After decades of professional life filled with service to the Mexican-American community around the nation, Bayard native Cecilia Olivarez Huerta died at her home in Lincoln on May 2, 2019, at the age of 74.
Her Wake and Rosary were scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on June 28 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bayard. Funeral services will be at 10:30 a.m. the next day at the church.
Cecilia was born May 6, 1944 in Bridgeport, the daughter of John and Mary (Valdez) Olivarez. She was one of five children of first generation Mexican-Americans.
Her father worked in the beet fields. That was where Cecilia spent her summers, learning the reward of hard work, well done.
From her mother, she learned the importance of reaching out to the larger community, caring for those who needed help.
Attending Bayard Public Schools, Cecilia graduated in 1962. That fall, she became the first Latina from western Nebraska to attend the Lincoln School of Commerce. While working through school, she met her husband and together they had four children. And, she was like a mother to many more.
By 1973, Cecilia was in graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when she got involved with the Mexican-American Student Association. She became a home away from home for many students who had never been far from their homes before.
After her first marriage ended, Cecilia worked two jobs as a single mother, instilling in her children the importance of helping those in need and being a voice for those with little voice, because she had lived the life.
Along the way, she continued her education, taking courses in business, leadership and Spanish, so she could speak fluently and help new immigrants to America.
When Cecilia remarried, the family moved back west to Scottsbluff for a decade until the early 1990s when her children had grown.
Moving back to Lincoln, she started working with the Mexican American Commission, which later became known as the Nebraska Latino American Commission. She later became the group’s executive director, a position she held until her retirement in 2010.
During her tenure, Cecilia became known as a strong leader who was confident to speak up and speak out. She proposed legislation and conducted hearings and conferences for Latinos living in Nebraska. She was also involved in the Nebraska Meatpackers Bill of Rights and in the Nebraska DREAM Act.
Cecilia was proud of her heritage, collaborating with the Nebraska State Historical Society (now History Nebraska) to document stories of the state’s traditions from the Mexican-American culture.
Another highlight of her career was in 1997 when she was invited by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Presidential Diversity Advisory Committee.
Numerous other awards came from groups like the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, the Women of Color Conference, the YWCA, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration and Heartland Latino Leadership.
Other recognitions include the Nebraska Network 21 Leadership and Vision Award, Human Rights Award by Lincoln Commission, SHEsteem Award, Nebraska Military Department Certificate of Appreciation, Admiral of the Navy of the Great State of Nebraska, Humanitarian Award — Nebraska Commemoration, Lifetime Achievement Award — Latino Heritage Awards and the Barrientos Scholarship Foundation.
In the free time she did have, Cecilia enjoyed her garden and cooking for family and friends, passing along her culinary skills to her children.
On Good Friday 2019, Cecilia was in a hospital bed in her Lincoln apartment. Her kidneys were failing and she declined further medical treatment. She was surrounded by family and friends. A priest also arrived to hear her confession and administer the Sacrament of the Sick.
A table near her bed held an inscription that summed up her life: “There is always room in the warmth and safety of La Familia for one more person, be that person stranger or friend.”
As word spread, flowers and cards from admirers started to pour in. One was from former Nebraska U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, who expressed his lasting respect as he recalled their meetings.
State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha introduced a legislative resolution May 18 to recognize her valuable contributions to the state and its citizens. Three days later, it was unanimously adopted and signed by Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer.
Holly Burns, one of Cecilia’s longtime friends, imagined a quilt representing the history of Nebraska and described Cecilia as “the person who threaded the history of Mexican-Americans into that quilt.”
Cecilia is survived by four children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, along with four siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.