LINCOLN, Neb. — In the halls of a middle school in the sprawling city of Monterrey, Mexico, a young Pablo Cervantes pauses at an open doorway.
He sees a teacher, the teacher sees him.
Would you like to dance?
The seventh-grader looks at his friends, a group of boys heading outside for a game of soccer after school. He scans the dance class beyond the open door and considers the teacher’s offer.
“I look at my friends. Boy. Boy. Boy. I look at the dancers. Girl. Girl. Girl,” Cervantes recalled. “I say sure, yes, I want to dance.”
The Lincoln Journal Star reports that the 41-year-old Cervantes knows now that moment in the late 1980s changed things, took the course of his young life and nudged it in a different direction.
Ultimately, that moment would lead him to Lincoln, introduce him to his wife and help him build a life here, full of dance and family, two successful businesses and a desire to help others and give back to the place he calls home.
At the time, it just seemed like a good way to meet girls.
Cervantes was born in the third-largest city in Mexico at the base of a mountain range that snakes along the northeastern edge of the country. He didn’t stay long.
His dad — an orphan who grew up on the streets and never finished elementary school, but had an entrepreneurial heart — sold Volkswagen parts, electrical equipment and all manner of household items, from toys to stoves. And he moved his wife and five sons from place to place based on what he could buy and sell.
Always, they settled near family.
“We were a typical third-world family,” he said. “We were migrants inside Mexico.”
By the time Pablo entered middle school, the family had returned to Monterrey.
Mexico had no formal after-school programs, but dance is an integral part of the culture. Many schools had Mexican folk dance clubs.
The club at Cervantes’ school performed in beautiful museums and at elaborate weddings in gilded mansions. And while he didn’t immediately fall in love with dancing, he soon realized the opportunities it offered.
“It exposed me to different things,” he said. “I realized dance could take me places, so I really invested a lot of time.”
One of those places was high school. Mexican high schools are connected to universities and charge tuition, Cervantes said. He earned a scholarship through a dance troupe that was part of the university in the northeast Mexican state of Nuevo Leon.
His performances with that troupe took him all over Mexico and to other countries.
“That’s when I was exposed to the world.”
After high school, he studied architecture for a year in college, then moved to a private dance school, where he was mentored by a man who’d performed with the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, a star from the “golden era” of Mexican folklore dance.
“He took me under his wing and trained me to be a dancer.”
Cervantes kept traveling to perform, including trips to Nebraska. Each time the dancers came here, a group of Mexican Americans living in Lincoln would come watch.
At one Lincoln performance, a woman told him if he ever moved here to teach dance, she’d help — a conversation that turned out to be another pivotal moment.
One thing dancing hadn’t offered was money or peace at home.
Young Pablo’s father did not always share his son’s love of dance — which often kept him out past curfew, and left the elder Cervantes worried about the stigma associated with men who dance. So he kicked his 13-year-old son out of the house.
Years later, when Cervantes had become successful in America, his dad apologized and said he was proud his son hadn’t heeded his words.
Pablo stayed with friends. His mom, who had always supported him, made him lunch and let him sleep upstairs in their home — tying a rope from the second-story window so her son could sneak out without his father knowing.
“She was my secret angel,” Cervantes says.
His dance troupe’s tour bus became home, offering stability, regular meals and a place to sleep.
Still, Cervantes sold whatever he could to get by: discarded metal, homemade bracelets, his mom’s tacos.
His brothers sold her tacos, too, and brought the profits home. Pablo — who inherited his father’s entrepreneurial spirit — did one better: He used the taco-sales money to buy magazines, which he also sold, giving his mom enough for the tacos while pocketing the extra cash.
“That’s how I knew I was meant to do business,” he said.
When he reached his 20s, still lacking money and knowing that a dancer’s career tends to be brief, he got to thinking. He called the woman he’d met in Lincoln, and she encouraged him to come here to teach.
He’d liked the city, particularly at dusk as his troupe’s bus headed west on O Street.
“I remember seeing the sunsets, and they were just spectacular,” he said.
So he leapt.
Cervantes arrived on a Greyhound bus at 7:30 p.m. on March 2, 2001, and almost froze to death.
It was dark and cold, and the piece of paper with the phone number of the woman who’d drawn him here had gotten mixed up with his border control papers.
The $100 he carried didn’t cover the cost of a room at the downtown Holiday Inn, the bus station had closed, and Cervantes was desperate.
Seeking warmth under cars, he met a man in a similar position. They split the cost of a hotel room.
The next day, he called a friend in Mexico, who helped him find where he’d written the Lincoln woman’s phone number on a piece of furniture at the Cervantes home.
They connected, and he started teaching dance. But it didn’t pay.
So again, he found whatever jobs he could: cleaning bathrooms at the mall, removing asbestos, building roofs.
And he had another life-changing moment, one January night in 2003 — an encounter at Sur Le Tango, a downtown bar with salsa dancing.
