avid reader and writer Ashley Xiques
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/03/a-book-a-day-kee…er-ashley-xiques
 
One Hundred Years Strong: 
Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion
 
Art in the heart of South Omaha
 
SAFE HARBOR
Activists working to create Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as refuge for undocumented persons in danger of arrest-deportation
 
South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance

 
 
Health and healing through culture and community 
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/11/17/health-and-heali…re-and-community/
 
Frank LaMere: A good man’s work is never done
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/07/11/frank-lamere-a-g…rk-is-never-done/
 
Futures at stake for Dreamers with DACA in question
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/10/09/futures-at-stake…daca-in-question
 
Of Dreamers and doers, and one nation indivisible under…
 
Amanda Ryan:
Omaha School Board member
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/10/04/amanda-ryan-brin…-to-school-board
 
South Omaha Museum
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/04/13/a-melting-pot-ma…s-its-own-museum/
 
South Omaha Mural Project El Museo 
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/19/mural-project-ce…th-omaha-culture/
 
Mural Man:
Artist Mike Giron captures heart of South Omaha
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/05/02/mural-man-artist…t-of-south-omaha
 
South Omaha takes center stage
 
El Museo Latino Artist Residency Program
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/10/new-artist-resid…l-latino-artists/
 
Noah Diaz:
Metro theater’s man for all seasons and stages
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/19/noah-diaz-metro-…asons-and-stages/
 
Film is both a heart and a head thing for Diana Martinez
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/12/11/film-is-both-a-h…r-diana-martinez/
 
Storybook hoops dream turns cautionary tale for Omaha South star Aguek Arop
 
Tony Vargas beats the bushes for votes in pursuit of history
 
Lourdes Gouveia:
Leaving a legacy but keeping a presence
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/12/18/lourdes-gouveia-…eping-a-presence/
 
 

South Omaha

 
 
The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe: 
Iconic Omaha eatery closing after 92 years
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/25/the-long-goodbye…g-after-92-years/
 
Bright Lights
Teen designer Ciara Fortun mines Filipino heritage in Omaha Fashion Week collection
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/29/bright-lights-te…-week-collection/
 
South High Soccer:
Pushing the envelope 
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/06/south-high-socce…ing-the-envelope/
 
Pad man Esau Dieguez gets world champ Terence Crawford ready
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/04/25/pad-man-esau-die…e-crawford-ready
 
Hair stylist-makeup artist Omar Rodriguez views himself as artisan
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/05/13/hair-stylist-mak…mself-as-artisan/
 
Austin Ortega leads UNO hockey to new heights
 
Homegrown Joe Arenas made his mark in college and the NFL
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/05/homegrown-joe-ar…lege-and-the-nfl/
 
Beto’s way:
Gang intervention specialist tries a little tenderness
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/28/betos-way-gang-i…ittle-tenderness
 
Saving one kid at a time is Beto’s life work
 
“Bless Me, Ultima”: Chicano identity at core of book, movie, movement
 
After decades in NYC, Omaha native jazz pianist Paul Serrato proves you can come home again
https://leoadambiga.com/2013/06/06/jazz-pianist-pau…in-new-york-city/
 
Two graduating seniors fired by dreams and memories, also saddened by closing of  school, St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/11/two-graduating-s…igh-in-omaha-neb
St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High:
A school where dreams matriculate
 
Salvation Army Kroc Center and Omaha Conservatory of Music partner to give kids new opportunities
 
A good man’s job is never done:
Bruce Chubick honored for taking South to top
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/19/a-good-mans-job-…ing-south-to-top/
 
Louder Than a Bomb Omaha: 
Stand, deliver and be heard
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/08/louder-than-a-bo…ver-and-be-heard
 
Omaha South High student Marissa Gomez will stand, deliver and be heard at Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival and Competition
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/08/omaha-south-high…-and-competition/
 
Long-separated brother and sister from Puerto Rico reunited in Omaha
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/18/separated-siblin…eunited-in-omaha/
 ‎
South Omaha Renaissance
 
When a building isn’t just a building: 
LaFern Williams South YMCA facelift reinvigorates community 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/03/when-a-building-…-just-a-building
 
El Museo Latino opened as Midwest’s first Latino art and history museum-cultural center
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/14/el-museo-latino-…r-in-the-midwest/
 
Tiempo Libre kicks off Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing in Omaha
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/04/tiempo-libre-kic…rossing-in-omaha/
 
“Paco” proves you can come home again
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/09/paco-proves-you-…-come-home-again/
 

 
Grassroots Leadership Development Program provides opportunities for students 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/grassroots-leade…ies-for-students
 
Community and coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/04/community-and-co…perk-avenue-cafe
 
Giving back and moving forward at heart of Sagrario “Charo” Rangel’s life
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/21/giving-back-and-…aro-rangels-life/
 
Nebraska Medal of Honor Winners: 
Above and beyond the call of duty
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/11/nebraska-medal-o…the-call-of-duty
 
Bruce Chubick builds winner at South:
State title adds capstone to strong foundation
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/18/bruce-chubick-bu…trong-foundation/
 
Standup comic Felipe Esparza
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/27/last-comic-stand…lines-omaha-show
 
