By Maranda Loughlin
Oscar Rios Pohirieth is a man of many titles.
To his students, he is their teacher.
To the immigrant families in Lincoln, he is their friend.
And to the city, he is a contributor of the arts.
But long before any of those, Pohirieth was a dreamer, imagining himself in the United States learning the English language.
When he was 18 years old, Pohirieth traveled north from Mexico on a Greyhound bus with a sticky note and $150 in his pocket, unprepared and knowingly stepping into a new world outside his comfort zone.
Because Pohirieth did, he is now an educator for Lincoln Public Schools, a performer in two musical groups, the author of a children’s book, a photographer, a family man and an inspiration.
But Pohirieth was first an immigrant.
“That’s where my story begins,” he says. “A story that I wouldn’t change or trade for anything.”
When Pohirieth was 17 years old, he was a student studying mechanical engineering in southern Mexico. He spoke only Spanish, but many of his textbooks were written in English. He began to struggle with his education because he couldn’t understand the language, couldn’t understand his textbooks and classes.
Pohirieth was stuck without many options.
In 1991, after a hard conversation with his family, Pohirieth left for the United States. He planned to stay with an American family from Ohio he had met when they were on a mission trip to build churches in Pohirieth’s hometown.
With their contact information on a sticky note, some cash, and a Greyhound bus ticket, Pohirieth was off.
Then came his first problem in America. He was stuck – again.
While traveling across Nebraska, he lost the sticky note. Pohirieth had run out of money and could not afford to go back home to Mexico or travel further to Ohio to find the family he’d met. Pohirieth was forced to stay put and assimilate to the new culture.
“I was stuck in Lincoln.”
Not that he regrets it.
“It was the hardest thing I have ever done as an individual,” he said. “But it’s been the most rewarding thing that I have ever done as an individual as well.”
The first six months in Lincoln were a struggle. Everything was scary and new. Pohirieth remembers going to the grocery store and running away when the front doors opened automatically.
“It was the kind of culture that one is not ready to perceive, that one is not ready to live,” he said. “Things like that made me feel like a strange animal.”
He called his family whenever he could, but his scarce resources limited him to two-minute phone calls. Pohirieth had some really lonely days and sometimes even thought about returning home to Mexico.
And while he still wasn’t connecting completely with the English language, that wasn’t his only problem.
“Forget the language,” Pohirieth said. “It was everything.
“The hardest part of being an immigrant was everything.”
Pohirieth found just living each day was difficult.
“Just living. How do you do things in a new culture? Language was just a tiny little piece of confusion out of hundreds of bubbles of confusion that were very present at that point in my life.”
But after traveling 12,161 miles away from home in search of an education, Pohirieth was determined to get one. After six months of working for a lawn service in Lincoln, Pohirieth was able to afford to get started on his education, a process that began with English-as-a-Second-Language classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The classes kick-started Pohirieth’s assimilation. He began to like the new country, his new environment and the new people he was meeting. Little by little, he discovered he was becoming more comfortable with the English language.
“So I thought, ‘Why do I want to go back to Mexico? Why don’t I just continue my education?’”
Pohirieth stayed and then changed his major from mechanical engineering to education. Even more than before, education became his life’s theme. “Learning and relearning and then learning.”
He finished his degree in education with a focus on Spanish. Pohirieth wanted to share his education process with others. He wanted to teach.
A friend suggested he become a bilingual liaison for Lincoln Public Schools, but Pohirieth was hard to convince. He wasn’t sure he could communicate with immigrant children and families—but not because he didn’t have any advice for them.
“I was just a little too afraid to talk to people.”
It took a year to convince Pohirieth to apply for—and earn—the job. Pohirieth went to work for LPS, helping interpret for new Spanish-speaking families in Lincoln. Nine years later, Pohirieth now oversees 17 bilingual liaisons who speak 10 different languages.
He also serves as the cultural specialist for LPS, working to create a link between new immigrant families in Lincoln and the public school system. He has served Kurdish, Sudanese, Russian, Ukrainian and Vietnamese families, among many others. He still doesn’t see himself as an expert.
“Will I ever be an expert in the area of cultural proficiency? No. Because it is not a place where one arrives at. It is a journey. And it’s a journey that evolves on a daily basis.”
His goal is to communicate in a way that is respectful and not hurtful. He strives to find new ways to communicate even when the dynamics of the world and situations change.
“I’m working on it, and I will never stop working on it,” he said. “If I am able to do that I will be happy.”
People have different reasons for immigrating. Sometimes the political dynamics of a country have changed. Sometimes there might be genocide. Or violence, war, oppression or climate change. Sometimes they are hoping to reunite with family.
The issues change as the people change, and because of this, Pohirieth’s job is never the same.
“This is a universe that is always in movement and in motion. We, as humans, are the ones who get stuck,” he said “So I have to keep up with it.”
Elizabeth Montes became stuck because of cultural barriers.
