Archive

Archive for the ‘South Omaha’ Category

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


 

Advertisements

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
Appears in the September 13, 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.

One Hundred Years Strong: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

June 23, 2017 1 comment

One Hundred Years Strong: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Bill Sitzmann

Published in July-August 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine

 

The Bryant-Fisher family reunion celebrates an important milestone in 2017—its 100th anniversary. The three-day reunion event will conclude with a final day of festivities in Elmwood Park.

The “Dozens of Cousins,” named for the 12 branches of the prodigious African-American family, will gather in Omaha on Sunday, Aug. 13, to eat, converse, and renew bonds of kinship while reinvigorating ties to local neighborhood roots.

The first reunion was a picnic in 1917 held at Mandan Park in South Omaha, where family roots run deep. Mandan hosted the picnic for 74 years. Its trails, gardens, and river views offered scenic backdrops. The park is also near the family’s homestead at 15th Street and Berry Avenue, and Graceland Park Cemetery (where many relatives are buried).

The picnic, which goes on rain or shine, relocated to Carter Lake in the 1990s and has since gone to various locales. It is coming to Elmwood Park for the first time this year.

Hours before the picnic, a dawn fish fry kicks things off. With bellies full of fried food, the descendants of Emma Early head for a family worship service followed by the picnic.

Always present is a star-studded menu of from-scratch American comfort and soul food staples: ribs, fried chicken, lasagna, collard greens, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, potato salad, and more.

The family’s different branches provide tents under which they set up their family feasts. Monique Henry belongs to the Gray tent and says everyone waits for her first cousin Danielle Nauden’s peach cobbler to arrive on the table.

The meals may be the highlight, but the day also includes games, foot races, a dance contest, and a pie/cake baking contest, which Henry says is mainly for the teenagers. The baking contest garners between 20 and 50 entries, depending on the size of the reunion.

Competitions are an intense part of the picnic gathering.

Film-television actress Gabrielle Union, the star of hit BET drama Being Mary Jane, is a descendant who grew up with the reunions. She understands what’s at stake.

“Having a chance to compete against your cousins in front of your family is huge,” Union says. “Some top athletes are in our family, so the races are like the Olympics. Each section of the family is like a country sending their best athletes. You trained for it.”

Union vividly recalls her most memorable race: “I wore my hair in braids but tucked under a cap. I won the race, and then somebody shouted, ‘That’s a boy,” thinking this fast little dynamo couldn’t possibly have been a girl, and I whipped off my cap like, ‘I’m a girl!’”

Although the large family has expanded and dispersed across Omaha and nationwide—and descendants of Emma Early Bryant-Fisher now number in the thousands—the picnic has remained in Omaha the second Sunday of August as a perennial ties-that-bind feast.

Union returns as her schedule allows. The actress grew up in northeast Omaha, attending St. Benedict the Moor. She often visited relatives in South O, where the home of matriarch Emma (a street is named after her) remained in the family.

Union introduced NBA superstar husband Dwyane Wade to the reunion last year. “It was important for me for Dwyane to come experience it,” she says. “No one I know has a family reunion of the scale, scope, and length we have. It’s pretty incredible. It says a lot about the endurance and strength of our family. It’s a testament to the importance of family, sticking together, and the strength that comes out of a family that recognizes its rich history and celebrates it.”

A tradition of this duration is rare for African-Americans given the historic struggles that disrupted many families. Bryant-Fisher descendant Susan Prater James says, “The reason for celebrating the 100th is that we’re still able to be together after everything our ancestors went through.”

“There’s nothing I can complain about [in terms of facing] adversity [that] someone in my family has not only experienced but fought through, and not just survived but thrived,” Union says. “I come from a long line of incredibly strong, powerful, and resilient strivers, and I pull from that daily.

We recognize our uniqueness and specialness, and we never take that for granted. I think with each passing year it just gets stronger and stronger.”

The family tree gets updated with a new history book every five years. “Dozens of Cousins” social media sites keep the grapevine buzzing. The family migrated from South Omaha to North Omaha many years ago, and also once had its own North O clubhouse at 21st and Wirt streets. The Dozens of Cousins, Inc. became a 501c3 in 2016.

A century of gatherings doesn’t just happen.

“We get together all the time, and anytime we get together it’s a celebration,” says Bryant-Fisher descendant Sherri Wright-Harris. “We love on one another. Family has always been instilled as the most important thing you have in this life. This is a part of the fabric that makes us who we are.”

“We don’t know anything different,” says Henry, another Bryant-
Fisher descendant.

