Dr. Leila Flores-Torres has spent the last 20 years traveling for Thanksgiving. Her destinations of choice? Areas with rich Indigenous cultures.
Flores-Torres is a Mexican immigrant who has lived in the United States for 26 years. She moved to the U.S. at age 24 after she earned her degree and became a licensed psychologist. Once in the states, she eventually married and furthered her education by earning a philosophy doctorate in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Now, Flores-Torres is the special education director at Sharyland ISD.
The 51-year-old said her traveling tradition began because she felt like she didn’t belong.
“When you grow up in a different country, and Thanksgiving is not a traditional holiday, you don’t really understand the meaning,” she said. “And so my family, when we immigrated, we said, ‘Well, we have this week off from working from school…and so what do we do to celebrate Thanksgiving?’”
Before the educator began her tradition, she used the week to visit her home and family in Montemorelos, Mexico. But about 20 years ago, she and her family began exploring other areas of Mexico and other states in the U.S.
In Mexico, she has visited Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Puebla and Chihuahua. In the states, she’s visited Oregon, Oklahoma, Illinois, Florida, California and the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, among others. She also travels outside of Thanksgiving, and to other countries, such as Japan and India. When learning about different cultures, the traveler described it as “almost addictive.”
“Like you go one year and you can explore an area of it and you see three or four different Indigenous and ethnic cultures. And then you wanna go back because you wanna know what’s after that, what’s next, what’s past those seven hours of mountains,” she explained.
Flores-Torres said she tries to understand how Indigenous cultures view the world through their textiles, food and art. For her, it’s important to wear the traditional garments of the place she is visiting. She tries to imagine life for the Indigenous people when they first encountered European colonizers.
“Eventually, giving thanks became more of appreciating the cultural richness that we have both in the United States and in Mexico through our Indigenous cultures,” Flores-Torres said. “And so because we don’t grow up with a textbook definition of Pilgrims and Indians, as an adult, you understand Thanksgiving as appreciation of what Indigenous cultures have given both to the United States and to Mexico and to many other countries.”
The SISD educator said what stands out to her the most about Indigenous groups is their collectivism and worldview of protecting each other and the environment. She explained that they believe the wellness of one is a reflection of the whole community or tribe, which correlates to her work with disabled children. Familial well-being reflects on the children and affects them in the classroom.
This year, Flores-Torres is spending her Thanksgiving break in Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosí. It’s an old mining town in the mountains of central Mexico, home to the Indigenous group known as Huicholes. Although the area is a tourist attraction, it is sacred territory and a ceremonial site in the Huichol culture.
The SPED director will spend the entire week in the historical town, and on Thanksgiving Day, she will do what she always does — reflect and give thanks in her own way.
“Even though it’s not something I grew up with, it’s something I’ve adopted on Thanksgiving as a way to stop and appreciate life and appreciate what I have, including my family, my job, my friends, everything I have,” Flores-Torres said. “But also to learn a new lesson in life and a new appreciation of how people who live different than us also have their own reasons to celebrate, their own reasons to be happy.”
The 51-year-old invites Mexican Americans to reflect on how they view and celebrate Thanksgiving. She spoke about the brutality Indigenous people face, the commercialization of the holiday and the importance of understanding what it means to give thanks.
“I know I don’t celebrate traditional Thanksgiving, but this is my way of becoming a better human being, more appreciative of what I have and the opportunities I’ve received that allow me to then enjoy Thanksgiving in a different way,” Flores-Torres said. “You know, it all comes full circle. Because yes, I’m an immigrant and I celebrate being an immigrant and getting all the opportunities I received. But I’ve also worked really hard to give back as much as I have received. And I think that, as a society, we always have to think that we have all these blessings…but at some point we have to share them either through learning or through doing good things for other groups that might be more vulnerable.”