When looking back on his legacy in the Latinx community of Las Vegas, Otto Merida (1945 - ) takes great pride in being a Latin Chamber of Commerce [LCC] co-founder with Arturo Cambeiro. With the LCC, they forged a powerful economic entity that continues to provide the local Latino community with social and political influence. Growing up during the 1950s in Havana, Otto Merida fondly remembers his childhood despite living under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. There were the murmuring sounds of explosions from afar on the way to baseball games, but also the warm Sunday family meals of Cuban soup with fideos. In this interview, he talks about the rising communist powers inspired by revolutionary Fidel Castro and the events that led his family to place him in the Peter Pan Program in 1961. The Peter Pan Program sent unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States to avoid potential instruction by Castro’s government. Merida still holds on to his mother’s final request upon leaving Cuba-“I want you to remember the address where we live and the phone number: Josefina 68-entre primera y segunda-La Víbora, Havana con el teléfono X4304.” As a part of the Peter Pan Program, Merida experienced a nomadic childhood living in barracks in Miami and a three-story home in Wilmington, DE. The only connection he had to his family were a series of letters he exchanged with his mother, until they reunited years later in Miami. For Merida, life on 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard in Miami was defined by the values of his family and other Cubans and African Americans in his neighborhood. v Merida earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Florida. He credits his sister-in-law with a pivotal role in his decision to pursue a higher education. His engagement in politics continued through his involvement with the Cuban Circle, the first Hispanic community to be involved with politics in Las Vegas. He describes the migration of Cubans to the casino scene of Las Vegas and the presence of Cubans in the community. His work with the Cuban Circle inspired him to develop a political presence for Hispanics in the community. While travelling across the United States before settling in Las Vegas, Merida made many significant relationships while working with associations such as the Fitchburg Chamber of Commerce and Volunteers in Service to America [VISTA]. Living in Las Vegas, Otto Merida worked as an educator and community organizer. In the late 1970s, Merida and Arturo Cambeiro collaborated to create the Latin Chamber of Commerce of Las Vegas. For Merida, the Chamber consistently goes above and beyond the vision he and Cambeiro had created when they first opened their doors. From the creation of the Latino Youth Leadership Program at UNLV to their work alongside political figures such as Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto, Merida is extremely proud of the various accomplishments of the Chamber. Now as President Emeritus, Otto Merida continues to dedicate himself to the Chamber as a volunteer and serves as one of the many Latinx Voices of Southern Nevada that have shaped the greater Las Vegas community.
Robert “Bob” Agonia (1938- ) was born in Garden Grove, California on a migrant camp made up of Filipino and Mexican-American workers. Agonia’s father was a farmer on a 70 acre farm owned by the Beggs family. Agonia did not spend much time living on the migrant camp, as his father moved the family to a private residence when Agonia was four. Agonia attended school, during an era of school desegregation in Garden Grove. He recalls that his mother dealt with segregation during her schooling, being forced to attend a school miles down the road from her home despite living across the street from another school. Agonia recalls his community being very diverse with families sharing Filipino and Mexican-American heritage and his neighbors being Japanese Americans. Agonia participated in a multicultural Boy Scout troop. After high school, Agonia joined the Peace Corps and served in El Salvador. While there, Agonia worked in an agricultural research center in Santa Tecla where he helped local farmers select the proper insecticide for their crops. After the Peace Corps, Agonia had his choice of government jobs, ultimately selecting to work for the Internal Revenue Service. Agonia’s work with the IRS is what eventually brought him from California to Las Vegas. He quickly realized that the type of IRS cases he would be handling in Las Vegas were completely different from the work he was accustomed to in California. One of those unique cases required him to close the doors of a downtown casino. Since moving to Las Vegas, Agonia was critical in establishing a Las Vegas LULAC chapter, an American GI Forum, an EEO council, and the UNLV Engineering school.
Interviewed by Claytee White. Born in Florida, family arrived in Las Vegas in 1969. Father worked in the service industry. Worked as realtor before becoming President of the Latin Chamber of Commerce. Vice chairman of Hope for Prisoners and Vice Chairman of Workforce Connection.
