Robert Navarro - Latino Minister and Activist
How did Rev. Robert Navarro influence the members of the South Omaha community?
Reverend Robert Navarro: A Visionary for South Omaha
One of the many problems Mexican American people in Omaha faced during the late 1960s was unemployment. This meant that they were not able to buy food or pay the bills that they had. Mexican Americans who did have work felt they were being exploited. They were paid lower wages than other workers, had fewer job opportunities, and were exploited for labor because they came from immigrant families with few resources.
Another problem facing Mexican Americans was poor education. The education system did not want students to speak Spanish in the schools. Additionally, teachers discouraged Mexican-American students from going to college. This was not good for the Mexican-American image because not many of them went to college.
The city of Omaha was experiencing a time of segregation, causing Mexican Americans to be treated unequally. There were threats of deportation, which made them feel unwelcome in the United States. Housing was not available because other community members refused to rent or sell their properties to Mexican Americans. Discrimination was being shown to the Chicanos just because they came from immigrant families, and they lacked many resources. They did not have any traditions like parades or parties that they usually had in their home country. Because of this, there was unequal treatment being shown in Omaha due to segregation, and many community members felt they were losing their culture and sense of pride.
Published on July 22, 2016
Video: 4 minute interview with Reynaldo Cervantes a friend of Navarro’s and artist Hugo Zamorano who worked on the Mexican American mural that features Navarro.
Robert Navarro and His Solutions
Robert Navarro was an intelligent and articulate leader in the South Omaha community. He became involved in Gethsemane Church, the first Lutheran Hispanic Ministry Church in Omaha. Later, he was appointed their pastor from 1969 to 1972. Navarro helped raise money and bring in donations for the food pantry, as well as start after-school programs for the community. In fact, students were discouraged from getting a college education because they were expected to work the same hard jobs as their parents. To address this issue, Reverend Navarro encouraged the incorporation of history and Latino culture classes for the youth, and began language programs for students who were not allowed to speak Spanish at school. The classes helped maintain their heritage, and encouraged Latinos who had low self-esteem to have more pride in their cultural identity.
(Above is a photo of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in 1945. It used to be located at 1901 Castelar St. in Omaha, Nebraska. This is where Reverend Navarro started outreach programs, a food pantry, and a crisis aid fund. In 2016 it still stands, but is currently a residence. Photo is courtesy of the One World Health Center.)
These programs eventually grew to become the Chicano Awareness Center, which Robert Navarro helped found in 1971. The Chicano Awareness Center helped Mexican Americans become part of the Chicano movement that was gaining attention across the United States. Chicanos gained confidence in their culture, and rallied together against discrimination. They had access to resources, which helped members of the community find jobs, encouraging bilingualism within the community. In 2016, the Chicano Awareness Center remains in South Omaha, and is now called the Latino Center of the Midlands.
From the moment Navarro planted the seed for the center, the available resources for Mexican Americans there have grown. They now offer Adult Basic Education, which includes General Education Development (GED) math, basic literacy, and pre-GED skills development in reading, writing, and math in Spanish. In addition to this, they also encourage community service efforts, and programs that keep young people in school. Still today, the Latino Center of the Midlands of South Omaha helps the Latino community feel more united.
The Indian Chicano Health Center
(This photo captures some artifacts from the Indian Chicano Health Center. On the left is a flier that shows the services they provided, and their operating hours. All services were free. On the right is a photo of Reverend Navarro dressed in a leather jacket, standing in front of the temporary location of the Indian Chicano Health Center. The photo on the right is courtesy of Reynaldo Cervantes.)
Robert Navarro also helped found the Indian Chicano Health Center in 1970, an organization that provided medical attention for free. This is significant because many Chicanos did not speak English and there weren’t many doctors in that area. And because Native Americans and Chicanos did not have enough money to see doctors, the center was able to provide access to health for this community in ways they could not before. In 2016, the Indian Chicano Health Center is called the One World Health Center, and provides affordable healthcare services based on income for the South Omaha community.
Robert Navarro’s legacy continues to live on, both in the organizations he supported and in a mural in South Omaha’s La Plaza de la Raza. Even though Navarro was only in Omaha for three years, he impacted the lives of the South Omaha community. People like Navarro should be memorialized so their stories can be told and become visible in this world.
