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Mexican American Traditions in Nebraska
By Dr. Emilia González-Clements

Nine of us were seated at a round table in a steak house in Hastings. We had been at an all-day public meeting of the Nebraska Mexican American Commission, where local Latinos had told of discrimination, police indifference, personal persistence, family strength, and cultural pride. As we reviewed the day, we ordered steak, walleye, shrimp, and talked of "real food" and other good things. We discussed a project that was underway documenting Mexican American traditions. We remembered our grandmothers and the authority they had over us, even as adults. We compared healing words, remedies, and rituals. We shared stories about being Latino in Nebraska. Our stories also told of discrimination, police indifference, personal persistence, family strength, and cultural pride. After dinner, we lingered long in the parking lot, standing close in a circle, still talking and remembering.

In the interviews conducted as part of this project, other Nebraskans of Mexican ancestry remembered their grandparents. Grandmothers, those special women who held them and fed them and healed them, grandmothers who knew the remedies, the stories, the crafts, the foods, and the language that some of us have forgotten. They remembered their grandfathers, who came to escape the Mexican Revolution of 1910­17, to find both peace and work. And they worked hard at the jobs they found. Many remained in Nebraska and brought their families to a new home here.

photo of exhibit opening

Ben Castinado Jr., Cecilia Olivarez Huerta, and Olga Olivares at the exhibit opening in Scottsbluff.

The Mexican American Traditions in Nebraska project was designed to document and preserve the richness of our Mexican culture both for ourselves and for all Nebraskans. The project gathered the stories of fifty tradition bearers and community leaders from across the state. This short report examines what the interviewees told us about the traditions of Mexican Americans in Nebraska today.

All ninety-three Nebraska counties now have persons of Mexican descent, due in no small part to the recent influx of immigrants seeking work in food processing plants, especially in the beef-packing houses that have moved into rural towns. But this is not new, for many of the established Mexican American families in Nebraska came generations ago to work in meat-packing, on the railroads, or in the sugar beet fields in the western part of the state. Thus, there is a continuum of Latinos in Nebraska-third- and fourth-generation Mexican Americans, Guatemalans, and other Latinos, and a new population of recent immigrants from Mexico.

There has been an acculturation of Mexicans into Mexican Americans since the early 1900s. Over the years, individuals and families have settled permanently in Nebraska and their children have entered the mainstream of public education. Traditional Mexican celebrations mix with Anglo festivals, and Mexican American children learn mainstream customs in school. And all Nebraskans are influenced by mass media.

The traditional Mexican posada, a house-to-house celebration of song and food that replicates Joseph and Mary's search for shelter on Christmas Eve, once highlighted the holiday season, but is no longer practiced. Most families, on the other hand, have adopted such mainstream customs as the use of Christmas trees and the expectation of presents from Santa Claus, and made them their own.

Some experiences, however, are singularly Hispanic. During the project's volunteer training session in Scottsbluff, I chanced to use green index cards as part of an introductory exercise, and explained that we would be doing fieldwork, which is the term customarily used by scholars who do interviews like this. The volunteers groaned, "No, not more fieldwork!" and laughingly said they "didn't need green cards" because they were born in Nebraska.1 I was perplexed for an instant, but then realized that words like "fieldwork" and "green card" are culturally loaded.

Those Mexican Americans with migrant agricultural labor experiences are still conscious that "fieldwork" means long days spent in the sugar beet fields of western Nebraska. And the idea of the legitimacy of residence, and even the need for "green cards," resonates through Mexican culture. One of the project interviewers, originally from Texas, said that she didn't migrate, instead, "the border moved down to us." She was keenly aware of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which forced Mexico to cede a large amount of territory to Texas. Her family had lived in that region for generations before it became part of the United States.

Almost all of the tradition bearers recounted work experiences. In Scottsbluff there were the sugar beet fields, in Omaha the meat-packing plants, and across Nebraska the railroad. One woman talked about living in a boxcar that her father expanded with a porch made with lumber given to him by the railroad company. Her father, her husband, and her sons had all worked for the railroad, and they lived next to the station house.

Today, many new Mexican immigrants are coming to rural towns to work in the meat-packing industry. They bring with them traditional practices and customs from the mother country as they settle into "the good life" of Nebraska. One couple in Grand Island works through the church to help other newcomers. They have introduced and coordinate the performance of a classic, indigenous-Spanish dance, the Matachines, which celebrates the Day of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, on December 12. Masses in Spanish are becoming routine in some areas of the state and many Catholic newcomers worship with Mexican music.

