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Anadelia Lamas
Anadelia Lamas. photo by Karrie Rowan

Anadelia Lamas: Planting Roots

by Wendy Townley

It was supposed to be a time of joy and anticipation—high school commencement closing one chapter of life, another just beginning.

For Anadelia Lamas, though, it was a time of heartache. In 1997, not long before graduating from Bridgeport High School in the Nebraska panhandle, Lamas was dealt a crushing blow: the death of her father, Nicolas. She describes the passing of her 41-year-old father as "an unexpected and tragic death in relation to alcoholism," understandably unwilling to say much more.

The tragedy, however, would help shape Lamas into the strong woman she is today. She was inspired to carry on her father's legacy as a proud Mexican, and she learned that life doesn't always deal you the best hand.

"It brought our family closer in many ways because we dealt with it together," says the 25-year-old Lamas, who today directs a federally funded City of Omaha program that benefits the community's Spanish speakers. "It was difficult, but what doesn't kill us just makes us stronger. Life is full of lessons, and we all grew from that experience."

Nicolas and Consuelo Lamas, both born in Mexico, were migrant workers who moved from Texas to western Nebraska in 1991. They wanted more for their four children and encouraged them to seek opportunities beyond western Nebraska's borders. Anadelia did just that in 1997, moving to Lincoln after her father's death to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study speech pathology.

Her heart didn't make the move, though. Rather than work toward a career in speech pathology, Lamas longed to honor her culture and her heritage, and to help other Spanish-speaking families carve out a better life.

And so Lamas transferred to UNO the following year, changing her major to Spanish with a minor in Chicano/Latino Studies. She also joined the Association of Latino American Students, an organization designed to unite Latino students at the university level. Lamas found inspiration and a sense of community in the ALAS, and, spurred by a UNO advisor, in 2002 helped form a UNO chapter of the Latina sorority Lambda Theta Nu.

Lamas admits UNO wasn't lacking sorority opportunities for female students. She and other Latinas, however, were seeking a greater focus on community service beyond UNO's borders. Also, she adds, "I felt that there wasn't much representation or leadership of Latinas at our university," Lamas says.

UNO's Lambda Theta Nu chapter, founded with 10 members, was the first of its kind in Nebraska and one of about 25 such sororities around the country. "We're setting the foundation for Latina sororities at the university level and across Nebraska," Lamas says.

Rather than hosting "rush" events in the fall or pie-eating contests during homecoming week, the sorority began its first year blitzing the Omaha community with a handful of volunteer projects and fund-raising events. They spent time at the Latina Resource Center and Juan Diego Center. They volunteered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and donated money to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. "When we started it, there was so much energy between the group." Lamas says. "It enhanced their (members') leadership skills as we went through our educational process. That was our goal. We wanted to have a group to show the energy and leadership of Latina women on our campus."

The sorority was another way Lamas honored her late father's legacy. "He was respectful of people and taught us the importance of that," Lamas says. "He encouraged our independence, yet reminded us to keep our traditional values. He was very proud of being Mexican."

Lamas spent only a year tending to the roots of the young sorority before she graduated in 2002 with a bachelor's degree. Her experience, though, provided a springboard for further community involvement.

Lamas became a paraprofessional at Spring Lake Elementary School in South Omaha. She worked as a teacher's assistant in a second grade classroom, primarily with Spanish-speaking students learning English. She also worked with troubled youth at the United Methodist Community Center's Wesley House in north Omaha. The facility is for teenagers 14 through 17 who were referred to it by the Juvenile Court of Douglas County.

Work at the Wesley House was taxing on Lamas, who says it was hard to leave the day's struggles behind. Some of the youth came from troubled backgrounds and had problems with the law. "I learned a lot of patience, and it reiterated a lot of things, as far as family and how things affect youth later in their lives," Lamas says.

She continued to juggle both positions for about a year and considered returning to school to earn her teaching certificate. But in late 2002, at a friend's suggestion, Lamas applied for an opening as coordinator of the Weed and Seed program in south Omaha. The organization's goal is "weeding out criminal activity, seeding in neighborhood opportunity," and fostering a better relationship between residents and local police officials.

For another time in her young life, Lamas changed directions. She was hired as South Omaha's Weed and Seed coordinator in February 2003, occupying an office in the LaFern Williams Center. The City of Omaha employs Lamas, using federal grant dollars earmarked for the Weed and Seed program. She's the program's only employee, but reports to the mayor's and U.S. Attorney's offices. "I have a lot of bosses, but no bosses," Lamas jokes.

Of South Omaha's Weed and Seed jurisdiction, 43.5 percent of the residents are of Hispanic origin. The average per capita income is $12,659 (2003 figures issued by the national Weed and Seed office). It's a part of the city, Lamas says, that continually needs community support. She points to a recent South Omaha education program offered in conjunction with the Omaha Police Department, where 22 members of the South Omaha community graduated "with such pride" from high school. "I felt a sense of accomplishment to see them feel more confident and knowledgeable of their surroundings and their community. It's exciting to see that more people in the community are familiar with the Weed and Seed strategy."

Lamas works closely with the Omaha Police Department's community relations group and crime prevention specialist. She uses her dual-language skills to interpret documents from English to Spanish. She writes grants, plans events and works extensively with the public.

"I am not in the least surprised to see her grow in her professional life as she has," says Lourdes Gouveia, director of UNO's Latino/Latina America Studies program. Gouveia worked extensively with Lamas at UNO, hiring her to work in the Chicano-Latino Studies department.

The ever-busy Lamas does manage to find time for herself. She previously performed with an all-female mariachi group known as Mariachi Las Palomas and recently began exploring a solo music career as a singer.

But community help remains her modus operandi. She continues to work with Lambda Theta Nu members, serving as a go-between for the sorority with South Omaha. She's also helping her Greek sisters plan the National Executive Board Leadership Conference, held this fall at UNO. More than 100 women from Lambda Theta Nu chapters in California, Texas and Colorado will attend.

"Every experience has been memorable," Lamas says. "I am passionate about it. I enjoy problem solving and things we can do for our community."

Nicolas Lamas would be proud.

e-mail author Wendy Townley at wendy@wendytownley.com
e-mail the editor at aflott@mail.unomaha.edu

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