(The image above shows two different details of the Mexican American mural, located on 24th and N streets. On the left is a full view of the mural located at the Plaza de la Raza. Lead by artist Hugo Zamorano and a team of artists, this mural memorializes Reverend Navarro (depicted on the right), and tells the story of the South Omaha community. Photo taken by Michelle L.)
Although not much is written about Rev. Robert Navarro’s personal life, his role as a grassroots activist left an outstanding impact on the South Omaha community. The archives that document Rev. Robert Navarro in Omaha, Nebraska, states he was only active for three years (1969–1972) before he was called to Texas to bring his leadership skills there. Thus, what the students of Omaha Public Schools have written for this project attempts to gather, synthesize, and reinforce the legacy of Rev. Navarro, one that is largely unrecognized and undocumented. Moreover, he is among some of the most important figures in the Omaha community who have not received a formal memorialization.* Despite these research challenges, the students were still able to capture the depth of Navarro’s influence in Omaha thanks to our interlocutors, Reynaldo Cervantes and Hugo Zamorano.
As a contemporary and colleague of Rev. Navarro, Reynaldo Cervantes recalled fond memories of the reverend. In the interview, he was able to share with the students both Rev. Navarro’s leadership in multiple community organizations and his presence in Omaha with vibrancy. Hugo Zamorano, on the other hand, offered a different perspective of Rev. Navarro’s impact, one that reflected his legacy and the sustainability of his vision. As the lead artist commissioned for the Mexican American Mural in La Plaza de la Raza, Zamorano described how the components of the mural came together, what histories and stories did and did not make it to the work, and his impression of Rev. Navarro as a historical figure. Using oral histories as the primary resources for this project, the students ultimately are showing how Rev. Navarro planted the seeds for immense change in the South Omaha community.
*Note: Reverend Robert Navarro is included in the South Omaha Mexican American Mural located in La Plaza de la Raza, but there is no memorialization at the organizations or sites that he primarily influenced. These would include the Gethsemane Lutheran Church, formerly located on 1901 Castelar St. but now a residence; the Chicano Awareness Center, now named Latino Center for the Midlands; and the many locations of the Indian-Chicano Health Center that has become the One World Health Center.
2016 MIHV Project
"The best experience was that I got to interview a muralist and an activist, and that it made me more confident in talking to others, and speaking aloud to people. I also learned about the history of Robert Navarro, and tried to memorialize him because he did something for the community that people in Omaha did not know about."
- Noe C.
"I thought the program would be just like a summer camp just going places instead of doing research. I learned how to write journals and do research about history in Omaha. Before I didn’t know a lot about the South Omaha community or the past but now I know a lot more about it. I did not brain storm as much, nor was a critical thinker, but through practice I’m not as scared to speak in front of large crowds. The best part of the experience was exploring Omaha and learning how to do a professional interview with a camera."
- Boris F.
"The best part of this experience for me was the interviews and going out in the public to find research. It really pushed me out of my comfort zone. . . This program has changed me because I’ve become a little more confident and comfortable with working with people and speaking out loud."
- Jaleana P.
Arbelaez, Maria (2007). Religion and Community: Mexican Americans in South Omaha (1900-1980). OLLAS Special Report No. 4. Omaha, NE: Office of Latino/ Latin American Studies (OLLAS) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Harding, David. “Latino Youth Had a Friend in Navarro.” World Herald, December 18, 2005.
Latino Center of the Midlands. https://www.latinocenter.org/
Martens, Steven. “Pastor Aims to Buttress Chicano Community.” World Herald, August 5, 1996.
Interview with Hugo Zamorano, conducted July 19, 2016.
Interview with Reynaldo Cervantes, conducted July 18, 2016.
For more information on the Chicano Movement, you can refer to the 2013 Student Project on the Chicano Movement.
For more information on South Omaha Mural project, please refer to the Plaza de la Raza Mural Project. https://www.southomahamuralproject.com/
Research combined by Noe C., Jaleana P., Boris F.
Jaleana P. and Boris F. are students at Central High School, and Noe C. is a student at South O. Jaleana enjoys writing short stories, quotes, and poetry. In his free time, Boris plays the saxophone and can do backflips. Noe likes to play soccer outside and his favorite subject is math.