Above: A basketball player since high school, Sen. Tony Vargas joins a youth game at the South Omaha YMCA.
If there is one thing Sen. Tony Vargas does not want to do, it’s disappoint his mother, Lidia. As a first-generation son of Peruvian immigrants, he knows that she is proud of his many achievements – but also knows that she doesn’t want him to rest on his laurels.
Being elected to public office is one thing, but Vargas said he knows that his mother would be incredibly disappointed if he was not giving his all to his constituents or had forgotten where he comes from.
Not to worry: slacking is one thing the young senator is not built for.
A former public school teacher in Brooklyn, New York, Vargas was in the first generation of his family to go to college. His father Virgilio and his mother worked tirelessly to help their three sons achieve their dreams. Oldest son Gene served in the U.S. Navy and Charles also is a public school teacher.
“What I loved most about teaching is that I was serving kids in the same community where I grew up,” Vargas said. “So, I felt like I had come full circle. Their parents reminded me of my parents, who sacrificed so much for their kids.”
If not for crossing paths with yet another school teacher, he likely still would be in New York state, where he was born and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Vargas met Lauren Micek, whose family is from Nebraska, when she was teaching special education in New York and he was working on education policy. Having been to Omaha many times while the couple was dating, Vargas knew that he could make a home here. So, when Lauren decided to attend law school at Creighton University, a new chapter in their lives began.
A new chapter that initially lacked decent bagels and late night pizza slices.
“Thankfully, my Omaha neighborhood is incredibly diverse – racially, ethnically and culturally,” he said. “We’re lucky to have a bustling art and music scene and many great restaurants.”
Readily embraced by his new home, Vargas was appointed to the Omaha Public School Board a year after moving to Nebraska. It was his first time in public office and, as satisfying as the work was, it sparked a desire to do more.
Kids need role models, Vargas said, especially underrepresented groups. Having seen no Latinos or recent immigrants serving in the state Legislature, he saw a gap in perspective that he could fill.
Vargas plans on spending his time in Lincoln making sure that people in his district and across the state have access to education, employment and opportunity. He sees his teaching experience as vital training for that role.
“One thing I learned as a teacher is that relationships matter a tremendous amount,” he said. “In order to achieve our mutual goals, I had to build strong partnerships with my students and I think the same principle applies at the Legislature with my colleagues.”