Known for “raising hell and making a difference” in the Las Vegas Valley, Thomas Rodriguez has dedicated more than four decades of his life to the political, educational, and social advancement of the Latinx community. Tom was born in 1940 to Jennie Gomez and Joseph Rodriguez in a Topeka, Kansas neighborhood its residents called The Bottoms. Mexicans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, African Americans, among other peoples lived in this diverse and beloved community. In 1956, the Urban Renewal Program, a program funded by the Federal Government that sought to raze neighborhoods the city considered to be “slums,” forced The Bottoms’ residents to abandon their homes. Rodriguez recalled the effects that this event had on his family and on his educational career. Despite his family’s relocation, he graduated from a high school located in a nearby neighborhood in 1958. Years later, the activism and ideology of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s taught Rodriguez that to overcome the injus
Liliam Lujan Hickey was born in 1932 Havana, Cuba, where her father owned an insurance company and her mother was a music teacher. At age 17, Liliam married Enrique Lujan who owned five casinos and who was twelve years her senior. It was the early 1950s, and the people of Cuba lived with stark distinctions between upper class and low-income families. Liliam and Enrique lived a life of luxury. She became accustomed to flying to New York for dinner and wearing the finest Italian silks for custom dresses. Then in 1959, Liliam’s life took a vast turn as Fidel Castro rose to power and seized assets from the wealthy class. This upended Liliam’s family and in 1962, Liliam, Enrique and their three children fled to the United States. They first arrived in San Diego, California, where Liliam took a job at the Scripps Clinic. While Liliam spoke five different languages, she attended night school to learn English. Eventually, Liliam and her family moved to Las Vegas where Enrique could find work in the casinos. Unexpectedly in 1972, Enrique passed away, leaving Liliam and her children to fend for themselves. Liliam was thrust into the role of matriarch; she learned how to write a check and drive a car. She describes this as a period when her community activism awoke, how she secured a position working for the Nevada Welfare Administration Office, and how her persistent spirit led her to citizenship within a week. Through friends, Liliam met Nevada legislator Thomas Hickey, an Irish American who she endearingly nicknamed her Pink Husband. Liliam credits Senator Hickey with teaching her about life and the world, and ultimately inspiring much of her political activism. She was an active member of the Latin Chamber of Commerce, first known as el Circulo Cubano. At the peak of her career, Liliam became the first Latina to be elected to the Nevada State Board of Education. She envisioned building a village through schools in order to support and help all students be successful. A local Las Vegas school, Liliam Lujan Hickey Elementary School, was named in honor of her public service. Today, Liliam is retired, but continues to work to increase civic engagement in the Latinx community and improve our educational system.
Interviewed by Nathalie Martinez. Larry Mason is an Arizona native that moved to Las Vegas as a Higher Education Administrator. He was born in Tuscon, Arizona, but grew up mostly in East Los Angeles and his "Gramitas" ranch in Sonora, Mexico. He has a history in athletics as a basketball player in his upbringing which brought him to play at the New Mexico Highlands University and the European League. Earning a Masters in Education, Larry Mason came to Las Vegas to become the first Latino Director of Admissions at UNLV, first Latino President of the Board of Education, and first Latino Vice President of the Board of Education in the Clark County School District. He launched an incredible amount of movements within the educational field in Las Vegas including (but not limited to): the Mariachi program, the magnet school program, and the growth of the Diversity Division within the NSHE. Some of his greatest supporters and allies included Senator Harry Reid, John Lujan and Tom Rodriguez. Mason continues to work as a community leader for minority representation in STEM fields, as a board member for the Nevada STEM Coalition.