“That’s ingrained from the time you’re born into the legacy,” family historian Arlett Brooks says. “My mother committed to her mother, and I committed to her to carry this tradition on. This is my love, my passion. I just think it’s important to share your history, and I want our youth to know the importance of this and to treasure what we have because this is not a common thing.”

The reunion has evolved from a one-day picnic to include: a river boat cruise, skate party, memorial ride (on a trolley or bus) to visit important family sites, banquet dinner-dance, and a talent showcase. Milestone years such as this one include a Saturday parade. Headquarters for the 2017 reunion will be situated at the Old Market Embassy Suites.

The reunion’s Friday night formal banquet means new outfits and hair-dos. But renewing blood bonds is what counts. “It’s a way for young and old to reconnect with their roots and find a sense of belonging,” Prater James says.

Representing the various branches of the Bryant-Fisher family takes on added meaning over time.

“No matter how old you are, no matter how down you get, on that day everything seems to be looking better,” Marc Nichols says.

Cheryl Bowles says she “felt sick” the one reunion she skipped.

Arlett Brooks says she has never missed a reunion, and she’s not about to miss the 100th. “You only get the centennial one time,” Brooks says.

New this year will be a family history cookbook complete with recipes, stories, and photos. Catfish, spaghetti, greens, and cornbread are faves. The history cookbook is expected to be printed and ready for sale at the reunion.

Union says fun and food aside, the real attraction is “hearing the stories—the important stories, the silly stories—and learning the history before people are gone.”

Visit bryantfisherreunion.com for more information.

Monique Henry

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition ofOmaha Home.

South Omaha takes center stage

May 5, 2017 1 comment

What would Omaha be without South Omaha? Well, for starters, the city would lose a whole lot of history, culture, character and vitality. Just like the murals springing up all over South Omaha, the area is a mash-up of races, ethnicities, cultures, neighborhoods, traditions, colorful characters and intriguing landmarks that express a diverse tapestry of work, family and social life that not only enriches the city’s livability but that helps make Omaha, well, Omaha. Sometimes though it takes an outsider to appreciate the personality of a place. Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces has spent time in South Omaha the last couple years familiarizing himself with the area and its people in prepration for creating stage works that celebrate different aspects of South Omaha for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. In 2015 and again in 2017, the conference’s PlayFest is focusing on South Omaha as part of its Neighborhood Tapestries program and each time Garces has gone into the community to extract its essence. His process involves walking the streets, stopping in places to talk to people and formally collecting people’s stories through interviews and exercises he conducts. His resulting new play “South” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 31 during the free PlayFest at Omaha South High School. Some of that school’s students participated in story circles Garces conducted and will perform in the play. This is my story about the appeciation that Garces has gained for South Omaha. The piece appears in the May 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Image result for south omaha 24th street

 

South Omaha takes center stage

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com)

 

South.

When applied to Omaha, the word refers to a neighborhood and a school where cross-cultural intersections happen every day. South is also the working title and setting of a new play by Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces. His original work is having its world premiere at South High on Wednesday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the May 27-June 3 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC).

South Omaha’s a landing spot for migrants, immigrants and refugees. South High’s a microcosm of the area and its range of social-racial-ethnic diversity. Garces spent time in South O researching his play. He visited there in 2015 for a similar project. His new drama expresses fears, aspirations, issues and traditions of the two primary populations comprising the area today – Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Other ethnicities are represented in the piece as well.

The GPTC production is part of the conference’s community-based PlayFest. The free show featuring South High students will be performed in the school auditorium. South High is at 4519 South 24th Street.

The annual conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College takes turns exploring aspects of inner city Omaha through its Neighborhood Tapestries. Last year’s focus was North Omaha. This year, it’s South Omaha. Garces visited last fall garnering the raw material for the play from story circles convened with people who variously live, work and attend school there or otherwise identify as South Omahans.

“Community-based work creates a story vibrantly alive in the truths of the specific community participating in it,” said GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler. “It allows for the community to share stories directly, in-person, and with the depth theater provides. With the annual PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries we are creating a living history of the local neighborhoods of Omaha that is unlike any other that exists for the city.”

For South, Garces created two fictional families. One, Lithuanian-American. The other, Mexican-American. The lives of Lina, younger sister Gabija and their parents are juxtaposed with the lives of Lupe, younger brother Diego and their parents. The two households contend with things universal across cultures but also singular to their own family and life situation.

 

 

 

Image result for michael john garces
Michael John Garces

 

 

Once Donald Trump got elected President, Garces returned for an extra story circle, this time with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who expressed concerns about anti-immigrant stands.

