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Salvador Flores yearned for a sense of belonging when he embarked on a journey of self discovery three years ago and joined ArtLab-Platteform--- an internship program, which tackles social issues affecting teens through the arts.
Little did he know that he would be honored by First Lady Michelle Obama and receive an award for it.
The award ceremony is an effort to recognize community-based arts and humanities programs which strive to improve the lives of youth by developing their life and people skills through creative expression.
The honored programs and teens were chosen from over 471 nominees and 50 finalists.
“It’s really unbelievable,” Flores said as he reminisced on his time spent with the organization. “I never thought I would get this opportunity in my life.”
Flores, 19, was born in Los Angeles, Calif. He is a first Mexican-American, whose chances of graduating high school three years ago seemed to be slim to none. Today, he proudly says he is the first in his family to graduate high school and currently attends the Community College of Denver (CCD).
I see the Mayan in myself. They were destroyed, but greatness cannot be destroyed within the genes.
“It’s really been a support system,” said Flores. “I wouldn’t have had a place where I could go and push myself.”
Flores tells that when participating in ArtLab-Platteform he focused on interacting with local artists, who inspired him to learn more about “his people” and himself as an individual.
“Some days will participate in getting to know each other, explaining who we are and how we could grow,” Flores said. “I remember this one artist. He made this beautiful mural… about the significance of the soul.”
That mural awoke Flores' curiosity and he would later would spend hours researching the Mayan and Aztec cultures.
“In school, they teach us about American history and African-American history. But they never teach the Mexican experience,” Flores said. “[Now] I see the Mayan in myself. They were destroyed, but greatness cannot be destroyed within the genes.”
Growing up in a black neighborhood where he was the only Mexican, Flores says he has finally come to terms with frustrations about his past thanks to ArtLab-Platteform.
“I grew up with their estilo (style),” Flores said. “I used to get beat up for being the only Mexican on the block.”
“I want to help everyone and finding myself is the starting point,” he added. “How can we change the world if we can’t change ourselves?”
Flores’ parents were born in Jalisco, Mexico before migrating to the U.S. in the hopes of giving their son a better life. At home, Flores felt that the love he was getting was great but that “it was just a different support system.”
Still, he says he is grateful for the values his parents have passed on to him.
“My dad came over [to the U.S.] at 16 to work and then he brought my mom,” said Flores.“Trabaja bien duro [work hard] that’s what they would always tell me.”
So, when ArtLab-Platteform came around, Flores told his parents he had found a job. He was after all getting a stipend. Nevertheless, he kept much of his experience to himself because he wanted to do this on his own.
“I didn’t know how to explain the scope of it in Spanish,” he recalls. “I wanted to do this my way and say I did it my way.”
Asked what he plans to tell the first lady upon receiving his award, the college student brought up the economy and immigration reform.
“I want them to support la gente,” said Flores. “I don’t see race. What I see is rich and poor.”
“The rich have more than we do,” he added. “Why should they get to live the good life?”
Like at ArtLab-Platteform, he continued, “Everyone is equal. We try to make everyone feel like a family.” That in Flores’ eyes is how things should be.