Inspired by Home with Luis Flores

Luis Flores discusses his background, Garrison Keillor, and the importance of being a volunteer, on In The Field, a podcast originating from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University.

June 13, 2016

Luis Flores sits on a chair.

Luis Flores manages the MASFRIJOL project, a USAID-funded program focusing on substantially increasing bean production and nutritional quality of family diets among smallholder farms in the western highlands of Guatemala. He believes there are plenty of success stories to share. Flores discusses his background, Garrison Keillor, and the importance of being a volunteer, on In The Field, a podcast originating from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University.


In the Field, Inspired by Home with Luis Flores - Transcript

Kraig Ehm: Welcome to In The Field, a podcast originating from the college of agriculture and national resources at Michigan State University. I'm your host, Kraig Ehm. In this episode of In The Field, I'm joined by Luis Flores, assistant professor, department of community sustainability, in the college of agriculture and national resources at Michigan State University. Luis, thanks for joining me.

Luis Flores: Thank you Kraig, my pleasure.

Ehm: Luis, where did you grow up and what was it like?

Flores: I grew up in Santa Catarina Mita, a small town 150 kilometers east actually of Guatemala city. It was a lot of fun. It's a farming town. We have a river that goes through town, and learned to swim there. Had lots of friends. I walked about one kilometer from my house to my school, and I couldn't think of a happier childhood.

Ehm: Who is Kenneth, and why is he an important part of your life?

Flores: Yes, back in 1981 we had a huge flood in this river that I just mentioned. It was so big it carried the hanging bridge with it and other bridges down the flow. Kenneth was a Peace Corp volunteer. A very striking figure for all of us, because he was so tall and in case you don't know Guatemalans, we're not very tall people. He also had a very interesting looking mountain bike. Nobody had ever seen a bike with tires so thick. He carried everything with him in his saddle bags on each side. He had the skills to rebuild the hanging bridge, and all of us were just in awe of how masterful he was with tools and with wood. But, the most striking thing was about his ability to gather people around and get messages across so that everybody could collaborate to rebuild the bridge. Now that I think about it, I don't think his Spanish as that great back then, but he was able to work with the community and that to me was a very important memory.

Ehm: He was able to take a project like rebuilding the bridge, bring everybody involved and so everybody was able to get their hands on, working on the project?

Flores: That's what I remember. As soon as the level of the water went down he was very hands on, and all of us were very thankful for that.

Ehm: Now, you came to the United States from Guatemala, why?

Flores: It's a very good question. You will not believe it, but being from a small town I never heard of Spartans or Michigan State until the year 2000. I met a professor from this college, and I was working for the Association of Exporters of Agricultural Products. We got together to work on a proposal and get it done very quickly. He said, "Hey, have you ever considered pursuing graduate studies?" I said, "No, I have never thought about it, because I know it's expensive." We worked through the system and I submitted my application and got an assistance-ship. Like many other colleagues from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa and everywhere else, I was lucky to come to Michigan State.

Ehm: Now, when you first came over you were part of an immersion program out in California, and your English needed a little bit of work maybe. I'm going to mention two words and you tell me what that means to you, Lake Wobegon.

Flores: Yeah. I had to admit Craig that it was a turning point in my life when I got the opportunity to come to Modesto Junior College. It was through a USA sponsored and a corporate association of scholarships sponsored program through University of Georgetown. It was a two year junior college program, and I applied and was favored with that. But, coming from a very small town I spoke no English whatsoever. It took me a good few months to be able to go to classes without the need of full-time translator or interpreter. But, the two years went by fast and I really appreciated the quality of education I got at Modesto Junior College. When my group graduated I was asked to give a speech. As I was practicing my ESL professor, English as a second language professor said to me, "Louis you have trouble with the word focused." As you can imagine, it came out pretty wrong. We had to search for an alternative word so I didn't look so ridiculous. But, she said to me, "You know, for a person that learns as fast as you, you should be listening to a Prairie Home Companion." The guy, his name is Garrison Keillor, his vocalization is so clear and I think the more you listen to him you will be able to learn your words, and so improve your English. It got me hooked on it, since 1994. Yeah.

Ehm:  After the English immersion program you worked as a volunteer with coffee farmers in Haiti. Was that an influence by Kenneth at all?

Flores: Yes, although I have to admit that it wasn't till I got to Haiti when I realized I really had a passion for international development. My father had passed away before I decided to go to Haiti as a volunteer, I was only 23. I was going through a very hard time. I guess all of us go through gloomy and gray times after a parent passes away. But, I had particular issues with how many limitations I had, both as I grew up and also being a young person without being able to do the things I wanted. Going to Haiti for me opened up my eyes to the wealth of things I always had, but never realized. One of those things was having been raised by a very hard working father, and knowing that I had skills that I had acquired through many years of farming that I could pass to others. Being in Haiti made me look at myself from a different angle, and seeing the need that there was. Not just in Haiti but around the world. To help others who had the same issues as I did. They didn't realize the wealth they had. Just because you couldn't turn it into cash didn't mean that you couldn't do much with what you had. I spent about seven months in Haiti working with 22 associations of coffee producers. I walked long distances. I taught them how to keep up with better accounting, how to improve the processing of coffee. It was a wonderful time. I learned a lot, more about me than what I ever could learn about people, but it was a time of enlightenment for me. I still feel indebted to Haiti for that kind of education.

Ehm: You were able to take somewhat of the feeling that you had received when you were growing up and passing it onto other people.

