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Armando Salgado
Armando Salgado. photo by Eric Francis

Small Steps to a Better Life

by Wendy Townley

As a young boy growing up in rural Mexico, Armando Salgado learned quickly the hardships of a life lived in poverty. Salgado and his mother shared a small adobe house in Morelos, a small community five hours south of Mexico City. The one-room dwelling was topped with clay shingles, a dirt floor at their feet.

"It's just like you see in the movies," Salgado says.

His father, a migrant worker, lived in Chicago for much of the boy's childhood, sending money home to Mexico when he could. When Salgado turned 6, his father moved back to Mexico, where the family planted crops, slash-and-burn style, for money. The three walked 5 miles each day to the fields of Mexico, planting corn and beans.

The seeds the Salgados sowed held the hope of a better life. They worked to earn money, enough to get the family to, and hopefully over, the United States border.

The first attempt, when Salgado was around 6 years old, was unsuccessful. "We got caught," Salgado says.

U.S. border patrols apprehended the family, placing Salgado and his mother in one jail cell, his father in another. They were quickly returned to Mexico, but the money they worked so hard for now was gone. They had $20 to their names, not nearly enough to immediately make the trip a second time.

But the Salgado family persevered. After two more attempts, the family crossed the border and traveled to Washington state, where other family members lived and worked. "That's when I get emotional," Salgado says of his border-crossing experiences.

In Washington, Salgado's parents once again worked on a farm. And, again, their living conditions were awful.

The building, about the size of a conference room, housed not only the Salgado family, but the farm's tractors and other outdoor equipment. There were cockroaches. And rats. And a water pump below the building's floor that operated loudly nonstop.

The building didn't have central air or heat. Salgado recalls his parents creating a makeshift fireplace from a barrel, using a tube attached to the window to serve as a chimney.

"I remember everything," Salgado recalls. "It was probably the worst times of our lives. It was just horrible."

That fall, Salgado enrolled in the local public school. Classmates teased him because he couldn't speak English. Six months later, however, Salgado was fluent in English and advanced to the second grade at mid-year.

After school, Salgado returned to the fields to work next to his parents. The same was true during summer vacations, when Salgado awoke at 4 a.m. to join his parents in the fields each day.

After the Salgado family became settled in a more permanent and suitable housing situation, they returned to Mexico to visit friends and family members. The visits occurred every two years and usually lasted a few months.

Salgado would explain the situation to his teachers, requesting to take the class work he would miss while away.

But while in Mexico, Salgado couldn't ask his parents for help. His father attended school through the third grade; his mother, fourth grade.

When living in Washington, Salgado slowly was making a transition to a troubled youth. Friends and cousins encouraged him to join a gang and start some trouble. Just as Salgado began this ill-fated downward spiral, however, his family moved to Omaha.

Fast-forward six or seven years, and there is Salgado enrolled as a freshman at Omaha Central High School. His family found better work in Omaha, and Salgado found a more stable lifestyle. High school opened his eyes to a life other than hard labor. He met friends and became involved in school activities.

"I was happier in Omaha," he says.

Salgado's parents returned to Mexico during his four years at Central. When graduation day arrived in 1999, Salgado's parents were happy for their son, but determined to return to Mexico for good. They wanted the best for their son, even if it meant leaving him behind in Omaha.

A disciplined work ethic, however, changed the fate of Salgado's parents. During the latter years of his high school career, Salgado worked at midtown Omaha's California Taco and saved enough money to make a down payment on a home near 30th and Cuming streets.

Salgado's parents were shocked. They decided to stay in Omaha and live with their son while he studied at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. All bills were split in half. Salgado received UNO's Goodrich scholarship, which covered his college expenses for the next four years.

Before earning degrees in Spanish and international studies from UNO in 2003, Salgado worked part time at the Boy Scouts of America's Mid-America Council in Omaha. He also founded a multicultural social fraternity, Sigma Lambda Beta, at UNO (the nine founding members have grown to nearly 30 members today).

Salgado's passionate purpose of improving the lives of young Latinos continued when his part-time job with the Boy Scouts became a district executive post with the nonprofit organization. Four years later, through the Scoutreach program, Salgado is working with the South Omaha community to create Boy Scout troops for young boys and teens. To date, Salgado has recruited nearly 700 Boy Scout members.

Since joining the Boy Scouts, Salgado has been promoted three times within the organization. As director of the Scoutreach program, Salgado oversees scouting in North, South and East Omaha. He supervises 10 staff members and hundreds of adult leaders.

Lloyd Roitstein, president of the Mid-America Council, says Salgado's commitment to minorities is superb.

"He is charismatic, hard working, dedicated, intelligent and driven," Roitstein says. "He is also a fantastic family person who has values that represent the Boy Scouts well. We are very proud of all he has and continues to accomplish."

Today, Salgado recalls the rough roads he could have traveled while living in Washington, and realizes that change is made easier when boys are young.

"I know this culture," Salgado explains. "I'm from this culture."

Today, Salgado's parents are living in Mexico. He is engaged to be married and owns a real estate business on the side. Salgado, despite his successes, says he has never forgotten his Mexican roots and the struggles he faced as a young boy. That's why his work with the Boy Scouts is so important.

"It's all about making small steps," Salgado says.

Wendy Townley is a contributor to The UNO Alum, the magazine of the UNO Alumni Association.  She can be reached at wendy@wendytownley.com.

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