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Panama's Lopez traded agriculture career for Minnesota life

WORTHINGTON -- Since 1996, Herminio Lopez has been working as a translator in Worthington Independent School District 518.

Before that, he seemed poised to pursue a career in the agriculture sector. That's the path he set out on following his graduation from high school in his native Panama.

"I graduated from high school and then came to the U.S. as an exchange student in my first college year," Lopez recalled. "My high school was a vocational high school and you go from there to college to specialize in whatever area you like, whether it's cattle-raising or growing crops or raising animals.

"My village only had about 500 people and is in a cluster of small towns and small villages that belong to the district ... Santiago," he added. "My village is a very important agriculture testing ground and veterinary ground, and they have international people coming to teach in that school of agriculture."

So it was that Lopez came to America, arriving in Georgia eager for a chance to study agriculture on U.S. soil and then take that knowledge back to contribute to his village.

Georgia, and

then Minnesota

Given that Panama had only three agricultural trade schools -- and the need in the country for professionals in that area was great -- Lopez set out for America. Where he wound up was far different from his very rural roots.

"When I was little, we didn't have electricity or running water -- that came in about 1975," he said. "We had to go to the well and get water, stuff like that."

It was 1985 by the time Lopez arrived in the American south and began working with a family-owned agricultural enterprise.

"They have a large poultry operation and they took me in as an exchange student," he explained. "The family was expanding their operation and I helped around, and it was a very good experience ... because I was part of a family. I still keep in touch with them today."

After five months there, Lopez departed for the next stage in his exchange-student experience. That, though, didn't progress quite as smoothly.

"The first stop was Owatonna, with a transition family for a week," he detailed. "After that, they sent me to Little Falls, but Little Falls didn't work out for me. It was a bad experience -- the purpose of the program was to help the family and then you learn, but you needed to be part of the family. When that didn't happen, I called the 4-H representative."

Lopez was returned once again to Owatonna for a week with a transitional family, and then sent to a family that ran a dairy operation in Detroit Lakes. That worked out much better.

Back to Panama

Lopez spent about five months in Detroit Lakes before heading back to Panama. Before too long, living conditions in his country made him long to return to the U.S.

"I was only 21 and at that time in Panama, being the developing country that it was, things were very tight," he said. "You think, 'Yeah, I want to come back here,' because you see all the possibilities, but at the same time you think you would have a very slim chance to come back because of all the rules and regulations. ... I was under some clause where I had to do some projects when I came back and put into practice what I'd learned."

Lopez worked on projects pertaining to growing rice and watermelon for between two and three years. But, he described, the national turmoil came to a point "where it was very bad to be there." Manuel Noriega, the military governor of Panama from 1983 to 1989, was in power, and the country's people were suffering for it.

"Sanctions against the Noriega government did not work, but what they did do was hurt everyday people," Lopez said. "There was no money circulation. ... If you worked, you could not cash in money; they gave vouchers to buy groceries or pay utilities. There were few jobs, too."

Lopez tried to farm on his own, but ultimately gained employment as an engineer in his village's sugar cane factory. That wasn't year-round work, however, and he began to try to find a way to come back to Georgia and once again work at the poultry operation he'd been with as an exchange student.

"I tried for two years and got all the paperwork done and everything, but I still couldn't come back to the United States," he said. "So, I moved from my small village to Panama City and lived with my sister and her husband and my other sister and my other brother, all in the same house. They all worked in Panama City, and I got a job; it was in an office furniture factory, and I learned how to spot-weld. I usually looked at the paper for international scholarships, and I figured that maybe I could travel around the world and find another way to get back to the United States."

Back to America

One day, Lopez learned through the newspaper that India's embassy had a scholarship available for agriculture. Once he was accepted into the program, he flew in 1992 to New Delhi and then made his way to the International Poultry Institute in Hessarghatta, a village in Bangalore. After five months of very intensive training there, he was able to successfully return to Georgia.

"This was now 1993 and they had already expanded so much that they had operations in Arkansas, Missouri and all over Georgia ... and they were thinking about an overseas operation," Lopez recalled. "I was put in charge of managing a farm of over 300,000 birds myself. It was stressful, but I really enjoyed that a lot."

Lopez worked in Georgia from 1993 to 1995 and while there received visits from a woman he had met in Minnesota during his student days. He would marry his wife, Sandra, in 1995, and then relocated to Worthington.

Panama still remains a big part of Lopez's life. Though now a U.S. citizen, he returns with his family regularly.

"We go back every other year to visit, and also so the kids can see family and experience the Panama culture and the differences and be more aware of who they are," he said.

"When I came back here from India, for a few years I was kind of detached from my roots. I talked to people on the telephone, but now there's Skype, you can use MSN and you can use Facebook, which I do now."

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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