A young woman named Katie was there, celebrating a friend’s graduation from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Katie, who grew up on her family’s Big Blue Ranch in Burchard, spoke Spanish. She’d studied abroad in Mexico and Costa Rica with the friend who had just graduated. Both young women loved Latin dancing.
And Katie would come to love the young man named Pablo who introduced himself at the bar and asked her to dance.
“He was an excellent dancer. We just had so much fun,” she said. “I hadn’t really had boyfriends in my life, and he was just, like, everything I’d ever dreamed of. He was authentic and full of joy and just pure-hearted.”
Ten months later, they married.
By that time, Cervantes’ visa had expired and he was undocumented, he said. That did not sit well with his future father-in-law, a veteran who believed in following rules, doing things right. But when he saw that the couple loved each other, that the marriage was inevitable, he got to know Cervantes.
He began to understand the struggles his son-in-law endured, how hard he worked, Katie Cervantes says. Today, her father and her husband are close.
“Now he’s like my father,” Pablo says.
He applied for permanent residency after the wedding. He worked at the Hispanic Center through AmeriCorps and soon got a job as a migrant education recruiter at Lincoln Public Schools, where he also worked as a bilingual liaison.
In 2008, he became a U.S. citizen.
Today, his oldest brother — the one his father decided should go to college because he could only afford to send one — is an engineer who also lives in Lincoln. Another brother died in an accident as a young child. His other two brothers own restaurants, one in Las Vegas and the other in Mexico, where his parents still live.
“I tell you, this is home for me,” Cervantes says. “Lincoln, Nebraska, is home. This is where my heart is, where I feel comfortable. I’ll die here.”
Still, Mexico pulls him back.
“Once a year I have to reset,” he said. “My roots need water, so I go home, to the home that lives in my memory.”
He shares those memories, and his culture, through dance.
He created a dance group in Lincoln called Sangre Azteca, though he’s no longer involved, and danced with the Lincoln Contemporary Dance Group. He conducted multicultural programs with rural schools through the Arts is Basic program and continues that work today on his own.
He also teaches a Mexican dance group at Lincoln High School and has two private dance groups. One is a nonprofit called Fiesta Mexicana of the Heartland, supported by grants, in which about 40 children participate. The other is an adult group called Viva Mexico.
His two children dance, something he and Katie believe is important to help them understand their own culture. And they hope that understanding will result in appreciation of all cultures.
“They’re able to visit the ranch where I grew up and experience that culture here,” Katie Cervantes said. “For me, I think it’s important for them to identify with their Mexican side just as strongly, and dance is such a beautiful way to do that. It’s evident how much pride they have in the culture and that legacy — Pablo’s ancestry.”
Connecting with a cultural identity is part of the benefit of Mexican dance, Pablo Cervantes said, but it also teaches young people discipline, leadership, teamwork, creativity and how to be confident in front of others.
Teaching dance is one way to contribute, to share what has been such an important part of his life, to pass it on to the next generation, and to educate the community about Latinos who live here.
“It is important to me our community at large has the real perception of what a Latino is,” he said. Not just service workers, but “well-educated people who contribute at a higher level in the community.”
Today, Cervantes is the migrant coordinator and a Latino student advocate at LPS. He and Katie own an industrial-cleaning service and a real estate company called Casa Properties. The company owns 120 apartments and a couple of rental homes, and Cervantes is well-known as a landlord willing to help those who others would consider too high a risk.
He works with the Lincoln Homeless Coalition, a collaboration of organizations that last year named him Landlord of the Year.
“What Pablo brings to the community is that he truly rents to the person,” said Bryan Seck, who was the LPS homeless coordinator and now works for Prosper Lincoln. “And he’s willing to look past previous mistakes. If the person can work with him and pay rent, he will make it happen.”
Denise Packard, chairwoman of the homeless coalition, said Cervantes believes people respect being given a nice place to live, and that he sets high expectations of his renters so they’ll strive to improve themselves and be good tenants.
He does it because he can, and because he remembers his own struggles when he first got here — sleeping at the People’s City Mission or in vacant cars across the street.
He also remembers those who gave him a chance.
“I didn’t become myself because I’m a superhero,” he said. “I am who I am because people I didn’t know helped me out.”
He wants to give others the same help, he said. He serves as president of the board for the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance and as a board member for the South of Downtown Community Development Organization. He has also served on the board of El Centro de las Americas.
Cervantes figures ignorance is not always such a bad thing — had he known the hardships he’d endure when he first came to Lincoln, he might not have come. But he regrets nothing, because those struggles have made him strong.
People tell him he’s made it, he said. He doesn’t believe he’s done, but he’s not sure what will come next. So he will continue to live by the advice he gives his students: Take those moments when they come.
“You don’t need to know what you want to be,” he tells them. “You just have to be ready so when opportunity presents itself, you’re prepared to act.”
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Lincoln Journal Star.