PORTLAND, Oregon — Matilde Flores was a teenager living in a small farming town in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, in 1980 when she moved with her parents to the U.S.
It was a massive change for a 15-year-old girl raised in a village five hours from Guadalajara on dirt roads, where families grew their own corn and beans.
The family landed together in 10,000-resident Blackfoot, Idaho, where her father found work sorting potatoes in a region that has long drawn migrant workers.
In a local middle school, uncertain and speaking little English, she felt lost. “I didn't know the language. And I felt like I didn't fit in,” she said.
To help, the school paired her with a classmate named Maria, who was from Texas and spoke Spanish. Maria spent the day alongside her, helping translate.
Maria was a friend and a lifeline. They hung out at school, at recess and in the lunchroom. But then Maria abruptly stopped showing up for school.
“Do you know what's happening?” Matilde asked her teacher.
“She's really sick,” the teacher replied.
After a few days, Matilde asked again. Maria had leukemia, and her teacher confided that she probably would not survive.
Maria passed away from cancer. When she found out, Matilde was shocked, distraught. She felt abandoned.
Matilde eventually learned English, grew into adulthood. She got married, had children and eventually moved to Oregon where she became a community health worker.
But the experience of suddenly losing Maria to cancer left a lasting mark. So strong it compelled her to begin supporting St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in honor of her childhood friend — and to bring Oregon's Latino community along with her.
“Ever since she passed, I had felt this need to do something in her memory and honor,” she said. “When I saw St. Jude’s work with children, I immediately wanted to help, because there isn't anything in the world that hurts me more than seeing my children suffer.”
Since then, Matilde, 56, has become a St. Jude Hero, not only running races to raise money but recruiting a team of runners to join her in support of St. Jude.
Many count themselves among Portland’s strong and proud Latino community. The group of women, named the Heroes Latinos, have run races including Seattle and Las Vegas.
Among them is Lilia Morales, a 47-year-old mother of three who started running with Matilde seven years ago. She was struck by Matilde’s story about Maria.
Morales could relate to her journey. She, too, moved from Mexico when she was young, just 17 years old, and struggled with a new language and culture.
And she shared in the passion for St. Jude, especially after seeing race routes lined with pictures of childrens’ faces and receiving thank-you notes from patients being treated by the research hospital.
During one race in Seattle, her friend, one of the Heroes Latinos members running in honor of her friend’s daughter who was fighting leukemia, felt as though she couldn’t keep going up a steep hill. With tears in her eyes, she started walking backwards. Then she noticed pictures of St. Jude patients along the way, and supporters started cheering for her.
"You can do it mama, keep going!" people yelled, spurring her to the finish.
Many Heroes Latinos are not wealthy, but still work to aid a place that supports families when their children are sick. Matilde said she’s been lucky that her family hasn’t been touched by cancer, but she knows how it feels to have a child suffer.
Her son, now in his 30s, is a U.S. Marine veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan. He returned to face PTSD and chronic pain, she said. While he is doing better, working toward a goal of getting an advanced degree in genetics, it was a tough road.
“When I signed up for the first marathon, I also did it to cope with him joining the military service. I mean you go nuts thinking, what could be happening to him?” she said. Later, after his return, running also helped her cope. “I'm helping St. Jude, but at the same time, I’m helping myself,” she said.
At one race in Seattle, Matilde was running with 10 other St. Jude Heroes. She was recovering from an automobile accident and had just lost her mother.
“My whole body was trying to give up. It felt like the grieving from my mom's loss went to my body. The first five miles were like running on splinters. By mile 18, I was cramping up so bad that I didn't know if I was going to keep going,” she said.
“But I figured you know, my mom would never have given up. And the children of St Jude go through a lot worse than what I'm going through,” she said. "I pushed through and I was able to cross the finish line.”
Matilde spends her days working in early childhood education, boosting kindergarten readiness and connecting families to resources that they might need so children have a strong foundation to succeed.
After work, she’s busy registering more people for races in the Pacific Northwest, especially after cancellations in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She urges people on social media to join the cause.
Matilde’s cousin, Cecilia Pelayo, grew up in the same Mexican town as her. She now works for a Portland-area community college where she helps clients with English as a second language.
When it came to being recruited to become a St. Jude Hero, she wasn’t so sure at first.
Matilde understood. She, too, had wondered if she could run a marathon at first, and repeatedly tried to talk herself out of it. So she persisted with Cecilia.
“She didn’t give up on me. Finally I said, 'OK. But I have no idea how to run.' I was overweight. I made changes in what I eat. She said, ‘It’s OK. If you need to start walking, you start walking,’” she said. “She helps with warming up. If we have to walk, she’ll walk with us — even if she can run. She’ll wait for us.”
One winter day, Cecilia said, they were training for a 2019 race. “It was freezing cold, like 17 degrees, windy. I was just praying the whole time. I didn’t give up because she didn't say anything about being cold. I think about the needs of the kids, how difficult life must be for the families. Knowing that you’re helping somehow...it’s just amazing.”
Matilde’s experience as a young girl losing her only friend to cancer — and her passion to raise money for the St. Jude mission — has created a ripple effect in Oregon’s Latino community, Cecilia said.
“Her dream is a big group with the Latino community running for St. Jude. She’ll be able to do that,” Cecilia said. “Now we all believe in the mission of St. Jude.”