By Baylee Vrtiska
Pablo Cervantes arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 2001 with hope for a new future, but soon found himself struggling in a new country, where he had nothing.
Cervantes, who fell in love with dance while growing up in Mexico, had toured Nebraska with a traveling Mexican dance company. While performing in Lincoln, he met a group of people who encouraged him to move here to be a dance teacher. So he did, not realizing that the dance position was not paid.
“I started looking for jobs, trying to learn English, finding food, finding shelter,” he said. “People didn’t know me, and they helped me.”
Cervantes attributes a lot of his success to those who invited him into their community and showed him the way at a time when he felt lost. That’s why today, he’s always looking for ways to both show appreciation to his home community while encouraging those who are new.
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Four years ago, Christa Yoakum had an idea to help welcome New Americans into the community. It involved music, food, dancing and bringing people together, and she would call it “Lincoln Unites!”
“This event is an opportunity to break down some of those barriers so that people can get to know each other and stop thinking about what they’re seeing on the news,” said Yoakum, who is Nebraska Appleseed’s Nebraska Is Home coordinator.
The fourth annual Lincoln Unites! event will be held at the Nebraska History Museum on Friday, May 10, from 1:30-7 p.m. Activities include a citizenship ceremony, free international food, performers from around the world, interactive booths and a film festival in the evening.
Exposing people to different cultural traditions is important, said Rebecca Reinhardt, the cultural program coordinator at the Asian Community and Cultural Center who helps bring international performers to the event.
“We have so many people from different countries, and I think that makes Lincoln so special, so unique,” she said. “We can share cultures, and we can learn from each other.”
One of Yoakum’s favorite moments of this event occurred during the first year, when it was held at the Bourbon Theatre. At one point during the day, a crowd of people from a variety of cultures danced with one another on the dance floor.
“I was just like, this is what it’s all about,” she said. “These are just people having a good time, sharing music. It was so wonderful.”
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In 2006, five years after Cervantes arrived in Lincoln, he decided to pursue citizenship. He had just gotten married, and he wanted to take that next step and make the United States his home.
The process took over two years, and during that time he had frequent nightmares of being deported to Mexico and was haunted by fearful thoughts.
What happens if they don’t want me here anymore?
What happens if they don’t renew my permit?
But then, in 2008, Cervantes became a U.S. citizen.
“I finally got to release my doubts, and it was a feeling you can’t describe,” he said. “It’s like somebody welcoming you into their home and then saying, ‘OK, now you are a part of the family.’”
Last year, Cervantes got to watch others take the same step he did many years ago when he gave the opening speech at the Lincoln Unites! citizenship ceremony, one of the day’s more popular activities. He told the story of how he became a citizen and the challenges he overcame.
“When I see people swearing to be American citizens, I always have hope,” he said. “These guys are the strongest and the smartest, and they can help the community be better.”
But with this incredible honor comes responsibility from both new and American-born citizens, Cervantes noted.
“I’m going to make sure that if I have immigrants coming in that want to be a part of our community, I will welcome them, but I will make sure they know what their responsibilities will be,” he said. “I will be a good neighbor because if they do well, I will do well.”
And that’s why Cervantes believes events like Lincoln Unites! are important for the community. It’s an opportunity for people to come together and learn from each other.
This year 40 people will participate in the citizenship ceremony at Lincoln Unites! This is more than ever before, and Yoakum is looking forward to it.
“If you’ve ever seen the emotion of someone and the pride they have when they’re getting their citizenship, you will get goosebumps,” she said.
Reinhardt knows this feeling well because she felt it during her citizenship ceremony in 2006.
“I remember I got chills. It was just an honor,” Reinhardt recalled. “When the judge gave me the certificate, I was very emotional in that moment. It was a big thing for our family.”
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Cervantes went from being homeless to now owning a real estate company that specializes in affordable housing. Dancing is also still a large part of his life, and he runs three different dance groups. All of them have performed at Lincoln Unites! over the past few years.
Cervantes encourages Lincoln residents to come to Lincoln Unites! and welcome their new neighbors, for the sake of their community.
“I learned there a few things in life that will bring humans together: food, music and the arts,” Cervantes said. “It’s easy for any person to enjoy these things. It helps us unite.”