El Puente 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/22/el-puente-attemp…y-and-the-system/
 
A South Omaha best-kept secret: 
American GI Forum Mexican Restaurant
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/02/10/a-south-omaha-be…xican-restaurant/
 
Indigenous music celebrated in Omaha Conservatory of Music Nebraska Roots concert
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/indigenous-music…ka-roots-concert/
 
Itzel Anahi Lopez:
Young Latina on the rise
 
Authors Joy Castro and Amelia de la Luz Montes
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/12/writers-joy-cast…rty-to-privilege/
 
OLLAS: 
A melting pot of Latino/Latin American concerns
 
Gina Ponce:
Leading women on a change 
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/11/gina-ponce-leads…hange-conference/
 
Heartland Latino Leadership Conference 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/11/24/heartland-latino…cognition-events/
 
Writing close to her heart:
Author Joy Castro
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/11/23/author-joy-castr…in-two-new-books/
 
Center for Rural Affairs Outreach Project for Latino farmers and ranchers
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/31/new-outreach-pro…ers-and-ranchers/
 
Maria Walinski-Peterson:
Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award winner follows her heart
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/24/omaha-south-high…ollows-her-heart
 
Tito Munoz:
Rising young conductor leads Omaha Symphony Chamber concert
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/22/rising-young-con…-chamber-concert/
 
A. Marino Grocery closes: 
An Omaha Italian landmark calls it quits
 
Favorite Sons:
Weekly Omaha pasta feeds at Sons of Italy Hall draw diverse crowd
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/28/favorite-sons-we…lse-little-italy/
 
Cumbre
Hundreds attend OLLAS conference
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/17/hundreds-attend-…migration-issues/
 
Native American survival strategies shared through theater and testimony
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/18/native-american-…er-and-testimony/
 
Omaha address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega sounds hopeful message that repression in Cuba is lifting
 
Long Live Roberto Clemente
New exhibit looks at this late king of Latino ballplayers and human rights hero
‎‎
 


 
Featured Great Plains Theatre Conference playwright Caridad Svich explores bicultural themes 
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/29/featured-great-p…icultural-themes/
 
Q&A with playwright Caridad Svich, a featured artist at Great Plains Theatre Conference
 
Omaha St. Peter Catholic Church revival based on restoring the sacred
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/12/omahas-st-peter-…oring-the-sacred
 
The Chubick Way comes full circle with father-son coaching tandem at Omaha South
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/03/the-chubick-way-…m-at-omaha-south/
 
Masterful Joe Maass leads Omaha South High soccer evolution
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/04/24/masterful-joe-ma…soccer-evolution/
 
U.S.-Cuba begin a dance of possible reconciliation
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/07/u-s-cuba-begin-a…e-reconciliation/
 
Justice for Our Neighbors: Treating the immigrant as neighbor
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/22/justice-for-our-…rant-as-neighbor/
 
Jose and Linda Garcia find new outlet for their magnificent obsession in the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/jose-and-linda-g…-of-the-midlands/
 
A Family Thing: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/04/a-family-thing-b…r-family-reunion
 
Tired of being tired leads to new start at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/30/tired-of-being-t…-beasley-theater/
 
Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival celebrates a diagonal cultural scene
https://leoadambiga.com/2013/07/02/omahas-vinton-st…l-cultural-scene
 
Jazz-Plena fusion artist Miguel Zenon bridges worlds of music
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/21/jazz-plena-fusio…-worlds-of-music/
 
Marisol Rodriguez helps Hispanic businesses grow
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/21/marisol-rodrigue…-businesses-grow
 
Educator Ferial Pearson’s Secret Kindness Agents project now a book:
Random acts of kindness prove healing and habit-forming
https://leoadambiga.com/2014/09/05/teachers-secret-…nd-habit-forming
 
Ferial Pearson, award-winning educator dedicated to inclusion and social justice, helps students publish the stories of their lives
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/25/ferial-pearson-a…s-of-their-lives/
 
Graciela Sharif’s mission is to empower parents
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/21/graciela-sharifs…-empower-parents
 
Community trumps gang in Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy model
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/21/community-trumps…es-homeboy-model/
 
Home is where the heart Is for activist attorney Rita Melgares
 
Masterful: Omaha Liberty Elementary School’s Luisa Palomo displays talent for teaching and connecting
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/06/masterful-omaha-…g-and-connecting/
 
Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni immerses herself in community affairs
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/09/evangelina-gigi-…ommunity-affairs/
 
Omaha South High student Marissa Gomez will stand, deliver and be heard at Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival and Competition
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/08/omaha-south-high…-and-competition/
 
From reporter to teacher:
Carol Kloss McClellan enjoys new challenge as an inner city public high school instructor
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/from-reporter-to…chool-instructor/
 
Playwright Carlos Murillo’s work explores personal mythmaking
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/26/playwright-carlo…sonal-mythmaking/
 
Entrepreneur, strategist and nation builder:
Taylor Keen 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/13/entrepreneur-str…lder-taylor-keen/
 
New approach, same expectation for South soccer
 
Project Improve aims to make best of bad situation with illegal immigrant detainees
 
