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Perez finds home away from home in York


Perez finds home away from home in York

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having her aunt as her coach helped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her mother has made a full recovery.

Perez views everything that’s happened as a gift.

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

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

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

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

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

Perez is enjoying coaching.

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

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

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

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Gabriela Martinez: A heart for humanity and justice for all

March 8, 2018 2 comments

Gabriela Martinez: A heart for humanity and justice for all

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in a February 2018 issue of El Perico ( http://el-perico.com/ )

 

Like many young Omaha professionals, Gabriela Martinez is torn between staying and spreading her wings elsewhere.

The 2015 Creighton University social work graduate recently left her position at Inclusive Communities to embark on an as yet undefined new path. This daughter of El Salvadoran immigrants once considered becoming an immigration lawyer and crafting new immigration policy. She still might pursue that ambition, but for now she’s looking to continue the diversity and inclusion work she’s already devoted much of her life to.

Unlike most 24-year-olds. Martinez has been a social justice advocate and activist since childhood. She grew up watching her parents assist the Salvadoran community, first in New York, where her family lived, and for the last two decades in Omaha.

Her parents escaped their native country’s repressive regime for the promise of America. They were inspired by the liberation theology of archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed for speaking out against injustice. Once her folks settled in America, she said, they saw a need to help Salvadoran emigres and refugees,

“That’s why they got involved. They wanted to make some changes, to try to make it easier for future generations and to make it easier for new immigrants coming into this country.”

She recalls attending marches and helping out at information fairs.

In Omaha, her folks founded Asociación Cívica Salvadoreña de Nebraska, which works with Salvadoran consulates and partners with the Legal immigrant Center (formerly Justice for Our Neighbors). A recent workshop covered preparing for TPS (Temporary Protected Status) ending in 2019.

“They work on getting people passports, putting people in communication with Salvadoran officials. If someone is incarcerated, they make sure they know their rights and they’re getting access to who they need to talk to.”

Martinez still helps with her parents’ efforts, which align closely with her own heart.

“I’m very proud of my roots,” she said. “My parents opened so many doors for me. They got me involved. They instilled some values in me that stuck with me. Seeing how hard they work makes me think I’m not doing enough. so I’m always striving to do more and to be the best version of myself that I can be because that’s what they’ve worked their entire lives for.”

Martinez has visited family in El Salvador, where living conditions and cultural norms are in stark contrast to the States.

She attended an Inclusive Communities camp at 15, then became a delegate and an intern, before being hired as a facilitator for the nonprofit’s Table Talk series around issues of racism and inequity. She enjoyed “planting seeds for future conversations” and “giving a voice to people who think they don’t have one.”

Inclusive Communities fostered personal growth.

“People I went to camp with are now on their way to becoming doctors and lawyers and now they’re giving back to the community. I’m most proud of the youth I got to work with because they taught me as much as I taught them and now I see them out doing the work and doing it a thousand times better than I do.

“I love seeing how far they’ve come. Individuals who were quiet when I first met them are now letting their voices be heard.”

Martinez feels she’s made a difference.

“I love seeing the impact I left on the community – how many individuals I got to facilitate in front of and programs I got to develop.”

She’s worked on Native American reservations, participated in social justice immersion trips and conferences and supported rallies.

“I’m most proud when I see other Latinos doing the work and how passionate they are in being true to themselves and what’s important to them. There’s a lot of strong women who have taken the time to invest in me. Someone I really look up to for her work in politics is Marta Nieves (Nebraska Democratic Party Latino Caucus Chair). I really appreciate Marta’s history working in this arena.”

Martinez is encouraged that Omaha-transplant Tony Vargas has made political inroads, first on the Omaha School Board, and now in the Nebraska Legislature.

As for her own plans, she said, “I’m being very intentional about making sure my next step is a good fit and that i’m wanting to do the work not because of the money but because it’s for a greater good.”

Though her immediate family is in Omaha, friends have pursued opportunities outside Nebraska and she may one day leave to do the same.

“I’d like to see what I can accomplish in Omaha, but I need a bigger city and I need to be around more diversity and people from different backgrounds and cultures that I can learn from. I think Omaha is too segregated.”

Like many millennials, she feels there are too many barriers to advancement for people of color here.

“This community is still heavily dominated by non-people of color.”

Wherever she resides, she said “empowering and advocating” for underserved people “to be heard in different spaces”.will be core to her work.

Despite gains made in diversity and inclusion, she feels America still has a long way to go. She’s seen too many workplaces let racism-sexism slide and too many environments where individuals reporting discrimination  are told they’re “overreacting” or “too ‘PC.'” That kind of dismissive attitude, she said, cannot stand and she intends to be a voice for those would be silenced.

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