It is too early to tell if the Matachines dance will be adopted by local Latinos. The influence of newcomers' traditions and the conscious efforts of Mexican Americans to maintain their culture, however, can be clearly seen. There is a resurgence of the quinceañera-a celebration of a young woman's fifteenth birthday, which introduces her to a new role in society. And other purposeful actions in everyday life advance Mexican culture. Parents, for example, deliberately teach their children the language, songs and music, and other aspects of culture unique to Mexican Americans. As in the 1960s and 1970s college students of today have active groups whose focus is on cultural pride and support for Mexican American students.

Some of the most interesting findings of the project came from the design and management of the project itself. It became clear from the start that the word "Mexican American" means different things to different people. Does the term include recent Mexican immigrants? Should the project be limited to Mexican Americans? What about other Latinos? What was the project supposed to record?

Volunteers from the Mexican community, the people who did the actual interviews, started with their own practices to identify what is "traditional" and what is "Mexican American." They quickly added categories to a list of traditions identified by academic consultants, including such things as the painting of murals and the creation of lowrider automobiles and bicycles. And they provided the names of persons whom they felt should be interviewed. The project purposefully sought people who practiced traditional arts, ones learned from their parents or grandparents.

One of the patterns that emerged was the concept of a "family interview." In most cases, several family members joined with the person for whom the interview was intended and responded to the questions along with the tradition bearer. It was common to have several generations of a family present and participating in the interview.

This project set out to document cultural continuity over time and place, especially in such areas as foodways, music, art, and religious observances. We learned that many families still prepare homemade tortillas and other basic traditional foods, and that there are conscious efforts to pass on the playing and singing of Mexican music. Such typical Mexican crafts as piñata-making and the fabrication of tooled leather goods are continued by the tradition bearers even though there is no longer a market for them. In the one case cheap, commercially-produced alternatives make it nearly impossible to compete by producing a product done the "right way," such as a piñata hand fashioned on a frame of bamboo. These people are living treasures, who preserve their part of Mexican culture.

A traditional dancer from Scottsbluff told a moving story of how her father, himself a traditional dancer, now bedridden and unable to stand, insisted on teaching her the steps, literally with the aid of a sounding board, because "the tradition must be continued." Though in bed, he had a vertical board placed against his feet, on which he would sound out the correct steps. She would practice the steps he showed her until they "sounded right" to him. And from her he extracted a promise that she would teach others, a promise she has kept by forming a dance troupe through the Guadalupe Church and training several generations of young dancers. To this day she honors her father by making dancers' dresses in the exact style of the state of Jalisco, her father's place of origin in Mexico.

Richard Ybarra

Richard Ybarra, son of traditional dancer Sally Briones Dittmar, 1950.

A songwriter-singer, also from Scottsbluff, composed a song for her campesino (peasant) father. In it she speaks of his life of hard work, of him coming home in the evenings from a long, hot day in the sugar beet fields. Music and songs have helped the family endure the hard work. For them, singing is a joyful, daily expression in their lives. "We were poor, but we were happy. We always had music."

A former migrant who likewise worked in the sugar beet fields told us that she and her brothers sang songs that set the tempo for their work. She was known to work at a leisurely pace, and her brothers were always trying to get her to work faster. "[Sister], sing, but sing fast songs so your hands will move fast," they would urge.

Another interviewer recorded a Lyman, Nebraska, family's long history of performing traditional Mexican music. Their family band is always busy, always traveling, which made it quite difficult to arrange an interview. But she managed to document the importance of music to the family, and their audience's enthusiasm for their art. She found that they continue to play for dances held for important events such as marriages, anniversaries, and holidays, as well as for community fundraising events. Dances are an important means of involving the community in the celebration.

Omaha's Mariachi Zapata

Omaha's Mariachi Zapata providing the music for the exhibit opening at the Hispanic Community Center in Lincoln.

The interviews revealed that church, family, work, pride, respect, and endurance are recurring themes among Nebraska's Mexican Americans. They showed that some traditions such as music, dance, and food thrive, while other customs, such as the recitation of dichos (traditional proverbs) fade. Over the generations, use of the Spanish language itself is ebbing. As the language is forgotten, some traditions are not fully passed on to the next generation. One young woman talked about singing Mexican songs, but not understanding Spanish at all. "I learned the words, but I don't know what they mean." She speaks a few Spanish words, but her language is English. Like many other immigrant groups, she has gone through an Americanization process and has become fluent in the culture of the mainstream. Her sense of ethnic identity, however, is strong. "I am Mexican in my heart," she proudly claims.