Diana Acero heads county effort to get the lead out
 
Cinco de Mayo.jpeg

 
 
UNO/OLLAS resident expert on Cuban and Latino matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/18/unoollas-residen…enjamin-alvarado/
 
Coming to America:
Immigrant-Refugee mosaic unfolds in new ways and old ways in Omaha
 
Episcopal Priest Rev. Ernesto Medina never forgets his Latino hertitage
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/18/episcopal-priest…latino-hertitage/
 
Turning kids away from gangs and toward teams in South Omaha
 
Cinemateca series trains lens on diverse films and themes
 
Institute for Latin American Concern at Creighton has Dominican focus
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/17/institute-for-la…-dominican-focus/
 
African presence in Spanish America explored in three presentations
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/african-presence…ee-presentations/
 
Where community, neighborhood and representative Democracy meet
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/15/where-community-…e-democracy-meet
 
Art and community meet-up in artist’s public projects; Watie White mines urban tales
 
Born again ex-gangbanger and pugilist, now minister, Servando Perales, makes Victory Boxing Club his mission church for saving youth from the streets
 
Omaha South soccer poised for another state title run
 
Yolanda Diaz success story with Little Miss Fashion nets her new recognition
 
The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA lose home bases
 
Young Latina’s unbridled energy making a difference in her community
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/20/a-young-latinas-…in-her-community/
 
Rosenblatt-College World Series
 
The series and the stadium:
CWS and Rosenblatt are home to the Boys of Summer
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/25/the-series-and-t…e-boys-of-summer
 
The Little People’s Ambassador at the College World Series
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/26/the-little-peopl…ege-world-series
 
Los Dias de Los Muertos festival offers three weeks of exhibits and events
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/16/los-dias-de-los-…ibits-and-events
 
South Omaha Stories on tap for free PlayFest show; 
Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to the south side
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/05/06/south-omaha-stor…o-the-south-side/
 
Mark Martinez embarks on new chapter in his law enforcement career
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/12/mark-martinez-em…forcement-career/
 
Martinez Music Legacy: 
311’s SA Martinez takes music tradition laid down by father and grandfather in new Direction
 
The Garcia Girls
 
Artist Claudia Alvarez’s new exhibition considers immigration
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/23/artist-claudia-a…ders-immigration/
 
Omaha Corpus Christi procession draws hundreds
 
Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name
https://leoadambiga.com/2013/05/21/tapestries-to-ce…y-any-other-name
 
OneWorld Community Health: 
Caring, affordable services for a multicultural world in need 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/09/oneworld-communi…al-world-in-need/
 
Nancy Oberst:
Pied Piper of Liberty Elementary School
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/06/nancy-oberst-the…lementary-school/
 
Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: Evolution of a school       
New school ringing in Liberty for students
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/06/new-school-ringi…rty-for-students/
 
Carolina Quezada leading rebound of Latino Center of the Midlands
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/05/03/carolina-quezada…-of-the-midlands
 
Filmmaker explores Latina whose story defies conventions; 
Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latino screening of her film ‘Rebel’
 
Devotees hold fast to the Latin rite
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/15/devotees-hold-fa…o-the-latin-rite
 
Prodigal Son:
Marlin Briscoe takes long road home
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/13/prodigal-son-mar…e-long-road-home/
 
Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: 
The Charles Bryant Story
 
South Omaha’s Jim Ramirez: 
A Man of the People
 
Get on the Bus: 
An Inauguration Diary
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/11/get-on-the-bus-a…auguration-diary/
 
It was a different breed then: 
Omaha Stockyards remembered
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/24/it-was-a-differe…yards-remembered/
 
An ode to the Omaha Stockyards:
Last days and halcyon times  

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/14/from-the-archive…omaha-stockyards


 

Itzel Anahi Lopez: Young Latina on the rise

March 24, 2018 1 comment

Itzel Anahi Lopez: Young Latina on the rise

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

Rising young Latina professional Itzel Anahi Lopez is making her mark.

This past spring the 20-something earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Bellevue University. Her studies included marketing and communication arts.

She wants to be a CEO, but she already successfully launched her family’s popular restaurant, Maria Bonita, 1921 Missouri Ave., a year ago in August.

According to Lopez the eatery attracts everyone from South Omaha residents to suburbanites to visitors from Mexico. Her mother Miriam is head chef and her father Miguel the jack-of-all-trades assistant. Both her sisters work there.

Lopez manages the busy catering operation that serves major community events, including the Latino Heritage Awards Banquet and Cumbre.

“What we offer is very unique, very personalized. We decorate our banquet tables. It’s all authentic, flavorful, colorful. We go above and beyond.”

The restaurant’s received high praise for its authentic, homestyle food, inspired by the cuisine from the family’s native state of Hidalgo, Mexico, and for its colorful, festive decor. The warm, floral greens, blues, purples, oranges and reds are on a mural adorning the west wall, on signs out front, and on the table tops inside. Miriam’s handmade arts and crafts hang on the walls. Homemade, hand-wrapped candies occupy a display case.

Even the menu and website (www.mariabonitaonline.com) continue the theme.

The distinctive look is a homage to the family’s homeland.

