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The Story of Mexican American Traditions
in Nebraska

The Mexican American Traditions in Nebraska project was created to help preserve and document oral histories and Mexican American cultural traditions that are currently known and practiced in our state, so that they will continue to delight and enrich subsequent generations of Nebraskans. This book is one of the public programs connected with the project, all of which have been a celebration of Mexican American culture and its contributions to "the good life" in Nebraska.

How the project began

1950 poster

This 1950 poster announces events in the North Platte Valley celebrating September 16, Mexican Independence day.

Nebraska, for the most part, is populated by immigrants. Its history is the story of people moving from ancestral homelands and then adapting their cultures to the social and environmental realities of the prairie and plains land upon which they have settled. Because the Nebraska State Historical Society's mission is "to safeguard and interpret Nebraska's past for the people," it actively searches for and collects information and artifacts representing these varied cultural groups and their ways of life. The Society maintains archives that contain rich sources of information on most of Nebraska's cultural traditions, notably those brought by European immigrants and those practiced by the many Native American cultures that have successively occupied the area over the centuries. Comparatively little public information has been available on the history of Nebraskans of Mexican heritage, although the first significant wave of their emigration took place between 1900 and 1920 and resulted in the establishment of long-standing Mexican American neighborhoods in a number of Nebraska communities.

Ralph Sanchez

At a teleconference for project volunteers in Scottsbluff, Ralph Sanchez of Nebraska Public Radio, teaches the intricacies of sound recording from Lincoln via satellite.

In 1991 Cecilia Olivarez Huerta, currently executive director of the Nebraska Mexican American Commission, a state agency created in 1971 to advocate for and serve the state's Latino population, came to the Nebraska State Historical Society's Library/Archives looking for photographs, documents, and other information on the history of Nebraskans of Mexican descent for a program on Mexican American women in Nebraska. When she was able to locate only a few photographs related to the Mexican immigrants who came to work on the railroads, and in the sugar beet fields and factories of western Nebraska, she began to think about doing some primary research in Nebraska's Mexican American communities to locate more information and to share that information with the public. At that time there was little public acknowledgment of the many community activities and cultural contributions of the Mexican people in the state, some of whom came to Nebraska as far back as 1900.

As a result of Ms. Olivarez Huerta's initial research, the interest expressed by other individuals, and the support of community organizations such as the Mexican American Historical Society in Scottsbluff, the Hispanic Community Center in Lincoln, and El Museo Latino in Omaha, the Mexican American Commission and the Nebraska State Historical Society joined forces to explore ways to increase the amount of public information available on Mexican American history and culture in Nebraska. In 1995 the two agencies jointly developed a proposal for the Mexican American Traditions in Nebraska project, submitted it to the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Community Folklife Program for funding, and were awarded a two-year grant. The Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Community Folklife Program is a national program, administered by the Fund for Folk Culture of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and underwritten by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, New York, New York. It was established in 1991 specifically to support research and public programs focused on traditional aspects of cultural heritage.

Emilia González-Clements

Emilia González-Clements discussing research techniques at the Scottsbluff training workshop.

The goal of the Mexican American Traditions in Nebraska project was to explore and document the traditional arts, beliefs, and oral histories of persons in the Mexican American communities in Grand Island, Lincoln, Omaha, and the Scotts- bluff vicinity. Ms. Olivarez Huerta and Gwen Meister, grants coordinator at the Nebraska State Historical Society and former coordinator of the state folk arts program for the Nebraska Arts Council, became co-directors of the project. Society staff members Ann Billesbach, head of reference services, and John Carter, curator of photographs, joined the project team to help train volunteers, organize the collected materials, and develop public programs. In addition to the major funding provided by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Community Folklife Program, the two agencies received a grant from the Nebraska Humanities Council and matching support from state funds and private donors to complete the two year project. Volunteers from within the Mexican American communities at the four project sites were recruited and trained to interview traditional artists, musicians, and older community residents about their history, culture, and traditions.

Sol Garcia

Sol Garcia of Grand Island, Nebraska, practicing with a tape recorder at the training workshop in Lincoln.

Folklorist Bea Roeder

Folklorist Bea Roeder lecturing workshop participants in Lincoln on Mexican traditional arts.

Staff from both agencies joined with University of Nebraska­Lincoln applied anthropologist Emilia González-Clements to train the community volunteers and facilitate their work during the spring, summer, and fall of 1996. From the beginning, staff could see that there were many more persons worth interviewing in the four communities than one small project could handle. Therefore the project was, from the outset, seen as the first step in a partnership in which the two agencies could continue to work together on future endeavors. For that reason, it was especially important to try to focus this first effort on a few specific subjects. One way this was accomplished was to interview chiefly within the four previously designated communities, rather than across the entire state. Another was to concentrate on interviewing persons who had spent a substantial period of time in the state, rather than newly arrived immigrants. A third criteria applied to choose those interviewed was their personal knowledge of traditional aspects of culture, such as music, dance, foodways, crafts, dichos (sayings), or of community history. The project coordinators also tried to ensure that people with a variety of cultural knowledge, of both genders, and of several age groups, were interviewed. Among the fifty persons interviewed were musicians, an herbalist, a leatherworker, a young woman who had just experienced her quinceañera, dancers, and the creators of lowrider cars and bicycles. Topics of other interviews were the histories of the Mexican American communities in the four locations, cultural celebrations, dichos, and foodways.

Project Results

In 1997 Nebraskans began to see the results of this project in Un Tesoro de Nebraska (A Nebraska Treasure), a traveling photographic exhibit that was on display in each of the four communities and in several other locations. They also heard the voices of some of the persons who were interviewed by the project on "The Best of Both Worlds: Hispanics and Nebraska," a five-part series broadcast on the Nebraska Public Radio Network during December 1996 and January 1997, and on a segment of the nationally distributed "Latino USA" program, also in January. This publication is the final product of the project. It is being sent to all public and school libraries and all local historical societies in the state in the hope that it will be an introduction to Mexican American culture as it has been adapted to Nebraska and that it will inspire teachers, students, and members of the general public to learn more about the unique legacy that Nebraskans of Mexican descent have entrusted to us.


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Last updated 5 October 1998

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