The lunch crowd for Taco Thursday is thick and talkative. Booming laughter bounces from every corner of the GI Forum restaurant on south 20th Street. Working-class clientele, families, and the occasional white-collar professional fill this old South Omaha standby.
Among the aromas of seasoned beef and fried tortilla shells wafting in the air is Joe Cabral, a longtime musician and member of the club.
Cabral is a regular at the Thursday lunches, and the club. Similar to a VFW post, the South Omaha Veteran’s and Community Club (formerly the Omaha American GI Forum chapter) started as a Mexican-American veterans and civil organization but is all-embracing and housed upstairs from the restaurant. Through the restaurant and other fundraising ventures, the club supports local military—both active and retired—and their families.
At the national level, the American GI Forum was founded in 1948 by the late Dr. Hector P. Garcia of Texas—who served his medical internship at Creighton University’s St. Joseph Hospital—to combat discriminatory injustices against Mexican-American veterans returning from World War II.
Nebraska’s Omaha chapter was formed in 1957. Regulars have been returning to the GI Forum in South Omaha ever since.
Any effort to learn more about the history of the GI Forum inevitably leads to Cabral, a cheery 81-year-old who is fiercely proud of the establishment. Cabral is a longtime musician and member of the military and community service club. He’s known for raising spirits and sparking astounding conversations.
“I’ve always been blessed with friends,” he says, adding that his wife, friends, and music have kept him going. Many of his best memories are rooted at the GI Forum’s building at 2002 N St. In fact, Cabral was born in a house across the street and still lives nearby.
“The GI Forum, when it started, was just that little building on the corner,” he recalls. “[It was] half of our size now.”
The building had a church basement-like setting, but with a bar and crowded tables and chairs that were rearranged on the weekend for dances. Back in the 1980s, then a young trumpet player in a polka band, Cabral would stop by the GI Forum to have a beer and entertain friendly banter.
“I got involved mostly through music,” he says.
Cabral met a few fellow musicians and began playing rancheras—traditional Mexican songs—at the military and community service club. Cabral pauses a moment, then begins rattling off member names whom he believes were influential to the music and social scene in South Omaha.
At one point in time, nearly “every Mexican from South Omaha belonged to the GI Forum,” he says to illustrate how influential and important the club was to the growth, development, and cultural preservation of Mexican-Americans living in the area. To this day, the restaurant’s walls form a museum of the chapter’s members—decorated military service that spans decades—and the forum’s founding.
Many of those South Omaha people who belong to the club are there because of the affable trumpet player.
“He’s a great member recruiter,” says Philip Lordemann, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1977 to 1982. He was attracted to the club because of its core values, but he joined after hearing about how inviting its members were, he says.
He heard it from Cabral. “He talked me into it.” says Lordemann, now the club’s commander. “I’m a friend of his son’s, and [Cabral] heard about my service and said, ‘you ought to join our club.’ He’s probably the number one reason I’m there.”
Cabral not only takes care of ensuring continued membership of the club, he takes care of the club itself.
“I make sure that we have coolant, and that we have air, and that the pavilion is nice,” Cabral says, downplaying his role as head of the maintenance committee. “I’ve been doing this since 2006 when we expanded the building.”
Indeed, the building did expand. Thanks to Cabral and other’s recruiting efforts, the club doubled in occupancy from about 60-70 people to about 130.
But its his love of music that people recognize.
“He’s an entertainer first and foremost,” Lordemann says. “He enjoys playing at the club. One nice benefit we have is he doesn’t charge us to play.”
And he’s willing to play whenever and wherever.
“If it’s someone’s birthday, he’ll get up and play ‘Happy Birthday’ for them,” says Lordemann. “We’ve got our auto show coming up, chances are he’ll be up there playing. Any time there is something going on where music would make people happier, he’s there. It seems like he’s always got his trumpet with him.”
Visit giforumomaha.org for more information.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.