“Where we’re from. it’s just sun all year long,” said Lopez. “My grandparents owned a huge ranch, growing watermelons, papaya, you name it.”

She said her father would harvest the fruit and bring it to the local market, where the entrepreneurial family sold not only produce, but flowers, tacos and craft items.

“My grandmother used to garden. Lots of flowers. Very colorful. That was transmitted from my grandmother to my mother, our mother transmitted that to us. This is what we grew up with — colors, flowers, gardens. It was just all in our lives, So, when we opened this place, we wanted to transmit that in the color scheme. We admire our culture, we love our customs, we want our traditions to still be here.”

Wherever Lopez’s path leads, she said faith and family will be front and center in her life. Education, too. The Omaha South High graduate was the first in her family to attend college. A younger sister followed in her footsteps, just graduating from Creighton University. The sisters’ youngest sibling starts at Central High School in the fall.

Itzel was 14 when she came to America. After a year in ESL classes she was proficient enough in English to join regular classes at South, where she excelled academically and in extracurricular activities.

“I love South and South loves me. They have been very supportive of my restaurant and we support South any way we can.”

She earned South alumni scholarships and other financial support, opting for Bellevue University, where she said she “fell in love with the small class setting and personalized attention from teachers.” Gina Ponce was her mentor and advisor. Her biggest influence though is her mother:. “My mom’s definitely my role model. She’s done great things.”

She’s grateful her father’s dream of sending his girls to college is being fulfilled. “My dad’s dream came true, that’s quite nice,” she said. She’s humbled by how far her family’s come in America in only a decade.

“It’s very satisfying,” she said. “I’m very proud of my family.”

Studying for a master’s may be her next move on the path to “help minorities reach their goals. That’s my passion. That’s why I do all the things I do.” Her community service includes Cinco de Mayo coordination, South Omaha Arts Institute educational outreach and Community Learning Center site supervision (Castelar).

Giving back and moving Forward at heart of Sagrario “Charo” Rangel’s life

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Giving back and moving forward at heart of Sagrario “Charo” Rangel’s life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

A strong work ethic and the value of a good education are two enduring lessons Sagrario “Charo” Rangel carries from her Mexican immigrant parents.

Now in her 25th year with the Omaha Public Schools, the South Omaha native and South High graduate started as a secretary before earning her bachelor’s degree and becoming a classroom teacher. She then went on to obtain her master’s and today is an Educational Accountability Office administrator.

Her work puts her in close contact with Latino youths and families through the Grassroots Leadership Development Program, Bridge to Success and the Latino Academic Achievement Council. She serves as OPS spokesperson on KePadre and Radio Lobo Spanish language stations. Her various efforts brought her the 2010 Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Education award.

“It was a very humbling experience,” she says of the honor. “It inspires me. It tells me I’m doing the right thing and it just gives me motivation to continue.”

She admits she never thought much about higher education or professional development as a young woman. She did, however, graduate from a business school. When OPS needed a bilingual secretary she filled the post.

Later, as a bilingual liaison, Rangel urged students to attend four-year colleges but didn’t feel right not having gone herself. With her colleagues nudging her to broaden her horizons, she decided to act.

“I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people that believed in me and thought I could aspire to be more,” she says. “They encouraged me and inspired me and motivated me to continue on to college.”

She juggled school with being a mother, a wife and a full-time employee. She commuted from Omaha, first to Peru State College, then Concordia University, and finally Doane College.

“There were times when it was very difficult,” says the former Charo Vacquez. “But I learned from my parents you never give up, you work hard, and you do what you need to do. Those are some strong values and beliefs I carry with me today.”

Her husband’s continued his vocational education and her daughter excels in school.

“I would not have been able to do any of this without the support of my husband and my daughter. There were times when all three of us were at the table doing our homework.”

Classroom teaching fulfilled her.

“It was life-altering for me,” she says. “Our classroom was truly like a family, so what affected one affected all of us.”

Though gut-wrenching to leave the classroom, the prospect of having a greater impact convinced her to enter educational administration.

She says, “There was an opportunity to do some positive things in the community, to really make some changes, and be a part of the process and the team.”

Rangel appreciates now being invited to the decision-making table as a peer leader.

“There’s few Latinos in administrative positions in the Omaha Public Schools and nationwide,” she says. “I love the opportunity to work more with the community and to make more of a difference. It’s a passion I have to help the students and families in our community.”

Her own example, she says, is a lesson to students that “yes you can — don’t give up on yourself. I show my students that if you work hard you will see the rewards.” She enjoys being a mentor to others. It’s her way of “giving back” all that she’s been given.

Finding home: David Catalan finds community service niche in adopted hometown of Omaha

February 1, 2018 2 comments

Finding home: David Catalan finds community service niche in adopted hometown of Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon appearing in El Perico

David Catalan long searched for a place to call home before finding it in Omaha four decades ago.

Born in San Diego, Calif. and raised in Arizona, the former business executive turned consultant has served on many nonprofit boards. It’s hard to imagine this sophisticate who is so adroit in corporate and art circles once labored in the migrant fields with his Mexican immigrant parents. It’s surprising, too, someone so involved in community affairs once lived a rootless life.