Flores: Yes, that's exactly right. I think I've been naturally a positive person. You need to make that available to others as well, to help them see what they can do with their resources and with some skills. I still go back to Haiti in my projects, and I'm very proud to do so.

Ehm: What are you currently working on?

Flores: For the last five years at MSU I have been associated with the legume innovation lab. One of the main projects we have is called mas frijoles, which stands for more beans. Mas frijoles is the brainchild of the director and myself and I'm very proud of that. What we have written on the blackboard in his office, Dr. Irvine Wheelers, is a series of ideas that challenge the status quo of how projects are managed right now. Having to go out to rural communities only from Monday through Friday. Doing huge classroom type of education instead of going to the field and within a few steps of the households that we're trying to help. With ideas like that we came up with this project where we marry education on increasing bean productivity with education on improving the quality of diets, by ingesting more beans as a source of protein. We have 25,000 beneficiaries in the western highlands. It's a successful project by measures of our performance plan. But to me, it tells me more than what we report in terms of numbers. We are reaching households that have been reached for the very first time by a development project. We are learning how to do our job much better than when we designed it three and a half years ago. I think the potential of this project to be extended to over 330 municipalities in Guatemala and even beyond Guatemala is very high. I'm very proud of that. Putting together nutrition education and productivity and has been technologies is a good combination. If you look around many countries, including the US, are struggling with malnutrition. Particularly for pregnant women as well as with kids from zero to two years in age. In some cases we have two sides of a problem. Some are underweight, but others tend to get obese, and it's all because of a lack of a balanced diet. Definitely in the case of Guatemala with more protein. It is an interesting project. I welcome you and others to learn more about it.

Ehm: You can take what you've learned with Guatemala and then use it in other countries to help them not only grow beans for example, but also why they should and why it's important in their diet, and it will help everybody out?

Flores: That's correct. There are many countries that use beans as a source of protein. Unfortunately because of all sorts of problems with increasing productivity, particularly lack of access to improved seeds, the amounts a household can produce to have enough beans throughout the year are very limited. We are hoping that what we're learning in Guatemala, as well as what we have learned from previous experiences in other countries, can be bundled together and be available for other donor programs. State or government programs. Anyone else. We think they can use this experience to help households have more access to protein and improve their diets.

Ehm: The quote, "You were able to do what others say you cannot do." It's important to you, isn't it?

Flores: Yes. Yes. I try to live by it. Coming from where I come from I never imagined I could learn to speak English when I was growing up. It was never presented to me. I never read or watched TV programs that inspired me to pursue that kind of life. When I was faced with the opportunity I remember just being very motivated. There were barriers that I had to surmount and I was able to. There are barriers that I haven't been able to surmount, but I think the attitude to evaluate those challenges and seeing a way that you can actually surmount them is very important to me. I try to teach my daughter and teach my nieces and nephews, and siblings the same thing. You're not always going to be successful, but you need an attitude that says you can do it to begin with.

Ehm: You can learn a lot by trying even though you might not succeed at the other end.

Flores: That is correct.

Ehm: What puts a smile on your face every day when you come to work, whether it's here in the states or it's when you're visiting another country?

Flores: You know, we live in a world of academia here at MSU. I participate in producing many things that don't reach our beneficaries regularly, but I know everything we do is because we have a very clear idea of what our true North really is. That is the rural household. No matter where it is. The US, Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean. I just picture me sharing a meal with those families that we help, as I have done many, many times. Whenever we have issues, you know, I'm not meeting deadlines, facing personnel issues in the field, or anything else, I just remember who we work with and who we work for. That makes me very proud of what I do at MSU.

Ehm: What are some of the reactions or comments that you get from people when you're able to sit down with them and they know that you've worked on something that has helped them?

Flores: You'd be surprised Kraig, rural folks are very, very shy. They're not very outspoken. They just smile. You can just feel it. They give you the best chair they have, they give you the cleanest glass. They want you to be at the table. Sometimes they don't even sit with us at the table, because they think that they are there standing by, ready to help you with anything you need. There are many things that don't need to be spokne. The environment is just all enough to tell you how much they appreciate what we do.

Ehm:  Have you been able to go back home and help out back home?

Flores: As a matter of fact, mas frijoles works in Gautemala, my home country. 30 municipalities, 25,000 families, or more hopefully. But, this is very far away from my hometown where I grew up. I joined cousins and friends that have left my hometown to put together an association through which we try to do our part to improve certain living standards. Together we have been able to start a vision and hearing clinic. We also have a dental clinic. A computer teaching class for children and adults alike. We're constantly thinking what is the next thing that we need to do. Lately in the last couple of years we've been struggling with ways to help the environment. We need more trees, we need to clean up the trash, we need to do many things. I wish I could tell you I can devote more time to that kind of work, but sometimes you know time is the most limited resource. But, I'm happy with what we have started. It's work that has been going on since 1998. I left my town since 1993, but my mom and my siblings still live there so I keep going back, and it's very nice for me to see how we improve little by little.

Ehm: Louis, is there anything else that you'd like to add?

Flores: I just think that all Spartans needs to know what we're doing in the field in detail. We have many programs around. We have programs like legume innovation lab with different names that have been around for over 30 years. Stories that we hear from beneficiaries are important to be read and be told to our current Spartans as well as everybody who has graduated from here. I appreciate this opportunity to share my story and talk about my projects, and I hope that others will sit down and share as well and share theirs.

Ehm: I would like to thank Louis Flores, assistant professor, department of community sustainability in the college of agriculture and natural resources at Michigan State University, for joining me today. Be sure and listen next time for another epiusode of In The Field.

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