The Center for Multicultural Student Services continued their celebration of Latinx Heritage Month last Wednesday, September 16th, with the start of their Cultural Speaker Series, a special series of events featuring different Latinx speakers and artists. The first guest was Saul Flores, a photojournalist, philanthropist, and speaker most known for his project “Walk of the Immigrants,” a photojournalism venture in which he walked across Latin America, recreating the journey of many immigrants on their treks north. Flores spoke on a number of different topics, including his background and his past and future projects, and delivered an all-around motivational message about following your passions and acting to create change.
The event started with Flores talking a bit about his upbringing and personal life. He grew up in New York City with two immigrant parents that left their home countries to escape poverty and a civil war. His family didn’t have many luxuries while he was growing up but despite that, he says his childhood was still full of familial love and compassion. Flores commented on how grateful he was for his parents’ sacrifices, support, and all of the things they provided in his life. The sentiment was echoed by many students in the audience who were encouraged by Flores to share their own stories about people that made sacrifices to help them grow.
Flores also touched on how he’d connected with his Latinx heritage over the years, mainly by taking trips to his mother’s hometown in Mexico during his college years. He met many members of his extended family for the first time, as well as members of that community that shaped his perception of his heritage and what he wanted to do moving forward in life. He mentioned how he was moved most by the schoolhouse in the small town, and that seeing these children eager to learn reminded him of the values his mother had instilled in him. When he heard the school would be closing, he knew that he had to try and do something to help the people of this town.
“In an unexpected place,” he said, “I discovered a community I was meant to serve.”
Flores transitioned into talked about his project “Walk of the Immigrants.” In the summer of 2010, Flores started walking north from Ecuador to the United States boarder, following the path that countless immigrants took trying to find a better life in North America. In total, Flores crossed through 10 different countries and walked a total of 5,328 miles to reach the southern border of the US, but before setting out on his journey, he created four goals to accomplish on the trip: walk across Latin America, use his camera to photograph the places and people, sell the photos and use the profits to rebuild the schoolhouse, and make it home alive.
Ultimately, Flores achieved all four of his goals along with many others he didn’t anticipate. There were many moments where he was pushed to his breaking point and had to dig deep down to find the courage to continue, or in some instances, gain some from an external source. He recounted his attempt at crossing the Darien Gap, a 99 mile stretch of swamp and jungle separating Colombia and Panama. The treacherous terrain is full of deadly creatures and is controlled by the guerilla group known as FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. He never made it through the jungle; his journey was cut short by a run in with a Colombian Army soldier and a poison dart frog, whose poison incapacitated him for days.
At his lowest point, it was the kindness of the locals that brought back his spirits and helped him get to Panama. While stranded at the Colombian coast, he had a chance run in with a man name Romando. Romando was a member of an indigenous tribe who provided him with food, shelter on his tribe’s island of the coast, and finally, a ride to Panama City when he was ready. The two paddled for seven days to reach Panama, and upon arriving, Romando only had one request from Flores as a form of payment: “Tell your friends that there are good people in Latin America.”
And Flores did just that. As he travelled north, his incredible story was picked up by media outlets across the country. His hard work and photographs were inadvertently showing the word the struggles of Latin American immigrants and how much they sacrifice in order to make it north. These good people often have to make life or death choices daily, a fact that many in the US are probably not aware of. Flores’ photography and his stories are just a few examples of what thousands of people go through and serve as an educational tool to dispel the many misconceptions about immigration and Latin America.
Flores’ presentation ended with a Q&A session where students asked insightful questions about his current work, what projects he has lined up in Mexico, and how the school has been doing over the years. He happily answered the students‘ questions and provided encouraging parting advice for all in attendance. He reminded everyone that they have a story to tell, and that is the most valuable thing that they’re carry throughout their life. Each person’s individual story, background, and influences can be a guiding for in finding a passion or making a difference in the world.
“If you cement yourself in a passion and use that passion to help your community,” Flores said, “you will create incredible change.”
CMSS is hosting many more events this Latinx Heritage Month, so be sure to check out their website here, and their social media pages: @jmucmss on Instagram and Twitter!