“My whole life had been like a gypsy. I was a vagabond because traveling from place to place and never really having a fixed home – until I came to Omaha with Union Pacific in 1980.. I chose to stay even after I left U.P. because I really felt at home here and still do after all those years wandering around.”

Vagabundo, a book of his own free-style verse, describes his coming-of-age.

Catalan, 76, grew up in a Tucson barrio immediately after World War II. His father worked in the copper mines. When Catalan was about 13, his family began making the migrant worker circuit, leaving each spring-summer for Calif, to pick tomatoes, figs, peaches and grapes and then returning home for the fall-winter.

“I didn’t really feel I wanted to get stuck in that kind of a destiny,” he said. “Maybe escape is too rough a word, but I had to get away from that environment if I was going to do anything differently, and so I left and went to live with a sister in the Merced (Calif.) area.”

He finished high school there and received a scholarship to UCLA,

“I was the only one in the family that actually completed high school, let alone college.”

He’d long before fallen in love with books.

“That led me to realize there was more I could accomplish.”

While at UCLA, a U.S. Army recruiter sensed his wanderlust and got him to enlist. He served in Germany and France. He stayed-on two years in Paris, where an American couple introduced him to the arts.

“It was a big awakening for me,” he said.

Back in the U.S., he settled in Salt Lake City, where he was briefly married. Then he joined U.P., which paid for his MBA  studies at Pepperdine University. Then U.P. transferred him from Los Angeles to Omaha.

“I never had a sense of knowing my neighbors, having some continuity in terms of schools and experiences, so I felt like I had missed out by not having had that identity with place and community. When I came to Omaha, I loved it, and U.P. really promoted employees getting involved in community service.

“Doing community service, being on nonprofit boards  became an identity for myself.”

Upon taking early retirement, he worked at Metropolitan Community College, in the cabinet of Mayor Hal Daub and as executive director of the Omaha Press Club and the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands.

“I threw myself into the nonprofit world.”

He’s served on the Opera Omaha, Omaha Symphony and Nebraska Arts Council boards.

He cofounded SNAP! Productions, a small but mighty theater company originally formed to support the Nebraska AIDS Project.

“Omaha was the first place I saw a couple friends die of AIDS and that was a real revelation for me. That got me working to do some fundraising.”

SNAP! emerged from that work.

“I was the producer for almost every production the first few seasons. The audience base for SNAP! is a very accepting part of the community. It was gratifying. It’s been very successful.”

His interests led him to South Omaha, where he helped found El Museo Latino. More recently, he helped get the South Omaha Museum started. He also served as president of the South Omaha Business Association.

“I got involved with a lot of economic development.”

He wrote and published Rule of Thumb: A Guide to Small Business Marketing.

He’s “very proud” both SNAP! and El Museo Latino, whose vision of Magdalena Garcia he caught, “are still going strong and still serving the community.”

Each time he gets involved, he said, “it isn’t planned – the need arises and I’m there willing to help work to make it happen.”

“Doing all this work helps me feel I am a part of a dynamic community. That’s what really drives me, motivates me and makes me feel very positive.”

He’s involved in a new project that dreams of building a 300-foot tall Nebraska landmark destination to be called “Tower of Courage” at the intersection of 13th and I-80 across from the Henry Doorly Zoo.

“We’re in the process of trying to acquire the land. It’ll be a place for culture-history exhibits all focused on the rich cultural and historical history of Neb. and the region.”

Meanwhile Catalan has his own consulting company helping nonprofit and small business clients with strategic planning and grant-writing.

He’s also active in the Optimist Club.

“I’ve lived a full life. I’ve met so many wonderful people. I can navigate around many communities because of the the work I’ve done and the people I’ve met.”

He’s doing research for what may be his third book: weaving the story of a pioneering Jesuit priest from the same Sonora. Mexico hometown Catalan’s mother was born in and near where his father was from, with the history of area Indian tribes and his own family.

He’s traveling this winter to Sonora – not to escape his roots but to discover more about them.

He’s written about his family in Vagabundo and in poems published in the literary journal, Fine Lines.

“I think I’m creating a David Catalan space of my own I never had growing up.”

Art in the heart of South Omaha

September 22, 2017 1 comment

Until I saw a Facebook post about Omaha South putting on a production of “In the Heights” in collaboration with SNAP! Productions. it had somehow escaped me that South was the Omaha Public Schools’ Visual and Performing Arts Magnet. The show, which I saw and was most impressed by, was a fundraiser for a planned visual and performing arts addition at the school, which has a robust arts curriculum far surpassing anything found in another OPS building. Indeed, the quality of the show was so high that it sold me on writing a story for The Reader about the arts magnet emphasis at the inner city school. I then found out from faculty and students just how much is going on there and how passionate these educators and kids are about what they do in the arts. My resulting story is shared here. It appears in the September 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

Art in the heart of South Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in the September  2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Chances are, you don’t know Omaha has a public high school of performing arts, It may further surprise you that South High School is that Fame-style institution.

