Penn State Abington’s Latine Student Organization kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month on Friday, September 15 by hosting activist Saul Flores, who walked more than 5,000 miles to personally experience the arduous and dangerous journey that many immigrants endure on their way to the United States.
For Flores, the Walk of Immigrants began during a leadership development fellowship he was awarded as a college student. He used the funds to organize a service trip to Central America, which inspired him to raise awareness of the struggles immigrants face.
“This project became bigger as I became more curious about my identity. It became the story of my community. In an unexpected place, I discovered the community I was meant to serve,” Flores, the son of undocumented immigrants, said.
He took more than 20,000 photographs of the people and the places along the way, using proceeds from the sale of the images and sponsorships to help rebuild the lone elementary school in his mother’s rural hometown of Atencingo, Mexico.
Flores described his difficult walk through the infamous Darien Gap, a roadless and lawless jungle border region that immigrants often traverse. After hiking many miles, he and the human smuggler he paid encountered an armed solider who forced them to turn around. Flores then nearly died after being exposed to poison from an native frog before finishing his trek through 10 countries months later.
“Immigrants leave behind their homes and communities for something that isn’t certain. My mother said that people don’t know how hard it is to leave not for opportunity, but for a chance for opportunity,” he said.
As Flores shared his experiences, he reminded the students that their stories are their most valuable assets.
“We become numb to how people speak about us, but our stories are the backbone of Latin America,” he said, while a carousel of striking images from the Walk of Immigrants rotated in the background.
Flores urged the audience to celebrate not only famous Latinos, but also everyday people such as farm workers and those who toil in mundane occupations to feed their families.
“Being an immigrant in this country is hard. Immigrants bring us their hands and their feet to work, but they also bring their recipes and their culture to share,” he said, after describing the multiple labor-intensive jobs his parents held.
Look inward, Flores told them, and assess the impact you are having on the world.
“Cement within yourself a real passion to serve the greater community, and you will make incredible change,” he said, before sharing his phone number with the audience so they could connect with him.
The event featuring Saul Flores, which was livestreamed at other Penn State Commonwealth Campuses, was sponsored by Penn State Global and the Student Initiated Fee.
Daniel Garcia leads the Abington campus Latine Student Organization (LSO), the group of 200-plus members that coordinated Flores’s visit.
Garcia, an international student from Colombia, echoed the emphasis Flores placed on the importance of owning and sharing your personal story.
“When I was leaving my country and saying goodbye to my dad, he said he wanted me to be outstanding. I’m the first generation in this country, and he wants me to build the best resume and build a network,” Garcia said.
Garcia quickly started knocking out those goals, working for Penn State Abington’s Office of Global Programs to support other international students and as a Lion Ambassador tour guide. He also became active with the Student Government Association and LSO.
“LSO is important because it helps students network, and it helps you establish yourself,” Garcia, a second-year finance major, said.
This year, LSO is focusing on sharing the multiple cultures of students that fall under its umbrella, including those of Costa Rica, Mexico and Puerto Rico, along with the experiences of students who are born in the United States with Latino heritage.
“We offer an amazing opportunity for our students because no other Penn State location is as diverse as Abington. Diversity makes you grow as a human being. I learn something every single day about cultures from around the world,” Garcia said.
Although Garcia is moving on to the University Park campus next year, he urged students who may be struggling to adapt to college to reach out to LSO or other campus organizations.
“We will help you get to know the campus and the people. We want to be a resource for new students,” he said.
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Photo: Penn State Abington