Saul Flores, “Walk of Immigrants” Photojournalist, Opens Latinx Celebration


Courtesy of Christie Dix

Olivia Biel, Features Editor

Saul Flores (“Sah-ool”), the 29-year-old photojournalist who walked over 5,000 miles through 10 Latin American countries, spoke at William Paterson Oct. 22 about how his passion for serving the Latinx community sparked his journey.

The keynote speech opened a series of events titled “Latinx Americans: A History of Serving Our Nation,” intended to celebrate and uplift the Latinx community in William Paterson.

Flores, who grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City, told a multipurpose room packed with students and faculty that his project had four goals: to travel from Ecuador to the North Carolina to raise awareness for immigration across the United States; to photograph all the communities he encountered to create a bridge between the U.S. and Latin American nations; to sell his photographs in order to raise money for reconstructing a middle school in Atencingo, Mexico; and finally, to make it home alive.

President Helldobler opened the event with a speech about the importance of the Latinx community at William Paterson. Yolany Gonell, the Director of The Center for Diversity and Inclusion, followed with a few words about why she suggested Flores as the speaker. Maribel “Mari” Rodriguez, the Associate Director of Campus Activities, also spoke on how excited she was to have Flores as the keynote speaker and have the students of William Paterson hear his story.

Flores’ mother migrated from Atencingo, Mexico when she was 16 years old to escape poverty and the Mexican education system so her children could have a better life.

With money from a stipend granted by a fellowship during his freshman year, Flores visited Atencingo with 15 other students. After discovering altars dedicated to pray for his mother’s safety throughout her immigration at the homes of his aunts and uncles, his grandmother showed Flores the elementary school his mother went to.

He fell in love with the school and its students, and was devastated to find out that the Board of Education in the Mexican state of Puebla had deemed it “unrepairable,” meaning it would be shut down.

“My mom was always very adamant about the power of education,” Flores said. “She was vocal about the sacrifices that she had endured so that me and my sister could maximize the public school system that we had in the U.S. I thought it was so unfair that somebody’s education could just be robbed from them.”

It was this school, whose students Flores photographed, that Flores used the money raised from the “Walk of Immigrants” project to rebuild.

Flores said his inspiration for the journey stemmed from a moment in his childhood in which he understood the sacrifice his mother made each day for him and his sister. Every morning at 4 A.M., Flores’ mother would clean the apartment of a woman named Margo. As he and his sister tried chocolate croissants offered by Margo, he smelled bleach.

He said he “felt his world crashing down” when he found that the source of the smell, which burned his eyes, was the cleaning product his mother used to scrub Margo’s floor. After telling the story at Dartmouth college, Flores said, a student asked him what it was like to feel hunger.

“I was taken aback a bit because I wasn’t feeling hunger, I was feeling love,” he said. “It’s a love we felt every day when my parents would wake us up at 4 A.M. every day to catch the bus, or when they would cook us food after a second or third shift at work. It’s a love that’s rooted in sacrifice.”

But Flores didn’t know what to do in the moment he was told the school would be shut down. It was later, after coming home and watching the news with his family, that he hatched his plan.

Two news anchors discussing a migrant’s passing through a river with her child said that their job would be easier if “the river just swallowed her whole.” Flores’ family did not react with the anger that Flores did, because they were used to hearing migrants talked about this way. Flores then decided that he would complete a migrant’s journey himself, and document the communities he encountered.

He described the stories of two men who helped him significantly on his journey: Felipe, a coyote (someone who helps migrants pass through rougher terrains), and Raymundo, an indigenous man who lived on one of South America’s islands.

“I think these stories are the backbone of Latin America,” Flores said. “Stories of courage and compassion and humility. And those are the people that I set out to discover, to photograph.”

“I’m sharing this with you not because I want you to go across Latin America or become champions of immigration,” Flores said at the end of his speech. “I’m sharing this with you because [I want to show that] if you cement yourself in a passion, and you use that passion to serve a community that’s yours, you will have the capacity to create incredible change.”