As some traditions disappear, the project found that others are being revitalized by new Mexican immigrants. One such practice, that of marking the site of a traffic fatality with crosses and flowers as a memorial to the deceased, has become part of the lexicon of mourning customs. Other more traditional mourning customs have faded or never did appear in Nebraska. Traditionally, for example , a woman in Mexico wears black mourning clothing, including head covering and stockings, for specified periods depending on the kin relationship she had with the departed. Mexican Americans in Nebraska, as in other areas of the country and even in Mexico, no longer follow the custom, nor do they engage in traditional celebrations of the Day of the Dead with their ancestors on November 2. They do, however, go with their children "trick or treating" on Halloween, clearly a practice outside of Mexican tradition. Or at least families used to do that until it was no longer safe to do so.

The project documented three other expressions of cultural values. Military service was the first. Patriotism is strong and service to country is a highly respected value. While the original Mexican settlers longed to return to the mother country, their English-speaking sons and daughters served with distinction in World War II and other, more recent, conflicts. One World War II unit from western Nebraska had the slogan, "From the Beetfields to the Battlefields." Ironically, at home, the soldier's mothers, wives, and daughters were being told, "Go home to Mexico, where you came from." One mother is reported to have said, "Send my son home from Germany first."

A second strong cultural expression is found in sports. While the experience of some Mexican Americans in school sports has been positive, for many, there was no opportunity to play on official teams. They were neither selected for the teams, nor did they have money for the shoes and other equipment. So some created their own teams, principally in softball and in boxing, and thus sports became an important vehicle for community solidarity and cultural pride with other Mexican Americans.

The third cultural expression revealed by the interviews is the growth of murals as a community art form. Several murals have been painted in Nebraska, including a large mural next to the Hispanic Community Center in Lincoln. Technically, there is some question as to whether murals are, in fact, traditional, even though they have become commonplace in contemporary Chicano art. But clearly they are seen by the Mexican-American community as an important part of shared culture.

One interview told of an artist in Lincoln who began a mural with the intention of involving the youth of the community. Many young Mexican Americans showed up to help, and the artist, recognizing that the energies of youth often need focus, established a series of rules for the project. One of the main rules was the requirement that the young person must be accompanied by his or her father. This was to be a family project. As the project progressed, he was approached by a girl eager to help paint. When he told her that her father had to be there as well, she told him she had no father. "OK," he responded, "today I will be your father."

This project documented both continuity and change. Many of the interviews show that traditions involving music, food, and religion are strong, while, as we have noted, others, such as the use of dichos, have faded. Other interviews revealed dynamic change within traditions. The traditional observance of the sixteenth of September-Mexican independence from Spain-has changed from a celebration involving parades and patriotic speeches given in the Spanish language to a dance commemorating the date. Today, some elders know the remnants of herbal remedies rather than the full spectrum and rituals of curanderismo (folk healing) widely practiced by their grandparents. Older adults have memories of stories and narratives like La Llorona (The Weeping Woman),2 a tale widely-told throughout Mexico and the Southwest, but many younger people do not. There are still a number of adobe houses in Scottsbluff, and many homes are graced with elaborate altars that venerate Mexican Catholic saints.

Our Lady of Guadalupe ChurchRev. Colling and the Lopez family

Rev. Paul E. Colling and the Lopez family, Gabriel (left), Jaqueline, and Gabriel, Jr., stand in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Scottsbluff, immediately after Gabriel, Jr.'s baptism.

The common history of the push of the Mexican Revolution and the pull of employment in the expanding Anglo Southwest is shared by many of the project's tradition bearers and most of their descendants. Hard economic times in Mexico contribute to the rising current of immigration of Mexicans into the heartland. This time, immigrants are coming in family groups. As the children progress through the schools, another generation is beginning to adapt to the mainstream culture.

Church, family, work, pride, respect for age and wisdom, and endurance in the face of poverty and discrimination are recurring themes from Nebraska's Mexican American tradition bearers. These traditional values are still strong. All the tradition bearers' narratives refer to the importance of family, a strong work ethic, the importance of respect in interpersonal relations, and endurance in an often hostile world. While the experiences of Mexican Americans are different, depending on their place of origin and length of time in the United States, most have experienced racism and discrimination in everyday life. Nebraskans who are not of Mexican descent often are unaware of the long history, traditions, and contributions of their fellow citizens of Mexican descent, and the project showed how that lack of awareness leads to misunderstanding.

