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A remarkable journey: Herminio Lopez overcomes life's challenges on way to Worthington

District 518 translator Herminio Lopez has an office at the high school in Worthington. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)1 / 3
District 518 translator Herminio Lopez (left) works with WHS junior Antonio Madrigal. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)2 / 3
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WORTHINGTON -- Chasing the American Dream was not one of Herminio Nuñez Lopez's aspirations. Truthfully, Lopez has never planned for much in his life. If he had ever planned for his future, he believes it wouldn't have developed as perfectly as it has thus far.

A native of the province of Veraguas, the heart of Panama, Lopez's journey to southwest Minnesota may seem like an unlikely venture. Yet, he has much more in common with other rural Minnesotans than it may seem at first glance.

Impoverished beginnings

Growing up in a Third World country is a struggle for anyone, but the challenge was worse for Lopez, who became an orphan before even reaching elementary school. His father died six months before he was born, and illness took his mother's life when he was merely 3 years old. The youngest of seven children, he recalled his situation as hopeless.

"There's nothing worse that can happen to a Latin American kid than to be poor and an orphan," he said. "There is not much hope for an orphan kid in Latin American because there is no help."

But help did come for Lopez and his siblings, who were placed with various family members during his mother's illness. At 8 months old, he and his brother went to live with relatives who had five children of their own. The move shifted the family dynamic and made it difficult to establish family cohesion, yet Lopez believes as complicated as the situation was, his family still managed to make it work.

"I didn't become aware that my situation wasn't normal until I was 11 years old," he explained. "To me, it was very natural. I didn't think growing up this way was difficult, that's just the way it was. I was treated well by my parents. They helped me so much and even put me through school."

Despite the love and support of his relatives, surviving was a day-to-day challenge.

"When you are within a family of relatives that are trying to help you and they don't have much themselves, it's extremely difficult. It's almost an impossible task trying to provide for everyone."

The gateway to a better life

In the eighth grade, he began thinking about what trade school he would attend. Living in the countryside of Panama with limited resources made the choice to continue his education versus working fulltime difficult. His brother informed him of an available scholarship at an agricultural trade school, and Lopez saw it as the only way to continue with his education.

"I wasn't really too crazy about going to an agriculture school, but it was the only way I could see myself getting an education. So my good grades and entrance exam helped me get accepted into the school and earn a scholarship."

Lopez continued to earn good grades through high school. One day the school's principal asked him if he would be interested in participating in a foreign exchange program through 4-H.

The opportunity to travel outside of country enticed Lopez. He applied and was among 50 other Panamanian students selected for the 1985 4-H foreign exchange program -- a program that would forever alter his life.

A new world

The exchange program was for a year and required Lopez to be placed on a farm to complement his agriculture studies at the trade school in Panama. The first six months would be spent on a poultry farm in Georgia. After a few weeks in Athens, Ga., he was relocated to the small town of Jasper, Ga. Jasper was quite different from Veraguas. A town with only a few thousand people and not much diversity, Lopez still felt the grandeur of being in the United States.

"When I came to America for the first time, I thought everything was so big and so grand. I couldn't discern what to do first," he remembered.

His initial experience in the U.S. was pleasant, and he remembers his host family as being courteous and respectful.

"We were in the chicken coop one day, and one of the neighbors came and said 'How y'all like it around here?' or something to that extent. My friend and I looked at each other dumbfounded. We had gone through a rigorous English course prior to coming to the United States, but we were not prepared for southern jargon."

The next six months of the program would bring Lopez to Minnesota -- a dairy farm in Little Falls. However, the Minnesota community in winter wasn't as pleasant as the sunny poultry farm in Georgia, Lopez recalled.

"It was February, and I couldn't even remember how many degrees below zero it was. It was hideous. Being from a tropical country, I did not want to get up at 4 o'clock in the morning to milk the cows. The only time I had ever seen ice in Panama was when I opened the freezer door," he joked. "I couldn't believe what I had gotten myself into."

Little Falls was not for Lopez, and he was transferred to Detroit Lakes in March of 1986. Detroit Lakes would prove to be a more pleasant experience, but not just because of the change of scenery. Lopez would meet his future wife, Sandra, during this visit. Sandra's family decided to host Lopez in their home because she was taking Spanish courses while pursuing a degree in education at Concordia College in Moorhead.

"Her family was very polite," Lopez remembered. "They were the typical Minnesotan family with strong family values, and I really liked that about them."

While Lopez helped Sandra with her Spanish homework, the two developed a strong friendship. As time passed, Lopez realized he would be leaving for Panama soon and never thought anything would become of the friendship he had formed with the Minnesotan girl who reminded him of Mary from "Little House on the Prairie."

Their friendship withstood the test of time and distance even when Sandra traveled to Spain as part of Spanish studies and Lopez returned to Panama. Long before the days of e-mail, the two would maintain a correspondence of letters for the next six years.

