Ernesto Nieto: 2020 Dia de Los Muertos remembrances
To prepare for the 2020 edition of Dia de los Muertos, we spoke with National Hispanic Institute founder and president Ernesto Nieto about some people that the NHI familia have lost, including two in the past year.
As Nieto shared in an interview on his 80th birthday just a few weeks ago, the current pandemic has affected a number of Latino families throughout the world.
“COVID has been the game stopper that crosses all kinds of ideologies, beliefs, values, lifestyles,” he said. “For Latinos, and what I see with NHIers, is the amount of death, particularly among the elders.
And if you value elders the way we value elders in the Latino community … there are people that have elders in a rest home, but our elders live with us. They have a bedroom and a role in our lives. The amount of tragedy and the amount of emotional loss and psychological and spiritual loss has been huge. And it’s at all socio-economic levels of the Latino community. The reason it means much more is that we don’t dispense with our elderly as other cultures might.”
Richard Lucero, who passed away in April, was an important elder in the NHI familia. At the 2019 Celebración, Richard and his wife Doris were honored as one of NHI’s First Families. The Luceros, involved with NHI since 1979, were instrumental in growing NHI in their hometown of Pueblo and throughout the state of Colorado.
“Richard was a background guy,” Nieto recalled. “He was never boastful … but he was one of those silent angels, whose loyalty and purpose he showed through action, not through words. Richard Lucero made things happen.”
As Nieto recalled, Lucero created a scholarship fund and encouraged parents and other community members to contribute to help Pueblo-area students go through NHI leadership programs.
2020 started with tragedy for NHI, as Violeta Rosales died unexpectedly in a car accident on Jan. 19. She was just 31. As her obituary noted, “Her life motto was to ‘put riches into my thoughts, and not my thoughts on riches.'”
Nieto remembered her as a loyal NHIer, adding that NHI valued “her input into our training programs, and especially her willingness to drop what she was doing to be a faithful NHI supporter, whether it meant conducting an evening meeting in the cold of a Chicago winter, or flying out to assist with our field projects.” Rosales is perhaps best known to NHI students as an educational director for the Northeast CWS.
Though Chris Pluta passed away unexpectedly in 2015, he’s still remembered fondly as one of the most important NHI supporters in growing the organization’s Chicago-area presence.
“Chris Pluta was was a man who wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids,” Nieto recalls. “He wanted them to be leaders and public leaders and public servants,” encouraging them to run for local positions, including City Council seats in his native Summit, Ill.—where there’s now a street named for him. Nieto, hearing that there’s a group that’s formed in the area for aspiring young candidates, said, “When I heard that, I smiled to myself and said, ‘The legacy of Chris Pluta lives on.'”
Another Chicago-area NHI supporter Nieto remembers on this day is Michael Gibbs. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was working with NHI, Nieto remembers her insisting, “We don’t need anecdotal work, we need documented work. We need evidence of our work.” Gibbs, through his Ph.D. research, provided evidence of NHI’s leadership education making a difference for young Latino leaders at a crucial juncture in NHI’s development.
Nieto also fondly remembers Gibbs for opening doors for NHI at DePaul University. “Michael was a guy that designed the process, and made it happen, and allowed us to be very successful in developing a real brand in Chicago.”
But Nieto is also remembering one of NHI’s first-ever students no longer with us. “Rosie Perez was delightful, very courageous, had a very ‘we can do anything’ attitude,” Nieto remembered. Perez, from Weslaco, was part of the foundational 1985 Young Leaders Conference, bringing students from the Rio Grande Valley, Austin, and Houston to Southwestern University.
“Rosie helped because she enjoyed the experience of being part of other people’s lives,” Nieto recalled. “She never asked questions about can we do it. She was always, ‘Let’s go do it.'”
Sam Moreno is an important figure in NHI’s history, helping NHI to grow in Dallas. His legacy lives on through NHI’s Greater Dallas Region, which named its annual 12-hour “intellectual telethon,” the Sam A. Moreno L.E.A.D. Talks, after the former NHI board member and NHI Hall of Fame recipient. He was a pioneering Latino leader in Dallas, as his 2015 obituary in the Dallas Morning News detailed.
“Sam was a guy that was constantly mentoring me on how to be an entrepreneur,” Nieto recalled, as their relationship goes back nearly a decade before NHI was founded. “He was an intellectual of the first degree, he could see through things … he could analyze. And he was always asking questions, He was a very humorous guy, very interesting personality to be around. And he was like an adopted uncle to me.”
For Nieto, his Dia de los Muertos remembrances wouldn’t be complete without his older brother Albert, who passed away in 2005. Albert, who has a police officer in Houston, worked with a number of schools and was instrumental behind the scenes in growing NHI throughout the city.
“He would line up meetings, he would call school principals, because he knew the district. He had worked in it, and they knew him. So he was my broker. And he would go and say “you need to listen to him” and so forth. He was always organizing things for us.”
Nieto recalled one time he was speaking before a group of students in a Houston auditorium. His brother was holding a stack of brochures, marching back and forth behind the podium where he was speaking.
“I finally stopped and I said, ‘Albert, are you okay? Why are you doing this?’ And I remember him saying to me, ‘I’m just waiting for you to shut up so I can distribute these brochures!'”
In seriousness, though, Nieto notes, “He was unafraid to stay on the phone all day long, making calls on our behalf. He did it to make a difference for the organization … that made a huge difference in our success with Houston.”
NHI’s Dia de los Muertos collection book is available to view online.