One newer tradition uncovered by the project encompasses these traditional family and community values, yet has led to misunderstanding in the non-Mexican population. Lowrider cars have been specifically modified with altered hydraulic suspension systems that allow them to be lowered to within a few inches of the ground, thus the name. They are usually brightly colored with custom paint and added chrome, and decorated with traditional designs, such as the Virgen de Guadalupe.

The striking automobiles are driven proudly, and a great deal of money is spent on repairing and preparing, painting and showing them. In every case, the owners are young men who work to earn the money for the cars.

The project interviewed several owners in western Nebraska about their cars and from them learned about a generational variant-lowrider bicycles. These, too, are brightly colored, traditionally decorated, and loaded with chrome. The young people who design and build these bikes aspire to own lowrider cars as soon as they are old enough to get a driver's license.

Boys from Scottsbluff

Boys from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, posed proudly with their lowrider bicycles.

Lowrider bicycles are rarely ridden, as the extensive reworking necessary to lower the frame causes the pedals to drag on the ground if the bike travels in anything but a straight line. Rather, these bicycles are works of art, not meant for transportation, but to be exhibited. As with lowrider cars, there are competitions, awards, and shows.

To many Mexican Americans, lowriders represent history, family, and pride. Fathers and sons (and one daughter) work together on the lowrider cars and bikes. They are an affair of the family. But to many in the Anglo community, they are mistakenly associated with gangs and drug money. According to one owner, a young man doing well in school and anticipating a career either in medicine or engineering, "They think that because I spend a lot of money on my car, I must be selling drugs, but I'm not."

Mexican Americans are a distinct group. We may have different histories, but our common heritage binds us. Our love of family and reverence for religion, our pride in our Mexican heritage, our hard work ethic and our common experiences of living in Nebraska unite us. We share some traditions and are creating others.

So, yes, we found continuities and change through this project. Some traditions are being passed down, some lost, others re-introduced. In every case, however, tradition bearers were eager and proud to share their knowledge. They were pleased that Mexican American traditions were being recorded.

As I explained the project to my friends seated around the table in that Hastings steak house, I was struck by the fact we knew each other so well. Five were from western Nebraska; three of them now living in Lincoln. One person is a long-time resident of Lexington. Two of us are from Texas and one, my husband, is an Anglo. We live in a state that is five hundred miles, or so, long, yet Mexican Americans in Nebraska know each other, personally, across the state. One reason is that many from the Scottsbluff area move to Lincoln. Another is family and neighborhood ties, together with the fact that Mexican Americans share so many experiences and work as advocates throughout the state.

The one person at the table I did not know became an instant friend. We talked about being Mexican American in Nebraska. We shared stories about our wonderful grandparents. We acknowledged the hard times our parents survived. We reminisced about how it was in school. We lamented that young Chicanos are forgetting some of our ways. But mostly, we were glad to be in a group that understood us and with whom we shared so much.

One of the core purposes of this project was to document the legacy of Mexican-Americans in Nebraska as a means of fostering such understanding. While some of our traditions are different from other cultural groups, our core values are quite similar to those of most Nebraskans.

There are two mottoes associated with the two state agencies that coordinated this project. "It is better to die on your feet than to keep living on your knees" is a slogan attributed to Emiliano Zapata from the Mexican Revolution incorporated into the logo of the Mexican American Commission.

"The spirit of a people lives in its history" is engraved on the façade of the Nebraska State Historical Society. When I left a meeting of the Mexican American Traditions in Nebraska project, held in the Historical Society building recently, I saw a young Anglo Nebraskan father proudly point out the state capitol to his family, and heard him relate the general history of Nebraska's pioneer families, archived in the building. He was sharing his pride in his ancestors and their struggles.

Now, through the material from the project, Mexican Americans, too, can share with the people of Nebraska their pride in their ancestors and their struggles. We have documented a part of our history, our traditions. It was a pleasure to be a part of the team that helped uncover a Nebraska treasure, our Mexican heritage. I share the sentiment of one tradition bearer-"I'm not from Mexico, but I am from my parents; they were from Mexico and that is something I feel proud of."


1 The term "green card" refers to documents carried by legal aliens within the United States as proof of their legal status.

2 La Llorona is a woman who drowns her children in a river as revenge for her husband's infidelities. The children are gathered into the protection of heaven. The remourseful Llorona endlessly searches for her children along the rivers of the world, wailing, wailing, wailing. She might take you if she finds you.


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