Home Headlines - featured From oppression to freedom, professors take dangerous journey to the United States

From oppression to freedom, professors take dangerous journey to the United States

Gloria Velasquez, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages, and Alba Melgar, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages, pose Nov. 5 for a photo
Photo by: Ashley Galvan | Staff Photographer
Gloria Velasquez, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages, and Alba Melgar, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages, pose Nov. 5 for a photo.

Two Spanish professors came to the America in the hopes of having the opportunity to live the American Dream.

Alba Melgar and Gloria Velásquez, senior lecturers for the Department of Modern Languages, experienced the struggle millions of immigrants suffer when coming to the United States.

Melgar—Escaping war, certain death to come to America

Melgar is a native of El Salvador, a South American country torn by the horrors of war during her early life. As a 40-year-old, single mother to two children, Melgar was forced to leave the country she called her home.

The Salvadoran civil war tore the country in half and ultimately challenged the safety of Melgar and her children, she said.

“I was 40 when I was forced to leave my beautiful country,” Melgar said. “It’s so difficult to love a place for all your life and be forced to leave because of forces you can’t control.”

The civil war turned tides and began to target teachers, Melgar said. With educators dying at the hands of the government, she knew her time as an educator in El Salvador was limited.

“They were kidnapping children and killing teachers all around the country,” Melgar said. “I had to make the decision to sell everything I owned in order to come to the Untied States. I knew people who refused to leave that were eventually killed or missing.”

Melgar sold everything in her El Salvador house to pay for the journey to America.

“My children didn’t let me sell our home because they always wanted their home to be theirs regardless of where we ended up,” Melgar said.

Once in the United States, Melgar acquired a job cleaning houses to provide for her two children. While cleaning full time, Melgar decided to continue her education at Austin Community College before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin.

“Going to school was a must for me because I wanted to teach at the college level,” Melgar said. “I worked and went to school at the same time making around $12,000 a year, which was way below the poverty line at that time.”

With the money she made, loans and financial aid, Melgar sent her two children to college while cleaning houses. She picked up a second job as a hotel cook at the Marriott near Capitol Hill in Austin. Working her way up, she became manager of the restaurant.

“At one point, an employee told me, ‘Alba, you look tired…you need to start working with your head and not your feet,’” Melgar said. “I got a job at Goodwill in customer service training, which was my first step towards teaching as I was helping people look for jobs.”

After three years of juggling Goodwill, the hotel management job and cleaning, Melgar made a New Year’s resolution to quit and fulfill her lifelong dream of teaching at the university level.

In 2000, she went back to school to get her master’s degree in Spanish at Texas State and in 2003, Melgar served as a teacher’s assistant for the first time.

“The rest is history,” Melgar said. “I finally did it—I became a teacher and my dream came true. I always tell my students that nothing is impossible and there are only challenges in life—not obstacles.”

Melgar was able to overcome challenges and make sacrifices for the children she so desperately loved.

“The United States has given me opportunity and safety throughout the tough times in my life,” Melgar said. “I still go home to my house with my children back in El Salvador and think about where my life has taken me. I just want people to know that nothing is impossible.”

Velásquez—A little girl crossing the border for a new life

Velázquez’s father worked in the United States most of her early life, making the journey across the border from Mexico to sustain his family.

After ten years of traveling back and forth, he made the decision to bring his whole family across the border to the land of opportunity.

“When I was 12 years old my father made the decision to take us across,” Velásquez said. “The oldest child was 14 and the youngest was 4. We sold everything we had to pay for a smuggler and we were off for a new life with only the clothes on our backs.”

Once the family had enough money for a smuggler, the journey for the United States began, Velásquez said.

“I’ll never forget when my little sister asked my dad for food and he couldn’t provide for her,” Velásquez said. “She asked him to feed her and he couldn’t because we didn’t have any money. I could see it in my father’s eyes how much it hurt him.”

During the journey with the smugglers, Velásquez and her family awoke to the smugglers yelling at them to get up. Without any questions, the family began running with a crowd of people into the darkness of the night, she said.

After what seemed to be an eternity, the family and smugglers finally made it to the river that separates the two countries, Velásquez said. The family was put in a boat to get across the border.

“That night, we were in a farm out in the middle of nowhere,” Velásquez said. “There were scorpions everywhere and I was terrified to sleep. I remember my dad would call out each kid’s name after every five minutes just to make sure none of us were bitten and okay.”

When they woke, a van was at the farm ready to pick up Velásquez’s family. The vehicle had two seats in the front for the smugglers and the rest of the family was crammed in the back where there was no seating, she said.

The young children sat on the laps of the other children and the parents, Velásquez said. Once on the road, the smuggler got a radio message to take an alternate route as the car in front of them was caught by border security.

“I prayed because I was told that if kids pray to God, he’ll listen,” Velásquez said. “I prayed that we made it because if we were caught, we had nothing to go back to.”

Velásquez and her family made it to the United States and began to create a life they longed for.

“We lived in a one-bedroom house and I went to school and worked extremely hard to educate myself,” Velásquez said. “At school, I was able to eat food, which was a big reason why I liked to go. I ate meat a couple times a year and had tortillas with salt as my breakfast. We did what we could to survive.”

Velásquez said she suffered oppression while attending school in the United States. During her first few years of school, she was sent home for not having the school supplies she could not afford.

Velásquez remembered being asked to go to the principal’s office where she was sent home for not being a legal resident.

“I was sent home because I didn’t have papers,” Velásquez said. “That was the first time I knew I was undocumented, but that was fine. My brother got me a dictionary and I learned on my own. I made strives to continue to educate myself.”

Velásquez said she continued to fight the unexpected as a means of achieving her educational goals. She received her GED at 24, started community college and eventually moved to San Marcos to finish her education.

“When I became a citizen, it was one of the most special moments of my life,” Velásquez said. “I practiced the Pledge of Allegiance so many times just to prepare. There is not a feeling like it.”

Velásquez said all the challenges in her life led up to her education and citizenship. She said working hard is an “absolute must” in order to achieve success in America.

“I have two flags in my heart,” Velásquez said. “We left because my country couldn’t give me what the United States has. Nothing is impossible in this land. You can’t make excuses for yourself because if we can make it, so can anyone else.”