Life in Panama

When Lopez returned to Panama after his year in the United States, life was not easy. Money was not circulating well in Panama or for Lopez, who worked as an engineer assistant for a sugar cane factory, earning a meager $200 per month.

"I was working, but I was really struggling," he recalled. "It was stressful. There weren't many jobs in Panama, and you really couldn't cash a check because there was no cash flow because of the imposed sanctions from the U.S. to Panama. Instead, we would get vouchers for everything; vouchers to pay our electricity bill, vouchers to go to the grocery store, but no cash."

Lopez found himself longing for the life he had experienced in the U.S. and knew he had to make a quick change in his life.

"I actually didn't know what I wanted to do," he recalled. "When you are in a desperate situation, all you want to do is get out of there. You want to breathe; you want to have room to wiggle, to do something," he remembered. "You feel oppressed, and all you can think about is 'I need to get out of here.' I knew if I came to the United States, I could get a job. I just had to get here."

New beginnings

Lopez found his way out of Panama when he encountered a woman who was a friend of the family at a Panamanian carnival. During a casual conversation, he inquired about her profession and learned she worked for the Panama Corporation for International Scholarship for the government.

"I asked if people take the scholarships, and she said sometimes no one applies. So I asked her which would be the most unlikely scholarship."

The scholarship was in Hesaraghatta, Bangalore, India, working as a chicken sexer to sort through the new chicks at a chicken factory to make sure the males and females were separate.

The job sounded interesting to Lopez, and he successfully applied for the scholarship. Again, he had no expectations with this journey, and he left for India hoping his next stop would be the United States.

The program lasted four months, but when it was time to go home Lopez knew he could not return to his life in Panama.

"On my way back from India I said 'I'm not going to Panama. I cannot live like this again.'"

Lost in translation

Lopez flew to New York City and gained a temporary visa. He went to visit Sandra for a few weeks and decided to call friends he had made while working at the poultry plant in Georgia. Lopez was hired as a manager of a farm there for several years.

Lopez and Sandra married in 1995 and the two moved to Lakefield, where Sandra was working as an elementary teacher. Lopez sought work at a poultry plant in Jackson, but life was not going well there, he recalled.

Change came again when Sandra saw an advertisement for the interpreter position at District 518 in Worthington. Although he didn't think he had the necessary credentials for the job, Lopez applied and began his new role as interpreter on Sept. 11, 1996.

Lopez was the district's first year-round interpreter, and although he was fluently bilingual, he struggled with his new job.

"My initial experience was scary," he recollected. "I remember I wasn't really sure what to do. I felt incompetent because people sometimes spoke the same language that I spoke, and I still didn't understand them. By that time there were more Mexicans and Texans than anything else, and I was struggling because I wasn't knowledgeable in Mexican street lingo. It was an eyeopener and a learning experience for me."

He slowly became more comfortable as an interpreter, and after 15 years with the district he believes he has been able to connect with all members of the community.

"I just went along with it," he said of the initial challenges he faced as an interpreter. "People were a little hesitant because I was a new figure in the community. You have to earn everything in life. I think I have earned the respect of the Hispanic community, no matter where they are from, because I have treated everyone with respect and listened to their concerns."

Giving back

Today Lopez is the proud father to Austin, 13, and Josephine, 12. When he looks at his children, he sees the infinite possibilities they will have in this land of opportunity.

"My daughter wants to go to Julliard, and my son wants to be a chef. I tell them to go for it," he said. "I try to instill in them good values, good manners and a good work ethic. I tell them to study hard, and that I want what is best for them."

From Panama to Georgia, Georgia to Minnesota, back to Panama, to India and back to Minnesota, Lopez's life has been a series of unexpected events that have somehow managed to transpire for the good.

"It just happened," said Lopez, who became a U.S. citizen in 2008. "I never even imagined I would come to the United States. It wasn't within my plans, and if I would have planned it this way, it wouldn't have been this perfect."

Although he has been in the United States for many years, Lopez still goes back to Panama and has taken several members from his church to help build a playground at the elementary school he attended. When his mother died several years ago, Lopez took his children to his old home to share with them the life he once had. A lot has changed since those times, but the memories are never far from his heart. He hopes he can one day host an exchange student and change a student's life in the same way he was impacted during his first visit to the United States.

The road to a better life has been difficult, yet exciting and unexpected. Regardless of where he has been, Lopez has discovered how the helping hands of others have benefited him over the years.

"I believe in the end kindness, hard work and dedication pay off," he said. "At the end of the day, you make your own decisions of what you want to happen in your life. Don't dwell on the past. I could have gotten into drugs and alcohol because I was poor and I was an orphan. But I moved on to the present. Bad things in life happen, but at the end of the day you have to control our own destiny to a certain extent."