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3,120 texts with Ofie

Drew Oberjuerge, Executive Director of the Riverside Art Museum, shares her farewell to Ofelia Valdez-Yeager, the heart and soul behind The Cheech's historic journey.

Ofelia Valdez-Yeager stands in front of The White House, where the Riverside Art Museum was honored with 2023 National Medal for Museum and Library Service.

3,120 texts – at least – were sent between Ofie and me over the six-plus years we worked together during The Cheech campaign and her year as the Riverside Art Museum (RAM) board president.

That number of texts also includes the ones she sent me with fundraising ideas while she was vacationing in Positano, Italy, with her family to celebrate her and Ley’s 50th wedding anniversary. It includes the texts with pictures of the Zocalo in Mexico City when she was there – a proper Zocalo – for inspiration for what the space outside of The Cheech could be. And then there were the texts with photos from her beloved place in Ensenada of the beautiful sun setting over the seemingly endless ocean. These were always sent to put a smile on my face and to remind me of the great expanse of the universe and that our struggles for The Cheech fundraising and the renovation of the building – just all of it when you bring something new into this world that’s never been – well, they might not need to be as scary or stressful as they initially seemed.

On my cell phone, in the Photos People and Places section, Ofelia’s smiling face is there among my family members. I click on the Ofelia category, and a whole adventure appears. There’s Ofelia, Jorge Hernandez, Jose Medina, and members of UNIDOS at Cheech’s home back in 2017 at the start of the campaign. There is a picture of Todd Wingate, Steve Cason, and Ofelia sitting on the back of a lowrider for the opening of the 4 Threads exhibition in 2018. There’s Ofelia and Jennifer Binkley at the press conference announcing Altura Credit Union's unprecedented gift to The Cheech. There’s Ofelia and Ninfa Delgado, Ninfa dressed as Super Woman at the Riverside Community Health Foundation event. These pictures feature so many [of those of you who partnered with Ofelia], and as [she] often quipped, “and you know who you are.” As Senator Roth observed, Ofelia was everywhere, all the time! My colleagues and I could barely keep up!

Ofelia often joked about chronicling the adventure of opening The Cheech in a tell-all book, sharing all of the incredible twists and turns but ultimately prevailing! Ofelia’s deep commitment and determination never wavered, even in the middle of a global pandemic. It was about five years from the time Ofelia agreed to serve as campaign chair in May 2017 to when the doors of The Cheech opened in June 2022. No one opens a museum in 5 years! But despite all odds and with Ofelia’s leadership, we did!

Her breakthrough campaign was historic for independent, nonprofit arts organizations in the Inland Empire. Her capital campaign, so different from the typical museum fundraising model, centered on community and valued gifts at all levels. She defied convention and so many who didn’t think it was possible to launch an award-winning center that has had 130,000 guests through its first year, including 10,000 students on tours.

While doing all that she did – raising millions for The Cheech, serving on community and civic boards, and being a great mother and grandmother – she also inexplicably had time to be such a good friend to so many who knew her. In her last weeks, Ofelia was determined that every persimmon on Beechwood Street get delivered to our board president, Suzanne Gray, who Ofelia knew loved persimmons. My colleague Valerie Found shared with me that Ofelia once picked up her dry cleaning when Val was ill and on a massive deadline for the Cheech's opening celebration gala. Ofelia made sure to attend our Artistic Director Maria Esther Fernandez’s exhibition opening in Berkeley. One of the last things Ofelia was proud of was making sure the City Council recognized Cosme Cordova for his incredible work and the 20th Anniversary of his Day of the Dead celebration.

Ofelia said it’s always about relationships. During the last few weeks since her passing and learning more about her incredible accomplishments before Chapter RAM and The Cheech, I learned the stories behind the names of so many she tapped to be part of The Cheech Founder’s Wall – you had incredible relationships with her forged over decades.

When I think of Ofelia’s life here in Riverside and all that she accomplished, I think about our democracy – I do! She exemplified the social capital, the civic glue, that keeps communities together. The trust between one another forged over years of serving on the PTA, maintaining that relationship and friendship, even if you sat on different sides of the political aisle. She spent decades advocating, connecting people, building coalitions, and making such a profound impact on our community. At a recent visit to her home, I saw photos and ephemera her family had out. I saw her campaign slogan for senior class secretary: "willingness.” She had modeled the willingness to step up and serve for the betterment of her community.

It’s fitting then that one of the last photos I have of Ofelia features her on the steps of the White House. Dressed boldly in pink and red, her vibrancy stands out. This was also her last trip. She, as RAM board president, was invited to the White House as RAM received the Institute of Museum and Library Services National Medal of Honor, their highest honor for “provid[ing] dynamic programming and services that exceed expected levels of service….through their community outreach, these institutions bring about change that touches the lives of individuals and helps communities thrive.”

I miss Ofelia greatly. It's hard to break a 6-year texting streak. I brought out my phone to text her the other day, and when I remembered, I thought about what her response might be. My colleagues and I have found comfort in breaking bread with her family (whom she has recruited to help out at RAM, including her grandchildren Henry, Felix, and AmeliaBea, who fundraised as part of the capital campaign). We reminisce about our memories of Ofelia and exchange updates on our respective to-do lists Ofelia left us.

On our list at RAM, we need to finish her last campaign, a passion project of hers, The Meet Me at The Cheech Campaign. Ofelia was thinking about legacy, and of course, her focus was outward on her beloved center and meeting at The Cheech for years and years to come.

Oh, Ofelia, thank you so much for your willingness to lead, to do difficult things, and to be a great friend. You have set a tremendous example, and we are forever changed for having known and worked with you!

Ofelia’s family has requested donations to recognize her deep commitment to the Riverside Art Museum and the people it serves. Donating to Ofelia’s “Meet Me At The Cheech” campaign will raise funds for exhibitions and education, and the commission of a life-size bronze sculpture of Cheech Marin by artist Ignacio Gomez.