Roger Garcia has a lot of work to do—relationships to build, programs to create, grants to obtain, and people to help.
Yet the 29-year-old dismisses the notion that his role is “work.” He prefers words like mission, passion, and joy; all of which compelled Garcia on his daily commute to Lincoln’s outreach center for Hispanic and Latin Americans.
Garcia served as director of Lincoln’s El Centro de las Americas from 2012 until recently, when he accepted a similar role as the executive director of Centro Latino of Council Bluffs. Although Garcia is happy to “work” closer to his wife, Yanira, and their south Omaha home, his drive to help the community still borders on obsessive.
In each person that Garcia helps, he sees the struggle that his mother, Margarita, endured decades ago.
Initially an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, Margarita gained a path to citizenship through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Roger’s father, a documented Mexican immigrant, was psychologically abusive and controlling. By 1994, Margarita had enough of him and Los Angeles. She took her youngest of three sons and left for the third and final time.
She grabbed 8-year-old Roger and packed up the few things she owned. Somehow, she coaxed a beat-up old Buick nearly 1,500 miles eastward into Nebraska. She eventually landed in Columbus for a job with the meatpacking industry. Holding only one job satisfied neither her work ethic nor demands on her pocketbook. She took up welding, baking, even cosmetology—whatever it took. Today, her knees are shot, but she owns and manages three rental properties between Omaha and Columbus.
“She loves this country, and she worked her butt off,” says Garcia, who remembers his mother going to work at 4 a.m. so she could get him to school every morning during her break. “People like my mom just want to work hard and provide for their family.”
The people who come through Garcia’s door are reminiscent of his mother. They are looking for the same things. They want a better life for their children. They don’t readily ask for handouts, he says.
Garcia’s commitment to the region’s Latino community runs deeper than esteem and pride for his mother’s accomplishments. He grew up in rural Nebraska. He feels compelled to help those enduring similar experiences.
He encountered racism in childhood. Once, a pair of white adults accosted Garcia and his fourth-grade classmate with racial slurs. The adults kicked the kids off their bicycles. Such experiences motivated a short-lived denunciation of his heritage in the fifth grade. “I said, ‘No, I’m not Mexican. I’m not Honduran,’” says Garcia, clearly pained by the memory. “I didn’t want to be discriminated against.”
Thanks to music, Garcia eventually found solace and comfort in his own skin. “Through American rock music, I learned that it doesn’t matter how you look,” he says.
His sense of ethnic identity became more complex while pursuing dual degrees in psychology and Latino/Latin American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The occasional volunteer worker at the Omaha Boys and Girls Club found his calling. By the time he finished his undergraduate studies, he had earned UNO’s vice chancellor award for student leadership.
He moved on to Bellevue University to pursue a master’s degree in public administration, and became more immersed in Omaha’s Latino community. He met with elected officials, served as a community liaison for then-Mayor Jim Suttle, and met with other college campus groups and leaders.
He joined El Centro de las Americas in Lincoln as the center’s director and quickly elevated it to new heights. Beatty Brasch, the executive director of Lincoln’s Center for People in Need and a board member of El Centro, laments Garcia’s recent departure.
“He did a remarkable job. He brought the community together and developed programs there for a lot of people,” she says. “We’re sorry he’s leaving. I wish he stayed.”
His list of accomplishments garnered a new accolade in 2015 when he was listed as one of the Jaycees’ Ten Outstanding Young Omahans in the 83rd annual TOYO! awards.
That’s what happens when a passion becomes “a calling on a spiritual level.”
As Garcia and his future wife, Yanira, built their relationship, they also forged a deeper connection to their Christian faith.
“On our first date he asked me if I would ever date anybody who wasn’t a believer,” she says. “I said, ‘No.’”
Two years later, in 2015, they were married, and Roger is now pursuing a doctorate in theology with an eye toward possibly launching his own ministry.
Until then, there is indeed a lot to be done, but none of it should be confused with toil.
“It’s what we should all be doing as believers,” he says. “It’s not an obligation. It’s a joy. It’s a joy to spread His love.”
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