On Good Friday, Cecilia Olivarez Huerta rests in a hospital bed in her second-floor apartment.
An oxygen machine hums. A rosary twines around the bed’s side rail.
Her grown children feed her ice chips and hold her hand.
The walls are painted Cecilia’s colors — teal and bright yellow and burnt orange. Art covers the walls and lines the shelves, woven mats and Mexican dolls and metal suns.
Just like home.
“We brought her familiar things,” says her daughter, Anita Olivarez Eisenhauer.
Three of Cecilia’s four children are here — Anita back from New York and Monica from Sioux City, Iowa, and Michael, who lives here in Lincoln along with the oldest sibling, Janet Fiala, who will arrive soon.
But first, a priest arrives to hear Cecilia’s confession and pray with her and administer the Sacrament of the Sick.
Old friends come, too. Holly Burns, who knows Cecilia as a mentor, a colleague, a friend.
Annie Mumgaard, bearing Cecilia’s small dogs — Chiquita and Como Tu — the beloved pets she had to give up before she came to this assisted-living facility in Fallbrook.
Cecilia is in hospice now. Her kidneys are failing and the retired executive director of the Mexican-American Commission made the decision to not seek further medical treatment.
The word has spread.
Flowers come and cards from admirers such as former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, who recalls their meetings and his lasting respect.
Over the Easter weekend, her room fills again with family and friends and the smell of menudo, the traditional tripe and hominy stew she served to so many over so many years.
Those who know her best call her a servant leader. A living example of Cesar Chavez.
They point to a saying inscribed on a table near her bed: There was always room in the warmth and safety of La Familia for one more person, be that person stranger or friend.
They tick off her accomplishments: the Meatpackers Bill of Rights, an award-winning history of Nebraska’s Mexican Heritage, the DREAM Act, service on a Presidential Diversity Advisory Committee, inclusion in the Library of Congress.
They point to her many awards from the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, the Women of Color Conference, the YWCA, Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration, Heartland Latino Leadership.
Imagine a quilt, says Holly. Imagine the history of Nebraska.
“She is the person who threaded the history of Mexican-Americans into that quilt.”
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Cecilia’s story began in western Nebraska in the small town of Bayard, one of five children of first-generation Mexican-Americans.
Her father worked the beet fields and her mother tended to the community.
Cecilia learned hard work as a child, summers spent working in the fields, and she learned the importance of reaching out.
“They had a small-town mentality,” Monica says. “To help each other out, the idea that anyone is welcome. If someone needed to be fed, you fed them.”
Cecilia watched her own mother and carried on the tradition, the daughter says.
“She would make a community wherever she went.”
She first came to Lincoln in 1962 to attend the Lincoln School of Commerce — the first Latina from western Nebraska at the college. She met her first husband at Walgreens, working her way through school, and together they had four children.
But she was a mother to many more, says Marty Ramirez.
When he came to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1973 for graduate school and became involved with MASA — the Mexican-American Student Organization — he remembers the students saying: Let’s go to Cecilia’s.
“She was their support. For many of them it was their first time away from home and she didn’t have much, but what she had wasn’t the issue. What she had, she gave.”
The Godmother of MASA, Ramirez says.
When Cecilia’s first marriage ended, she worked two jobs as a single mother.
She took her children to movie double features on Saturdays and gave them chores and cooked roast beef on Sundays after church, always inviting people to join them.
“She gave us the discipline of routines and the discipline of social connections,” Anita says.
And she went to battle for those who had little voice.
“She worked in the beet fields as a child; she knew the drive and the hard work.”
And what immigrants continue to do for America: “They feed us, they clean for us, they pick the fields,” the daughter says. “She knows that immigrants are the backbone of our country.”
Their mother taught them to help anyone in need no matter their race, religion, status or state, says Cecilia’s oldest daughter, Janet.
“And to celebrate who we are — there was lots of dancing.”
Cecilia remarried and moved to Scottsbluff for a decade, and then, in the early ‘90s with her children grown, she returned to Lincoln and went to work for the Mexican-American Commission, eventually becoming its director.
“She went from providing a good social outlook to be in the position to start changing things from a policy position,” Ramirez says. “Cecilia was showing tremendous leadership as a female and a Latina in her community. Speaking up and speaking out.”
Cecilia took Spanish classes as an adult so she could read, write and speak fluently the language of her grandmother and to help new immigrants, too.
She knew the power of history, her friend Holly says.
“Mexican-Americans have been here 100 years, 125 years now. She would help people have an expanded understanding that not everyone who comes into this country came here recently.”
Holly’s mother, Rosa Arsiaga-Burns, and Cecilia were friends. She calls them Soldaderas. Female soldiers.
She remembers going to rallies, standing in front of Safeway in support of the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott. How they taught the importance of their history through food and dance and language.
“Being that role model for girls. You can be who you want to be with no limits.”
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On Good Friday, Cecilia wakes to greet her priest and her friends and her beloved dogs, who settle onto her bed as she coos her love.
She speaks Spanish and English. She recites the Lord’s Prayer, one voice in the circle of voices around her bed.
The room is light.
She talks with her eyes closed. She talks about what is important to her.
“We do everything for everybody,” she says. “It’s not man or woman. It’s just to give all humans compassion.”
To help, she says.
“To help others who need help.”