On the corner of 7th street and Clark, and beside the tennis courts of Las Vegas Academy, stands the law office of attorney Eva Garcia Mendoza. Eva has worked in her office since 1982, and in this time she has helped the Las Vegas community work through civil and immigration cases besides aiding in a myriad of other ways. Eva Garcia Mendoza was born in 1950, in the town of McAllen, TX-an environment that perpetuated hatred of Mexican Americans. Eva recalls the racism she endured; for instance, being spanked if she spoke Spanish in school, and her family facing job discrimination because of her skin color or her last name. Being an ethnic and financial minority was difficult, and Eva remembers nights as a child when she would cry herself to sleep. Eva showed resilience in the face of adversity as she states, “you rise to the level of your teachers’ expectations.” With the encouragement of her band professor, Dr. L.M Snavely, she began higher education at Pan American College. She moved to Las Vegas in 1971 and began to work before being accepted at UNLV to study Spanish literature. She graduated in the class of 1973. In 1975, Eva applied to become a court interpreter, a decision that would drastically change the trajectory of her career. She earned the coveted position and began to work beside Judge John Mendoza who was the first Latino elected to public office in the state of Nevada. Several years later John and Eva would wed. Judge Mendoza passed away in 2011. Eva talks about how extraordinary his legacy is-from his professional achievements to a story about his v football days and the 1944 Dream Team, this true story even piqued the interest of Hollywood writers. Through her work, Eva began to notice how she was more than qualified to become a lawyer herself, so she applied and gained a full ride scholarship to the Law School of San Diego University. Eva describes the struggles of attending school in San Diego while her spouse and children were home in Las Vegas. Despite the financial difficulties, being one of few minority students, and becoming pregnant her second year, Eva was able to finish her remaining university credits by returning to Las Vegas and working with Judge Mendoza. Together, they started the Latin Bar Association. Eva began her own practice in 1981 and would later partner with Luther Snavely, who was the son of her band teacher that helped her to attend college so many years back. Today, Eva has a new partner at her office and hired her son to work as a secretary. Eva also tells of the office’s mysterious history, of which includes a ghostly figure many clients claimed to have seen in the reception room. Eva recounts many of her professional achievements, such as petitioning to start the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Nevada Chapter, representing celebrities, winning the unwinnable cases such as against the Nevada Test Site. Eva talks about current events, such as today’s immigration laws, the discriminatory practices of revoking birth certificates from those born in Brownsville, TX., and about the importance of the #MeToo movement. Eva and her family have a great fondness for Las Vegas. The support for the Latinx community in Las Vegas greatly contrasts that which she experienced as a child in southern Texas. She describes wanting to take her children and grandchildren to visit her old home in McAllen, TX where her family grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks.”
In his lifetime, Eleazar Martinez has climbed both literal and figurative mountains as an avid outdoorsman and social justice advocate for Latinx issues. Born in Sweetwater, Texas, Eleazar (Al for short) grew up connected to the land and his family. Al comes from a large family with strong ties in Texas and Mexico. His mother worked the fields and his father was a construction worker who instilled in their children the importance of a strong work ethic and the pursuit of an education. Al shares about growing up during a time when Spanish was banned from schools and children would get punished if they were caught using their home languages. His experiences developed his aspiration to serve his community and fight for people’s rights. After a short stint in the Navy, Al followed his instincts and sought out a college education and majored in sociology. His interest in social issues lead him to serve in a range of roles from psychiatric support, community education outreach, and counseling. At one point, Al even helped mediate tensions between gangs and law enforcement in order to prevent violence from erupting. Since arriving in Las Vegas in 1998, Al has been working alongside diverse communities to build solidarity. Today, he works as a supervisor for the Whitney Recreation Center and leader in Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO). As Al would describe himself, he is “a proud Mexican Latino American, a Tejano with a Chicano attitude”.
Session 1: Interviewed by Elsa Lopez. Rosemary's parents originated from Sonora, Mexico where her father worked in the strawberry fields and her mother was a kindergarten teacher. Her father, in search for a better life, came to Nevada after he heard of jobs available in the Northern Nevada mines. The two met and settled down in Reno after her mother became enamored with the beauty of Lake Tahoe. Rosemary and her four younger siblings grew up in Reno with their parents until the divorce. Her father soon joined the army during the Korean war and felt that it would be best if Rosemary and her siblings lived with their grandmother back in Mexico. There they stayed for two years, and although she missed her family and did not speak much Spanish, she recalls her time there with fondness. She eventually moved back to Reno and finished high school, graduating in the top 20. She married afterwards and had her son as well. After some convincing from her husband, Rosemary enrolled into the University of Nevada, Reno and graduated with a major in Secondary Education with a specialty in Physics and Math. Rosemary became further involved in community outreach and non-profit programs such as Founding Hispanic Youth Image, Co-founding ALITAS, being a board member for the Title XX Commission, and being a Chair for the Latino Youth Leadership Conference. She has two children and is currently working at UNLV with the program Multicultural Education Services Alliance (MESA) as a Family Engagement Specialist. Subjects: Reno Nevada, UNLV, Multicultural Education, Family Engagement, Activism; Session 2: Interviewed by Elsa Lopez. This is a continuation of a previous interview. We have asked Rosemary Q. Flores to tell us more about her work in the Multicultural Education Services Alliance. We also spoke more about her family and early childhood in Mexico while she was away from her family.
Interviewed by Laurents Bañuelos-Benitez. Gustavo Ramos Junior was born in Presidio, Texas. Growing up Ramos described his childhood as simple childhood, typical of someone that was born on farmland. At the age 10, Ramos and his family moved to California in hopes of better opportunities. When they arrived in California the family had to live in public housing, despite his father not wanting to, he realized it was the only way his family could start anew. Living in public housing influenced Ramos for the rest of his life, including his career as director of public housing in three states.