Immigrant Stories: Transitioning from Mexico to the U.S.
Intro: Elizabeth Velasco recently got married. Her husband is helping her balance her love of work with his love of the outdoors. Elizabeth’s parents live and work near Eagle-Vail, and her brother earned a full-ride scholarship to Dartmouth and recently finished his master’s degree in engineering from Duke.
Note: This story is a collaboration of the Aspen Valley Land Trust and the Immigrant Stories Project, led by Walter Gallacher.
Velasco: I have a lot of good memories of growing up in Guanajuato, Mexico. My mom always cooked for my brother and me. She worked as a nurse, and it seemed like she was always working.
My dad came to the United States shortly after I was born, so we would see him maybe once or twice a year. That was really tough. It made me sad when I would see other kids with their parents and my dad wasn’t here. But in some ways I was lucky because I never saw my parents fight.
Every time he came home it was like a vacation. He would bring gifts and clothes and shoes and teddy bears. So there was really no time for him to be a dad because he was just home for a couple of weeks. It was all celebration and going out, things that we didn’t do when he wasn’t there because we couldn’t afford to.
So when we finally got back together when I was 16, I was very angry with him because he was always trying to tell me what to do. I didn’t like that. I would tell him, “You weren’t here. You have no right to tell me what to do.”
Gallacher: Why did your dad come to the United States?
Velasco: He finished high school and tried to get a college degree in Mexico, but he didn’t finish. He was an artist and a musician, and he used to go play music in the plazas and restaurants of nearby cities, but he could never make what my mom was making. She let him know that it wasn’t enough to raise a family.
So when he got offered a green card to come to Texas and work in the fields my parents decided that was the best plan. He worked in Texas for 17 years and then moved to Colorado and got a job painting cars.
He still just loves his music and would love to just do that all the time. That is something I really like about him. He likes jazz and classical music and he reads poetry. He used to memorize poems and recite them for my mother.
Gallacher: A romantic.
Gallacher: That must have been hard for him to be separated from your mother, but he was doing that so he could take care of his family.
Velasco: Yes, it was tough on both of them. My mom worked through the night at the hospital, and sometimes my dad would call her from a bar, drunk and homesick. I don’t think my mom felt like she could depend on him.
There was a story that my dad used to read us, when we were little, about a girl snail who was looking for a husband, and she found a cricket who loved to sing and dance, and even when he went to sleep he dreamed of singing and dancing. My mom always felt like she was that little girl snail.
Gallacher: So your mom was the grounded one in the family.
Velasco: She is an amazing woman. She bought a house and a car and learned to drive. She figured out ways to get us into good schools. She took additional courses to get ahead at her job. She was superwoman.
Gallacher: Is your brother older or younger?
Velasco: He’s four years younger. I don’t feel like we were very close growing up, but now that we are older we have a lot of things in common.
Gallacher: Did it take you a long time to forgive your father?
Velasco: Yes, our relationship was really bad when I was a teenager, but I am almost 30 now, and things are much better. I enjoy our time together. Now I realize that my dad was doing the best he could for us. If he had gone to work in the factories here, he would have made a fraction of what he was able to make in the United States.
He worked really hard. When we moved here with him, he was working 18 hours a day.
Gallacher: So you all moved to Colorado together?
Velasco: Yes, my mom retired from her job after 25 years, and we came here to Avon. I had just graduated from high school, and I wanted to be an engineer, so it was really tough to leave everything. My parents had me do another year of high school here so that I could learn the language and the culture and make new friends.
Gallacher: How did that go?
Velasco: It was real easy for my brother. He got right into it and speaks English with no accent, but I had trouble making new friends. Luckily, I learned the language, and I found the culinary arts program at Colorado Mountain College.
I really liked the program because it was on-the-job training. I was basically getting paid to go to school. That was the only way I could afford to go. Before I graduated from college, I was already a sous chef.
I really dived into work, and I had two chef jobs for the three years I was in college. I would go in at four in the morning at the Ritz-Carlton and work until four in the afternoon and then go to my other job in Beaver Creek until midnight. I did that every day. I worked at the Ritz-Carlton for a few years but it was long hours, and I started to feel like I needed to do something else.
I got a job as a teacher’s aide in the high school, working with special needs kids. I was working with Spanish-speaking kids and doing a lot of the interpreting for them. I really liked the interpreting part of the job. I took a class at CMC in legal interpreting for court. Shortly after taking that class, I got hired in Basalt doing medical interpreting for Workmen’s Comp patients.
I worked there for a year and decided to open my own medical interpreting business, and now I have several people working with me.
Gallacher: It sounds like you’ve got some of your mother in you.
Velasco: I think I do. I love being busy and doing as much as I can. I love learning new things and helping people. The patients I interpret for don’t know what the doctor is saying. They really need someone to help them understand what all of the medical terms and procedures mean.
We aren’t allowed by law to add or subtract anything from the doctor’s message, so we say exactly what the doctor is saying and what the patient is saying. And then we encourage them to ask the doctor follow-up questions.
Gallacher: Without violating anyone’s privacy, can you tell me a story about one of your clients?
Velasco: I had a patient who had stepped on a nail at work but, because he was an undiagnosed diabetic, he didn’t feel the nail in his shoe for three days. By the time he noticed, he had a catastrophic infection and had to have his leg amputated.
Then he had an infection in his mouth and lost most of his lower jaw. But he was one of the most positive people I have ever met. His family would call from Mexico, and he would reassure them and tell them not to worry.
I remember sitting with him in the hospital at three in the morning and he would tell me stories about the little fishing village where he grew up. He really wanted to go back there and fish again.
Gallacher: Did he?
Velasco: Yes, he got to go back to the ocean. I was so impressed with how strong and positive he was. He taught me a lot about being grateful and thankful for my life.
Gallacher: You recently became a citizen of the United States.
Velasco: Yes, I am excited to be a citizen. I wanted to be able to vote and become more involved in my community. Being a U.S. citizen gives you so many more opportunities, to me you have the best country in the world.
For example, a Mexican citizen can only be in Europe for two weeks at a time with a Mexican passport. But if you are a U.S. citizen you can get a one-year permit and lots of other opportunities in other countries, as well.
I will always love Mexico, and I will always cheer for Mexico, but this is my country now. I am Mexican-American. Here, you have everything you need to succeed, you have all kinds of opportunities, you can be anything you want. That is not true of most other countries in the world.
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