South has been the Omaha Public Schools’ Visual & Performing Arts Magnet for two decades. But the architect for the arts emphasis there, retired South drama teacher Jim Eisenhardt, said “by the time we were named an arts magnet, we were already an arts magnet in all but name.”

Dramatic growth in student numbers has seen a corresponding growth in programs that finds South with the district’s most robust arts curriculum. Students can even elect to be an arts major. Seventy percent of all students take at least one arts class. Forty percent take at least two. Participation has exploded, especially in dance and guitar.

The interest and activity have South facing serious space issues to accommodate it all. Thus, the school’s embarked on a $12 million private fundraising campaign for a planned Visual & Performing Arts addition.

Becky Noble, South curriculum specialist and a drts Magnet facilitator, said space is at such a premium that some labs and classrooms meet in cramped former “closets.” Film and music technology classes share the same small digs. Neither has a dedicated studio.

“We can’t grow music tech and film anymore.”

With no permanent spaces for some classes, she said, “they’re constantly moving from place to place.” Even the dance studio is makeshift. The present black box theater lacks flexibility and accessibility.

She described conditions as “maxed out,” adding, “We need space that is appropriate to enhance learning.”

Then there’s the battle for updated technology. She said it can be difficult getting district officials to accept why not just any computers or software programs will do for the high-end things students create in film, digital art and music tech.

“We are so unusual in the district that sometimes they almost don’t know what to do about us.”

Asking for state-of-the-art gear and contracting professionals to teach dance takes some explaining.

“It’s an ongoing kind of beating our heads with having them understand that it is a special thing and it is important, it’s not just a fluff thing. We don’t have students in here for fluff. We have them in here because there is a real, honest curriculum.”

“Our basic philosophy to use art as a springboard to enhance problem-solving and abstract thought,” South theater director Kevin Barratt said.

Noble said the fact teachers make-do and still net great results speaks to their commitment.

“It is really a labor of love.”

The 55,000 square foot addition would add seven general education classrooms, dedicated studio spaces, a new black box theater and an art gallery. Noble said South’s fortunate to have a strong advocate making its case in Toba Cohen-Dunning, executive director of the Omaha Schools Foundation, the project’s fiscal agent.

Administrators, such as former principal Cara Riggs, are arts advocates, too. “She put some additional money behind it and now our current principal Ruben Cano is doing a great job of listening,” Noble said.

“The equity formula of the Omaha Public Schools allowed for dollars to follow students,” Riggs said. “As we received more dollars for our magnet students, we continued to find ways to strengthen our magnet programs, We found it important to create programs in the arts that students couldn’t get anywhere else in the metro: Dance taught by professional dance instructors; a piano lab and a guitar program; a film program and a computer gaming program.

“Our school culture improved and enrollment rocketed, with successful programs and positive word-of-mouth.”

South staffers, past and present, say they hoped the arts would catch fire but Eisenhardt said no one expected this.

“We started a dance class with 12 kids and now it’s up above 400 (with five styles offered). There are over 300 kids in guitar and piano.”

Alum Kate Myers Madsen, who was active in music and theater at South, theorizes why the arts flourish there.

“I think the reason it’s so well-received is that it’s so in the community of people who are incredibly talented but might not come from homes that have the means to put them in private voice or instrument lesson and dance classes. It’s providing huge value to students who normally would not be able to access it.”

This arts infusion didn’t just happen, it was intentionally built by Eisenhardt and Co. from 1982 to his 2006 retirement. He cultivated relationships with community arts organizations that exposed students to professionals in many disciplines. Over time, South became the district’s arts epicenter and the magnet designation naturally followed.

“My colleagues across the district knew what the arts program was at South,” he said. “No one ever asked me why we got it (magnet status) and not somebody else. There were great arts teachers already here like Toni Turnquist and Mary Lou Jackson and Josh Austin working hard to create something important.”

Then-principal Joyce Christensen granted great autonomy and Eisenhardt ran with it.

“She encouraged people to do things that were innovative and making sure the kids had the best experience they could in high school. I would just forge ahead and do something, not necessarily checking with her for permission first, but she supported it. She knew I would never do anything to embarrass South High.

“Roni Huerta, my counterpart as the magnet coordinator for Information & Technology, was a big supporter of what we did in the arts. Because of her we got the dance classes to count as physical education credits.”

Eisenhardt said Jerry Bartee, another former South principal, also lent great support.

Many things make South an arts magnet. Start with the array of class options available and the fact these disciplines have different sections and levels. There are multiple music ensembles as well.

Before coming to South, Eisenhardt was at Omaha Tech, where he formed relationships with Opera Omaha’s Jane Hill and the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Charles Jones. Opera rehearsals were held at Tech. The Nebraska Theatre Caravan rehearsed A Christmas Carol there. When Tech closed, Eisenhardt invited these rehearsals to travel to South. The ties were eventually formalized as Adopt-a-School partnerships.

“Both of those had great impact on our success as a magnet school,” Eisenhardt said.

Omaha music director Hal France worked with Opera Omaha then.

“We had a home on the South High Auditorium stage rehearsing all our shows with international and national opera singers and directors. Despite putting on five shows a year of their own at South, Jim always made the schedule work for us. It was a dream. It was a relationship based on trust that emanated first and foremost from Jim, a magnificent, remarkable host.”

