It's a typical night in the Cortes family's spotless home on a quiet Bellevue cul-de-sac.
Claudia Cortes, president of her senior class at Bellevue West High School, pores over an inch-thick calculus book. Sister Daniela, a junior who's also heavily involved in school activities, alternates between an AP psychology book and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Brother Luis Fernando Cortes, a junior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, washes dishes and laughs and chats with mom, Rosa, as she starts dinner. Dad Luis Cortes pops in to chop tomatoes and peppers for pico de gallo. Only Roxana, 23, is missing. She's in Lincoln, where she has a full ride to study law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
It could be a typical night in any American home. The only difference is that much of the conversation is in Spanish. And while their children pursue their educations, Rosa and Luis Cortes work shifts at ConAgra Inc.'s frozen foods plant in Council Bluffs — plus overtime — to make sure the four can follow a different path.
The family is part of a generational transition that sociologists, economists and others say will be important to the future of Nebraska, Iowa and the rest of the nation.
The Midlands saw its big influx of Hispanic immigrants in the 1990s and 2000s. Now the children of those immigrants have begun to graduate from high school and college and move into the professional workforce.
The Cortes family reflects that trend. Neither parent has schooling beyond elementary grades. The elder Luis speaks solid English, having worked in the United States for years before the family's move from Mexico to California in 2003 and on to Nebraska in 2006. But Rosa Cortes does not.
“School is the best thing you can do,” Luis Cortes says. “We just work a hard job because we have no school.”
Education has long been recognized as a key not only to realizing immigrants' own dreams but also to furthering the nation's growth.
Concern about the quality of schools was one reason these legal U.S. residents left California. They had several months' savings but no jobs lined up.
“We were just thinking about their future,” Luis Cortes said. “It's better for them and us, too.”
Their children are well aware of their parents' hard work and sacrifices, including leaving behind friends and family. They, too, know the power of education in securing their dreams.
Luis Fernando, who's been clerking at an Omaha law firm like his big sister before him, took another step this month when he started an internship at ConAgra, rotating through business offices.
“It prides me to say they have worked so hard for us to be where we're at,” Roxana Cortes said during a visit home earlier this fall.
Though the rate of growth in Nebraska's Hispanic population has slowed a bit, it still is expected to triple by 2050, to nearly 539,000, according to the latest projections by UNO's Center for Public Affairs Research. At that time, Hispanics are projected to make up about a quarter of the state's population.
“It's critical how we incorporate this generation, because they will raise the next, ” said Lisette Aliaga-Linares, a research associate with the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Office of Latino/Latin American Studies.
Lourdes Gouveia, the office's director, said it's gratifying to see young Hispanics beginning to defy the odds and achieve success. But many barriers remain.
The danger of not supporting these young people, she said, is that they will look for alternatives, which tend to represent the worst of American youth culture. Scholars now recognize that those who do better stay close to their parents — and their advice, their discipline and their family values — and tap their cultural tools to navigate those barriers.
Language is one. In earlier generations, immigrant parents, whether Polish, Italian, German or Mexican, felt pressure to make sure their children spoke only English so they could blend in and succeed, she said.
“Today, you're going to get a whole different answer,” Gouveia said. Newer immigrants still want to fit in, she said, but they recognize the value of keeping their native language. Well-educated, multilingual young people also are of competitive value to the state.
“I want them to be bilingual,” Luis Cortes said. “There's a value to it economically.”
Roxana said it also allows them to reach more people. She and classmates at UNO have led conversations in Spanish about exhibits at the Joslyn Art Museum.
Luis Fernando said the family also speaks Spanish at home out of respect for their mother. “Respect is one of the main things they have taught us,” he said.
Among themselves, the four children speak more English. From oldest to youngest, each has a little less of the accent of their country of birth.
The four say the family is extremely close. As youngsters in Mexico, the kids all slept in one room. They still pile in together for movies.
The path to the American dream hasn't always been easy.
When the family moved to California, Luis Fernando said, he and his siblings knew little English. They learned the basics, and by the time they moved to Bellevue, they were in regular classes.
But in California, they'd been surrounded by other Hispanics. Language wasn't as much of an issue. They'd landed in Bellevue essentially by luck. A distant relative had found a house for them to rent in South Omaha. But the owner decided to sell.
Instead, the relative found an apartment in Bellevue. A week later, the two older kids walked into Bellevue West. Roxana was a junior, Luis a freshman. The younger girls were in elementary school.
“The first thing I did was turn around,” Luis Fernando said. “I didn't feel comfortable enough with my English.”
But the teens quickly adjusted. Everyone was friendly. They, in turn, have reached out to other newcomers.
The parents faced their own challenges. They started at ConAgra as on-call temporary workers. Eventually, they got on the night shift. They did everything they were asked so they could move to a day shift and be home with their children in the evenings.
“At their ages, it's very important to be with them,” Luis Cortes said.
Roxana said her experience of high school was different than her sisters', more focused on academics. Rosa would leave dinner ready. But Roxana would pick up the younger two and make sure they did their homework, showered and got to bed.
She also was figuring out how to study for the ACT test and how to apply for scholarships. “I wanted to go to college, but I didn't know how to go to college,” she said.
She received a scholarship through UNO's Goodrich program, which covers tuition and fees for bright students who couldn't otherwise afford to go. At UNO, she completed majors in Latino/Latin American studies, psychology and Spanish and earned academic honors.
Her Latin American studies major included a strong service component. She saw people's needs. She felt that her education gave her a special power many didn't have, a power she wants to put to work for others. She and Luis Fernando volunteered in a free legal clinic at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
“There are many things that I feel it's this generation's job to do,” she said.
Luis Fernando took a different route. He didn't have a scholarship, so he attended community college for two years before going on to UNO, majoring in accounting and economics. He's working to pay his own way and living at home to save on rent and avoid debt.
“That's why we're so proud,” his dad said.
Claudia said her older siblings' example has helped as she's begun applying for scholarships. She's interested in biomechanical engineering. Daniela is interested in something in the medical arena.
“They've opened doors,” Claudia said. “They've gone to places I didn't think they'd go.”
The family is quick to thank those who have helped, particularly teachers and others at Bellevue West. The kids also credit their parents. They may not have academic training, Roxana said, “but they do have the life experience, and they're always willing to help.”
Claudia says Luis gave them pointers as he walked them to school when they were younger. Daniela remembers Rosa asking an uncle, a teacher in California, to write down the alphabet so she could help her youngest practice. Like a classic band parent, Rosa attends Bellevue West's football games — not for the games, but to watch Claudia and Daniela perform with the school's award-winning marching band, Claudia on mellophone, Daniela wielding flags.
Claudia also is co-president of the school's DECA chapter and an AP Scholar. Daniela is president of the Latin Club and a member of the National Honor Society.
While they work, they exchange plans for coming events and thoughts on homework.
“Can you tell me if this sounds awkward?” Claudia says, reading a sentence from the paper she's writing.
Daniela grabs a pen and offers suggestions.
“It's more than just school,” Claudia said. “It's learning all this cool stuff.”
With dinner on the stove, Rosa steps away to look over Daniela's shoulder, checking her progress. Roxana says her mom often helped with ideas for her psych papers. The girls, being teenagers, occasionally take breaks to check messages from friends on their cellphones. The real homework will start after dinner, which the family makes a point of sharing.
Eventually, the meal is on the table. They talk, they laugh, they tease Rosa Cortes — again — about cooking too much food.
It's just another night at the Cortes family's home.