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From coffee fields to college grad

Fabio Lopez of Worthington poses with some of his college textbooks. He's now working toward his master's degree in business administration.

WORTHINGTON -- Fabio Lopez realized at a young age that his homeland of Guatemala was not a land of opportunity.

The third of 11 children born into poverty, he was just 10 years old when he left his home and family behind and headed into Mexico for work on coffee plantations.

"We used to live in a civil war," he said. "I didn't see any opportunity to work (in Guatemala)."

With military and guerilla forces at odds, the war was "pretty bad" when it arrived at his village. Soldiers surrounded the schools and it was dangerous.

The villagers were indigenous people, Lopez said, and when the government established a termination policy against them, many fled to neighboring Mexico. While a peace treaty was signed in 1996, Lopez was far on his way to establishing a brighter future here in the United States.

He has not returned to Guatemala since he came to the U.S. in 1993 -- and with his refugee status due to political asylum, he will not be able to visit his home country until his pending case is settled.

"Some day I would like to visit, but not now," Lopez said. His parents still live in Guatemala, along with four sisters and two brothers. Five of his brothers, all of whom are classified as refugees resulting from political asylum, live in Worthington.

Journey to America

After leaving Guatemala behind at age 10, Lopez found work at large coffee plantations in Mexico.

"I started to work to survive," he said.

In exchange for his work, Lopez lived in a large barn on the farm with dozens of other workers. Because of his age, he only received a half-ration of food each day -- a ration that consisted of a tortilla and beans -- not near enough for a growing boy, he said.

Lopez returned to his family in Guatemala after the plantation work was completed each year, but since his parents had no money to send him to middle school and high school, there wasn't much he could do. He'd spend his days reading (he was hooked after reading a book about a French philosopher) and listening to Voice of America, as translated in Spanish, on his radio.

At age 16, Lopez permanently moved to Mexico, and two years later was granted approval to enter the United States. By then, his oldest brother was living in Columbus, Ga.

"I was supposed to go there, but I ended up in Florida," said Lopez, who worked on large tomato, pepper and cucumber farms.

When he finally made it to Georgia, Lopez lived with his brother and spent the next six or seven years working for Tyson's chicken plant in Columbus.

Value of education

It was while living in the South that Lopez learned of a migrant worker education program. Intrigued, he agreed to seek his General Educational Development (G.E.D.) diploma.

"When I moved to the city there were so many books there to read," he said. "It became my pastime. I never dreamed of going to college -- there was no way -- it wasn't an opportunity."

"Back home, a high school diploma was for smart people," he added.

When Lopez took the G.E.D. test for the first time, he earned passing scores in three of the five test areas -- math, science and social. On his second attempt, he passed the language and literature portions, officially earning his G.E.D.

"They sent me a diploma," he said with a grin. "It wasn't serious for me at that time. I was working 14- and 16-hour days."

Working the night shift at Tyson, Lopez said he attended English classes during the day -- mostly for the fun of it, he said. Then, in 1998, he visited with a friend who was going to college.

The spark grew within Lopez, who then approached Columbus State University in Georgia to begin college coursework. After completing the college's entrance exam -- he passed the math portion that included algebra equations, but failed the English portion -- he was accepted into the college.

"I took English 99 because I had to learn how to write English," he said. "I also took some math classes. It was a challenge, but I made it."

When Lopez and his brother moved to Worthington five years ago, Lopez continued his quest for higher education. He completed two years at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington, and went on to graduate from Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in Spanish education.

"I like to teach, but sometimes it's frustrating," he said. Most frustrating for him is the students who don't really want to learn.

Today, Lopez has returned to the classroom -- working toward his master's degree in business administration. He hopes one day to work for a large public or private company. He has one more year at SMSU before completing the program, and works as a graduate assistant in the business department at the college.

While Lopez still struggles some with the English language, it is getting easier for him.

"Now I read a lot in English," he said. "I still have problems to write the perfect essay."

Splitting his time between Marshall -- he has an apartment there -- and Worthington, where he lives with four of his brothers, Lopez said he still calls Worthington home.

His college diploma and continued quest for education has inspired at least one of his siblings, said Lopez. His brother Augusto, 30, is thinking of going to school.

If it weren't for a scholarship Lopez received from the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, he isn't sure he would have ever been able to attend college.

"The problem is we don't have all of the opportunities to go to college," he said. "There are barriers."


Living in the United States for the last 16 years, Lopez said he is thankful to be here as a refugee.

"The things that I like about the United States is everything is so nice, and there is a law also that they enforce," Lopez said. "For me, it has been a blessing.

"I have my intellectual knowledge -- I found the Lord here, the God I was looking for, for a long time," he added. "Thank the Lord that I found that here -- that's the most important, my spiritual life. I got saved in 2004."

A member of Worthington Baptist Temple, Lopez said he thinks back to the time in his home country, when his dad was taken hostage by the Guatemalan military. Lopez and his mother prayed for his safe return, and when he came back home, Lopez said he decided right there that he wanted to learn the true Gospel.

"I truly believe that He guides me in everything I do," Lopez said. "Now, if the Lord wills, I want to be a missioner."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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