Opera Omaha even collaborated with South on three productions with staff-students. The last of these, Bloodlines, was a 2004 original with a libretto by Jane Hill and Eisenhardt and a score by Deb Teason,

“Jane and I worked with the kids to write a script based on their experiences as immigrants in Omaha,” Eisenhardt said. “The title came from the idea that these immigrants worked the bloodlines in the packinghouses and also the bloodlines of their families.

“That year the Omaha World-Herald named it one of the top ten cultural events in Omaha. It was quite a production and really an important part of the development of the magnet. By the time that was over, the magnet was in full swing.”

Riggs said with those kinds of collaborations, “we were able to create extra-value in the school experience, beyond the many required academic courses.”

Outside district and arts circles, South’s magnet identity is a best-kept-secret. The school’s inner-city location, working-class environment and low achievement scores may not fit some perceptions of what an arts magnet should look like.

“That’s all a big part of it,” Noble said. “It’s our challenge. One of the things we talk a lot about is that we have to continue to get more and more known in the community.”

Noble hopes others see South’s diversity as an asset.

“When we go to some competitions, most of the other schools are all white, but our kids represent what the world looks like.”

Senior arts major Jax Barkhouse, who lives in West Omaha and was expected to follow his friends to a suburban school, battled those perception issues.

“It was especially hard for me because people were like, ‘Why are you going to South?’ They think bad things about it. But I only tell them good things about it.”

South has traditionally been the main receiving school for immigrant, refugee and migrant populations. After a sharp enrollment decline, it’s experienced a renaissance. The rebirth has coincided with the boon of the South 24th business district it borders and the arrival of Latino and Sudanese families in the surrounding neighborhoods it serves.

The school’s home to a dense demographic of Latinos, Africans, Asians, African-Americans and Caucasians. South’s vast arts program and additional magnets in Information & Technology and Dual Language have made it the school of choice for the overwhelming majority of students in its home attendance area.

South also draws students from outside the area attracted to its focused offerings.

Madsen, Barkhouse and junior Ori Parks bypassed their home schools for South due to its arts concentration.

“It surpassed anything I had expected,” said Madsen. “I did a lot of things outside school.”

South funded most of her travel to Great Britain for a Playhouse-sponsored theater immersion. Since graduating in 2006, she’s performed at the Shelterbelt, The Rose and Iowa Western Community College.

“The opportunities afforded me at South allowed me to really identify what it was I loved about the arts and which track I wanted to follow. I had been classically trained up until my freshman year in high school, so the opportunity to do musical theater really allowed me to see what it was that I loved about theater performing,”

Barkhouse followed his heart to South.

“I was supposed to go to Burke, but I chose to come down here because of the performing arts. I’m so glad that I chose South. I love it.”

He plans majoring in musical theater in college.

Parks, who lives closer to Benson, was sold on South because of its rich arts options.

“I was like, whoa, they have all this stuff.”

“Having easy access to the arts here at South is really a great benefit,” said Jennifer Au, among the 80 percent of arts majors on the honor roll. “I think being involved in the arts really helps me with my schoolwork.”

Results like these help explain why there’s such energy and interest from students in going there.

“When I left South, we averaged 1,300 students and now its 2,500,” said Eisenhardt, “and a lot of that’s because of the success the kids have found in the arts, the teachers there supporting the arts and the work the kids do outside the normal classroom.”

It doesn’t hurt that South graduates are findings careers in the arts. Rachel McCutcheon stage managed The Book of Mormon on Broadway. Paul Coate performed with Nebraska Shakespeare, Nebraska Repertory Theatre, Opera Omaha and the Omaha Symphony. Since moving to Minneapolis, he’s acted with the Guthrie Theatre and sung with the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

“My experiences at South were the foundation on which I built my career as a performing artist,” Coate said. “The arts programming and faculty leadership were very strong. I feel very lucky to have been in such a good place at such a pivotal time in my life.

There’s real talent there, too. Just ask director Kevin Lawler, who’s helmed work nationally. He was at the Blue Barn when Hill asked him to direct Bloodlines. In his current post as Great Plains Theatre Conference artistic director, he’s made South an integral part of the annual Playfest series. Visiting L.A. playwright Michael John Garces wrote an original piece called South drawn in part from interviews with students that he and the show’s director, Scott Working, conducted.

“The staff work immensely hard to give the education, tools and positive creative channels to these, the next generation of great young creatives and artists of Omaha,” Lawler said. “There is so much talent and energy packed into South High each day that, with the proper support, the impact that it can have on our city in terms of our cultural life and our community will be immeasurable.”

South, with students as the mainstay performers, premiered at the conference in late May to a warm reception. In July, a joint South-SNAP! Productions mounting of In the Heights elicited raves and kicked off the “Art in the Heart of South Omaha” campaign for the new addition. South theater students worked the show, including Aimee Perez-Valentin, who ran tech. Alums participated as well, including Kate Myers Madsen in the role of Vanessa and Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva stage managing.