In 2001, Montes and her family immigrated from Cuerna Vaca, Morelos, in Mexico. Pohirieth was still a bilingual liaison for LPS then and translated for Montes whenever she went to her children’s schools to visit or to events like parent teacher conferences. He helped Montes adjust to living in Lincoln by giving her support when she most needed it.
“He supported me when I was going through a difficult time in my life,” Montes said. “You know, as an immigrant and as a Latino, we have a lot of barriers that make us want to stop pursuing our dreams. But [Pohirieth] reminds me that it doesn’t matter what I have been through, I can still make it here. He always gives me a lot of positive advice and suggestions.”
Today, because of Pohirieth’s influence, Montes works as a bilingual liaison for LPS and sees Pohirieth up close as he helps students achieve their dreams and stay positive, just like he once did for her.
“He reminds them to never give up and that they can do it,” Montes said. “He tells them to keep moving forward and if they put in all of their efforts they can get onto the level they want to be.”
Eventually Pohirieth returned to school himself.
“It came to a point where I was faced with the reality of mental health,” he said. “I worked with these new students, and every time I saw them I saw pain, emotional and physical pain.
“This became a part of my professional development. And just as I started with English and making education the theme of that particular time in my life, 10 years later, the theme became mental health.”
Now Pohirieth has a master’s degree in counseling and psychology.
Pohirieth doesn’t know where he will be 10 years from now, or what the new theme to his life will be. But, he does know that he will continue to gather and apply new skills to his daily work with families and children from all walks of life.
“The problem comes when teachers believe there is a point they reach where they stop learning. That is dangerous.”
Pohirieth is a poet, an author and a photographer.
But his attraction to all art forms started with music.
When Pohirieth was a little boy in Mexico, his father, who was a musician himself, would tell him stories of his family’s history. Pohirieth learned that he came from a family of musicians, musicians who had played for kings. His father told him he was an extension of that.
“It is written in my genetic blueprint,” Pohirieth said. “It is already written. It is with my every thought. As I speak to you I’m singing in my mind.”
In Mexico, Pohirieth had played many instruments: the zampoñas (Andean pan pipes), the quena (a flute) and the bombo (an African drum). But in Lincoln, Pohirieth didn’t have any instruments. In fact, he didn’t play any instrument for the first four years after his arrival in Lincoln. He thought no one would want to hear him play, and he lacked the confidence to start again.
Then, he found a flute, and he couldn’t stop playing.
He kept adding instruments. He traveled to Europe in one group, playing music for two weeks.
Today he’s a teaching artist for the Lied Center for Performing Arts. Pohirieth won’t stop music, he said, because every time he plays, he learns something from it.
“I am so glad that at some point in my life as an immigrant I decided to share that music with others again,” he said. “Because through that communication, I was able to learn that people are open to the idea of learning, to the idea of understanding.”
In 2002, Pohirieth met Daniel Martinez, who had just emigrated from Iquitos, Peru, to earn a college degree. They were both at a church musical program and bonded over the different instruments they played.
“We went through the same adaptations,” Martinez said. “When I was struggling with some problems in life, [Pohirieth] said to me, ‘Use the music, and you will get over the problem.’”
After finishing his graduate education, Martinez moved to California to work on a master’s degree. He had little contact with Pohirieth during the seven years he was gone.
“But when I came back it was like nothing happened,” Martinez said. “The times were still the same.
“Music brought us back together.”
Now, Martinez and Pohirieth play in each other’s bands, Jaraña and Kusi Taki. The two are bandmates, friends, family.
“He is my brother,” Martinez said. “I know this because my biological brother told me one thing before I left home and he said, ‘You’re going to find a good friend when you go to their house without saying anything and they give you a bed, food, a place to stay. They’re going to open their door for you, and they won’t complain.’
“Pohirieth would do that for me, and I would do that for him.”
Pohirieth is inspired by people, by humanity, even by himself.
“I am not sure why sometimes, as humans, we are surprised by greatness,” he said. “Perhaps we are surprised by greatness because we have forgotten that we have it within ourselves. So who made me who I am today? It’s always been there. All I had to do was surface it.”
It’s an insight Pohirieth didn’t always have.
“We were brought up in a system of misery,” he said. “So those things sort of hide the amazing parts of a human person.
“I spent a great deal of my life getting rid of the trash that was hiding those beautiful gems. Taking away the trash so I can surface amazing.”
Every day, Pohirieth begins by asking himself a question: What is he going to do that day so that people can see his spirit?
“If you are able to see my spirit, that’s all that matters,” he said. “Everything that will come out of my mouth, everything that I will do with these hands, if my goal is for everyone to see my spirit, everything that comes out of this organic body will be just amazing.
“Sometimes one makes it too complex, too complicated, in order to be somebody. It’s just as simple as allowing yourself to surface your spirit,” he added.
Which leads him to offer a piece of advice to everyone, whether new or native to America:
“We need to get out of our basements. We need to get out of our rooms, and we need to contribute to this community,” he said. “There is no question that people, once they see an individual’s spirit, will not be able to help it—they will want to communicate with them.
“They will gravitate around that one individual that is able to show their spirit. They cannot fight it.”