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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.

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Rosales’ worldwide spiritual journey intersects with Nebraska


Rosales’ worldwide spiritual journey intersects with Nebraska

©by Leo Adam Biga, Origially appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Victoria Rosales is a seeker.  At 27, the Houston, Texas native is well-traveled in search of self-improvement and greater meaning. She’s dedicating her life to sharing what she knows about healthy living practices. Her journey’s already taken her to Ireland, England, Kosovo, Vietnam, Alaska, Mexico and Costa Rica.

From her Salt Lake City home, she handles communications for Omaha-based Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism. Its husband-wife team, Chris and Phileena Heuretz, lead workshops and retreats and author books. Rosales met them at the 2012 Urbana student missions conference in St. Louis. She took their contemplative activism workshop and participated in retreats at the Benedictine Center in Schuyler, Nebraska. The experiences enhanced her spiritual quest.

“I remember writing in my journal, ‘I love their message and mission and I would really love to do the work these people do.’ And now – here I am,” Rosales said.

Meditation came into her life at a crucial juncture.

“I was in a season where the idea of resting in the presence of God was all that I longed for.”

A few years earlier she’d left her east Texas family to chart a new path.

“I am a first-generation high school and college graduate. I’m carving my own path, but for the better – by doing things a little bit differently. In that way, I definitely see myself as a trailblazer for family to come.”

She grew up an Evangelical Christian and attended a small private Christian college in Michigan, where she studied literature, rhetoric and storytelling.

“The idea of telling a story and telling it well and of being careful in the articulation of the story really began to come alive for me. I began to pursue avenues of self-expression in terms of word choice and dialect.”

As a child enamored with words, the tales told by her charismatic grandmother made an impression.

“I was heavily influenced by my grandmother. She captivated an audience with her storytelling. I was raised on stories of her childhood coming out of Mexico. It was very much instilled in me. I see it as a huge gift in my life.”

But Rosales didn’t always see it that way.

“Growing up, it was like, ‘Here goes grandma again in Spanish. Okay, grandma, we’re in America’ – shutting her down. When she passed away, reconciling those prejudices became a huge part of my journey. I moved to Mexico for that very purpose and spent time living with my distant relatives, mostly in Monterey, to truly embrace what it means to be this beautiful, powerful, sensual Latina and honor that part of who I am.

“Part of creating a safe place for others to show up as who they are is feeling safe in my own skin and appreciating the richness of my Hispanic heritage.”

Self-awareness led her to find a niche for her passion.

“It started with me being really honest about telling my story with all of the hurts and traumas. I could then invite in light and life, healing and redemption.”

Her work today involves assisting folks “sift through the overarching stories of their life and to reframe those narratives in ways more conducive to personal well-being.” She added, “It’s moving from victim mentalities into stances of empowerment through how different life experiences are articulated. I developed my own practice to help people journey through that.”

She calls her practice Holistic Narrative Therapy. It marries well with meditation and yoga. She’s learned the value of “silence, solitude and stillness” through meditation and centering prayer.

“In silence you take time to sit and listen to find the still small voice within, the rhyme and reason in all the chaos and loud noise. In stillness you learn to sit through discomfort. In solitude you learn to remove yourself from the influences of culture, society, family and expectation and to be comfortable with who you show up as when no one else is watching. Those are the roots and fruits of the contemplative life.”

Doing yoga, she believes, “is the embodied expression of dance with the divine.” After attending a yoga resort-health spa in Costa Rica, the owners hired her to conduct Holistic Narrative Therapy sessions. She said everything about the setting invited restoration – “the lush jungles, the pristine beaches, the blue waters, the food that grows there, the music, the vibe.”

After that idyll. she roughed it by working as a wilderness therapy guide in Utah with youth struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation.

“Being one with the elements provides a lot of space for growth. I was just naturally attracted to that. That was a great experience.”

En route to starting that job she was driving through Zion National Park when she took her eyes off the road and her SUV tumbled down a cliff. She escaped unharmed but chastened. This heady, strong, independent woman needed bringing down a notch.

“I was falling into a trap of playing God in my own life. You don’t want to take rolling over a cliff to learn a lesson, but I guess I needed to be knocked off my center to re-land on something fortified and true.”

She now works for a Salt Lake youth therapy program.

“My dream is to open a community center for people to come and experience restoration and what it means to be fully alive, fully human.”

She rarely makes it back to Neb., but she did come for Gravity’s March Deepening Retreat in Schuyler.

