A few hours south of the United States, you’ll find a typical Mexican town. Although unassuming at first glance, it enchants you with the sound of roosters crowing in the early morning, and the chiming bells from the Catholic cathedral that echo across rolling hills. In Atencingo, caring for the land is a way of life. Every year, farmers work tirelessly to harvest and nurture the tiny town’s crown jewel: sugarcane. Today, the sound of a whistle announces the start of a new shift at El Ingenio, the local sugarcane mill.
Moments before sunrise, a father begins his trek to the center of town to begin work at El Ingenio. His clothes are stained with the deep rich color of molasses, and his boots are muddy and worn from endless days working in the fields. In one hand, he carries a colorful lunch box filled with warm tortillas, along with small bags of rice and beans, which he will enjoy in a few hours’ time. With his other hand, the man guides his young son out the door of their home, a humble house on the outskirts of town. After their daily two-hour walk, the man will begin work and his son will arrive at school. This walk is not unusual for those living in Atencingo, a community driven by hope and enamored with thoughts of education and opportunity.
The young man’s son is named Pescado, meaning “fish.” The apodo (nickname) was given to him by his peers at the local elementary school. I met Pescado in March 2009, when an itching curiosity drew me back to Atencingo for the first time in my adult life. Hearing stories of my mother’s homeland, I had been drawn to Atencingo since childhood. I often wondered, “Where is my mother from?” And over time, I began to ask myself, “Why did she leave her community?”
When I finally landed in Atencingo, I discovered a poverty-stricken school, where rickety desks and chairs stood, barely held together by splintered wooden fragments. Flickering lights were strung about the cracked ceiling and traces of crumbled cement fell from the walls. The sight was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, and it was then that I understood how the word “poverty” could be deceiving. Despite the school’s humble appearance, the bright faces of the young students beamed with an unwavering sense of pride. They clung tightly to the hope and opportunity that had been passed down by the generations before them that had sat in that same classroom. Even with a lack of school supplies and withering condition of their small building, 134 students glowed with a passion that outshined their circumstance.
To learn more about Saul’s service-learning work in Atencingo, and how his love for the students inspired the Walk of the Immigrants, a 5328-mile walk across Latin America, visit campuspeak.com/flores.