Saul Flores, a college senior who embarked on a journey of 5,328 miles to raise awareness of immigration issues, discussed his “Walk of the Immigrants” project during a virtual presentation on Oct. 15. The keynote presentation capped off a series of events hosted by Niagara University’s Office of Multicultural Affairs commemorating Hispanic Heritage Month.
In the summer of 2010, Flores, the son of undocumented migrants (his mother was from Atencingo, Mexico, and his father was from Santa Ana, El Salvador) spent three months walking and hitchhiking from Quito, Ecuador, to Charlotte, N.C., to better understand the struggles, hardships, joys, and hope experienced by immigrants from South and Central America to the United States. His journey took him through 10 countries and nine border crossings, and enabled him to document how grueling and dangerous the journey can be.
Flores talked about a visit he made to his mother’s home town while he was in college, when he first discovered that she was the only member of her large family to immigrate to the United States. During that visit, his grandmother took him to the outskirts of the town to a little cinderblock school that was built in the 1970s to provide access to education for all the children in the community. There were 124 children there that day, and they began to sing the Mexican national anthem when Flores and his grandmother approached. Flores took photos of the students and “discovered a community that I was meant to serve," he said.
At that moment, he made a promise to celebrate education and access in whatever capacity he could.
He began making visits to the town. During his third trip, he learned that the school was going to be shut down, and only those students with the means to do so would be able to continue their education elsewhere. At around the same time, he saw a news broadcast that belittled the struggles Latin Americans made to come to America for a better life. In his junior year of college, he decided to do something. That something was a project he called “The Walk of Immigrants.”
He set four goals for the endeavor: to raise awareness of the “miraculous journey the migrants make north” by walking across 10 Latin American countries; to document his journey with his camera as a way to introduce immigration stories to the U.S.; to sell the photographs and use the proceeds to rebuild the school in his mother’s home town; and “just to make it home alive.”
On May 10, 2010, Flores bought a one-way ticket to Ecuador and began his walk. Along the way, people gave him food to eat and places to sleep, and he crossed regions like the Darien Gap, a large area of undeveloped swampland where he encountered a member of the Columbian Army who was protecting people from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during the presidential election in Columbia and was poisoned by the venom of a dart frog as he and his guide ran away. He found a man who would take him to Panama City after he missed a boat that would not return for another 30 days, and was the guest of an indigenous community living on an island off the coast of Columbia.
His photographs told the stories of courage, compassion, and humility he came across on his travels, and when he arrived in the U.S., the project was picked up by media outlets across the country.
“What was so special about this project, at least for me, is that I was able to take something so small, like a camera, and spark a national conversation around the plight of a migrant. What started off as an idea evolved into something so much bigger than myself. It evolved into the story of our communities heading north.”
In addition to raising awareness, his journey also raised enough funds to rebuild the little school in his mother’s home town. He concluded by encouraging the audience to use their passion to serve their own communities, because they have the “capacity to create incredible change.”