“I am a firm believer we can only extend the love to the world we have for ourselves. That’s truly what these retreats are for me – to fill my own tank so that I can go out and serve the world to the best of my abilities.”

Visit http://www.facebook.com/public/Victoria-Rosales.

 

Having attained personal and professional goals, Alina Lopez now wants to help other Latinas

March 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Having attained personal and professional goals, Alina Lopez now wants to help other Latinas

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

When new UNO Office of Latino and Latin American Studies community engagement coordinator Alina Lopez appears at public forums and school assemblies to tout OLLAS academic programs and scholarships, she speaks from experience.

This 2017 magna cum laude University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate found OLLAS opportunities herself as a volunteer and a Next Generation Leadership scholar.

Embedded in her outreach is a desire to help Latinas pursue higher education. She doesn’t want them deferring their dreams due to challenges like those she faced as a young mother in a domestic violence relationship. She lets aspirants know obstacles don’t need to prevent attaining goals. She delayed her college studies a decade until leaving her abuser. Once free, she shined in the classroom and blossomed as a woman and as a professional.

Born in Michoacan, Mexico, she was 3 when her family moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., where they lived until she was 12. Then they moved to Ogden, Utah. Concerns about undocumented status and the death of her grandfather prompted the family’s return to Mexico. Though an exceptional student, she struggled in Mexican schools and convinced her parents to let her return to the States.

She joined an older sister then living in Bellevue, Neb. Lopez graduated from Bryan High School – the last of five high schools she attended.

“I think I grew to be okay with change. I can adapt very well. But when you’re 15-16, parental guidance is essential. Not having that was the toughest part.”

Lopez married young and began having children. She’s the mother of five today.. She was an Omaha Public Schools ESL specialist and administrative aide at her alma mater, Bryan, where she helped coach girls soccer. Assistant principal Tracy Wernsman emboldened her.

“She was a mentor who was like an angel sent from God,” said Lopez. “She talked me through things like, ‘If you leave that relationship, you’ll be okay, you can do it,’ and so in 2011 I finally had the guts to say, ‘No more.’ Tracy told me I had great potential and needed to pursue college. Once I became liberated, I pursued it.”

Another strong influence has been Spring Lake Magnet principal Susan Aguilera-Robles.

“She is a great role model for me. She’s gone through a lot and dedicated her life to helping others. Being the principal of a school takes a lot. I know she has really bad days and really good days, but she’s made it work

and she makes it look easy.”

Lopez worked multiple jobs to support her family while earning an associate’s degree from Metropolitan Community College. Then she enrolled at UNO.

“Trying to figure it all out was very challenging and stressful, but well worth it.”

None of it was possible without first taking her life back.

“It makes you a stronger person. For a woman to get out of it is empowering. It makes you want to mentor other females going through the same. You don’t want anybody else to go through what you went through.”

School provided sanctuary and affirmation.

“After being divorced, you feel like a failure. When I enrolled in college I wanted to feel good about myself and to make up for lost time. It was a personal goal to attain a 4.0 GPA and I did it. I’m hungry to learn. I’m hard on myself. I want to give the best of me. I know what I’m capable of and so I push myself. School has always been my safe place. When I’m studying, it feels peaceful, so I’ve dedicated myself to school.”

She’s now eying a dual masters program in public administration and social work. She expects to earn a  Ph.D. as well.

Her curiosity extends beyond books. She participated in an international student program that took her to Hong Kong for five weeks last summer, where she joined other students from around the world. “I thought if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it, and it was life-changing. If I could go back, I’d do it all over again.”

She went beyond her job description at Bryan to influence young people.

“I was drawn to the kids who carried the most challenges with them. I wanted to know who they were, what they were going through. I also encouraged Latinas to seek post-secondary scholarships. It felt really good.”

While studying at UNO, Lopez became a regular in the OLLAS office and when the community engagement coordinator post opened, it seemed a perfect fit.

“Every single thing has led me to this point. I saw UNO and OLLAS offered the opportunity for more growth and academic success. We’re here to support students.”

She envisions one day realizing another dream – “to start an organization dedicated to young Latino women.” “I feel sometimes we let our culture oppress ourselves,” she said, “especially the immigrant community. We tend to look at our culture as more important than anything. For me, the thought of divorce was not even an option because when you marry, you marry until death do you part. A lot of women stay in a bad life and don’t receive support from family to leave it. I wish to help Latinas who don’t find support elsewhere.”

Lopez, who formed a single parent group at UNO, has come a long way herself.

“It’s been quite the journey.”

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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