“It was very interesting being on the other side of it this time in this more mature role,” Madsen said. “”For me, it was very much coming home because that was my first stage where I stepped out as a musical theater performer. For a lot of these students, it was their first show. They were experiencing what I did the first time. I was blown away by their talent.

“We have a lot of talent, not only in Omaha but at this school specifically.”

Theater students have made the cut for the Playhouse’s apprentice program.

Senior Jax Barkhouse earned a role in the Playhouse’s production of Mamma Mia! opening September 15.

Grad Ja’Taun Markel Pratt is attending the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.

South’s 2016 production of Check Please was selected to perform at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln. Three students recognized for Outstanding Performances over the last four years

The Show Choir made it to nationals last year.

“We have kids at the top levels of dance who are getting dual enrollment credit at UNO for dance and who are majoring in dance at UNL,” Noble said.

2013 grad and University of Nebraska at Omaha senior Maria Fernanda Reyes performs with UNO’s prestigious Moving Company dance troupe.

Noble said South instrumental music students get a firm foundation in music theory, ear training, sight reading, et cetera. Music tech grads are being prepared to enter audio engineering college studies and careers.

“It’s a pretty amazing curriculum and we have kids going off to college to major in piano performance. Any of our teachers can tell you about the rigor they include in their program. Everyone here understands you meet them where they are and you move them up.

“We want to equip them with whatever they need to go on and be successful at the next level. We want them to be good. We want them to have the right training.”

South’s collaborations with arts professionals continue. Earlier this year vocal students performed in concert with Grammy-recording artist Eric Church at Pinnacle Bank Arena and the CenturyLink Center. “Years ago our choir performed with Michael Buble. We have developed a nice relationship with the Grammy Foundation. We received their Community Award for our wide-ranging arts programs. They are the ones who recommended us for Eric Church, whose people seemed very pleased with our kids.”

Noble knows talent when she sees it.

“I’m obviously biased, but I’m also realistic, and if it wasn’t good, I’d know it.”

Noble is among several staffers with still active careers in the local arts scene. She’s sung with professional ensembles, was the owner-executive director of the Dundee Dinner Theatre and is founder-director of Cabaret Theatre. South theater director Kevin Barratt is a veteran of Omaha stages.

“We have a lot of people on our staff who do work as artists in the community and that’s important to us because that’s how our students learn.”

Guest artists bring additional expertise.

“That’s a big part of the reason why we did In the Heights and brought in some people from the community (including director Michael Simpson from SNAP!). The more people you work with and the more opportunities you have like that the better you get.

“I think a lot of our success has to do with people who are passionate about it and don’t back down. And we are fighters – we do fight for it.”

Eisenhardt said it’s always been this way: “We provided the kids with more opportunities than any other school. The normal school did a couple (theater) shows a year. We did five a year at South (still do). We did things beyond school. We developed Neon Theatre, an improv troupe that provides entertainment for schools and civic groups. Our show choir performs 50 or more times a years. Those kinds of opportunities are important to the development of the magnet.

“South continues to reach out and collaborate with the community. It’s not so insular that it just does its thing and that’s enough. It reaches out to theater groups and art groups and dance groups and music groups and allows the kids to see that there’s more than just school time that needs to be spent on creating great art.”

South hosts a district-wide One-Act-Play Festival. Community professionals do staged readings and judging of the work.

The Opera Omaha and Playhouse partnerships continue, though not as intense.

“I think it’s just a shift in focus on the part of schools and organizations,” Noble said. “Partnerships develop because of a specific project as opposed to just a general partnership. Great Plains and SNAP! are not official partners but we do lots of work with those groups. We enjoy a great relationship with the Omaha Performing Arts education department. They are very supportive of our programs and when touring arts groups come into town, we often have the opportunity for performances-workshops.”

At South, David Weisser teaches the only filmmaking classes offered by an OPS school and he serves on the Film Streams education committee. His students and Josh Austin’s music tech students often collaborate, as do music, theater and dance students.

Noble, who teaches vocal and choral, speaks for her colleagues in describing the charge educators and visiting artists get when things click for students.

“It’s exceptional to see their passion and how they realize that something is speaking to them. You can’t downplay what the arts teach you. You can’t downplay the creativity, the independent thinking, the ability to work together and collaborate and all those things that are the skills you need to succeed in life.”

Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva, a graduate of the Playhouse apprenticeship program, said her intersection with the arts at South “changed my whole life.”

She studied drama, stage craft, guitar, music tech, film, piano and dance all for the first time at South.

“I ended up falling in love with the theater. I had wanted to be a nurse or something and I ended up changing my whole career-life plan. I love where I am right now.”

She’s pursuing an associate’s degree and working shows – currently stage managing Bent for SNAP! at the Shelterbelt.

“I call it my life calling. Theater is my life and I want it to my career. There’s so many things that make this beautiful work of art and I want to help make that art.

“It’s the perfect place for me. It’s my dream job.”

Now, South just needs enhanced facilities to help make more students’ dreams a reality.

“The addition is essential to provide adequate space for the school to develop legitimate “artists-of-the-theater,” Barratt said. “Coupled with our music, dance and visual arts departments, we need the space to help students prepare for the professional world.”

For arts and campaign updates, visit south.ops.org.

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

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