“It just changed what it meant to write a play at this moment,” Garces said. “I appreciated how my colleagues at the conference stepped up to that and had me come back out to have more conversations with people, which was really necessary.”

The threat of DACA’s repeal, wholesale deportations and a border wall were among the concerns shared.

“There was definitely some trepidation expressed to me about what certain changes would mean for South Omaha, particularly for young people.”

In the play Lina’s intensely curious about the legal status of friends Lupe and Diego, who avoid the subject until something brings it to light. The two girls wind up protesting on behalf of immigration reform. Garces said, “I talked to people with a very wide range of relationships to activism, so I wanted to represent young people who were activists like Lina and Lupe, and others, like Diego, who aren’t so much.”

By play’s end, Diego’s run afoul of the law and he and Lina have grown apart. Lina and Lupe ponder their respective futures. Lina’s free to go and return as she pleases. Lupe and Diego don’t have that luxury.

“Lina is frustrated with some things happening in her community and for her to leave is a different choice then for Lupe to leave because Lina knows she can come back,” said Garces, whose play intentionally explores who America is home to and isn’t today.

“I think this notion of home is challenging and contested right now. What does it mean to live in the United States since you were 2 and be told you have to go back ‘home’ to a place you don’t have any memory of and whose language you may not speak and leave the place where you do speak the language and where everyone you know lives. There’s a high degree of precariousness and uncertainty for people.”

Questions about identity and home resonate for Garces.

“There’s definitely personal connections in the play for me of families being put under stress by political concerns and as a young person having to make those decisions. Some of the interpersonal stuff that happens both within the family and with friends resonates, too.

“My father’s Cuban, my mother’s Anglo-American, and I grew up in South America, which has its own series of complexities. But at the end of the day I have friends who can’t make the same choices I can make. Regardless of how complex my life and how hard the choices may be, regardless of my convictions, there is always the simple fact I have an American passport, which unless I do something very specific cannot be taken away from me. And so I have the option of certain choices some of my friends don’t. Me choosing to leave the United States or stay is a vastly different choice than it is for someone who’s not a citizen.”

In terms of how South Omahans view themselves, Garces sees a dynamic, healthy tension between permanency and transition. It’s a working-class place with rich history and strong cultural ties, yet always reinventing itself. The one constant is aspiration.

“When I talk to people in the taqueria or the school or the Lithuanian Bakery or wherever I go, there’s always this sense of people looking forward to what’s going to be possible for the next generation and what is the neighborhood going to be. It’s been so many things but what it’s going to be is always in question.

“The sense of excitement and possibility around that is very real. The food, the murals, the sense when you’re on the street that lives are being made and that it’s a place of possibility – that’s what I’ve really taken away with me from South Omaha.”

He said even apart from questions about how federal policies, laws or executive orders might crack down on illegal immigrants, currents of change fill the air.

“I hear this from young people, old people, people from a wide range of backgrounds talking very consistently about how the neighborhood is perceived to be changing. People talk about what they think is positive about that change but also express concern.”

He said he finds people there take a “great deal of pride in their origins. whether Lithuania or Mexico or other places, whether they’re first, second or third generation.” He added, “They’re very proud, too. of being from South Omaha. At the same time they feel South Omaha is not highly regarded by people not of South Omaha.”

GPTC associate artistic director Scott Working, who’s directing the play, admires what Garces has wrought.

“He artfully distills dozens of stories and hundreds of images into these beautiful collections of relatable moments. His characters absolutely feel like you ran into them on South 24th Street. Some of our younger cast were a part of the South High discussion and recognize moments in the play that were in that conversation.”

Garces was still tweaking the ending in mid-April. Though he also directs and heads L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company, he’s put the production in the hands of Working, co-designers Bill Van Deest and Carol Wisner and costumer Lindsay Pape.

“As a writer I tend to try to create a framework that’s pretty open for the designer and the director to interpret that physical world. I talked to Scott about how from my writer’s perspective I think the play needs to flow and there needs to be rhythm but beyond that I’m trusting in them to capture something sort of essential about what it means to be in South Omaha. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with.”

Garces has enjoyed the experience of representing the former Magic City in a dramatic structure.

“It’s been a really good process. I’ve felt really supported by the conference. I don’t mean to sound all Hallmark about it but you occasionally have those artistic experiences that just feel good and this has been one of them. This has felt really right.”

He’s also come to feel a kinship for South O. Though he’s learned much over two years, he considers himself “more informed guest” than honorary South Omahan.

For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit

http://www.gptcplays.com/.

%d bloggers like this: