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I Am Los Angeles: Making it in America

I Am Los Angeles is a video portrait series created by journalist and filmmaker Joris Debeij, showcasing the unique people and their ideas that make L.A. what it is. KCET Departures will be featuring these videos as part of our continuing coverage of the shifting cultures of Los Angeles.


The goals we formulate for our lives are greatly influenced by where we started out in life. As a teenager, Alma Velasco had dreams of finishing school and getting a degree in El Salvador. But her dreams were shattered by the dangerous conditions created by the El Salvadorian civil war which first broke out in 1979, and lasted for almost 13 years. Alma's mother lived in fear for the safety her children, and although it meant she may never see her daughter again, she made the difficult decision to send Alma to cross the border into the United States. This controversial decision was made by a lot of El Salvadoran parents at the time; and some still take this risk today because of the conditions that continue in El Salvador, many years after the war officially ended in 1992.

Alma, then only 16, survived the frightening journey across the border to join her uncle in California. Once the dangerous trip across the border was completed, a new reality set in quickly -- she needed to restart her life in a challenging and complicated new world. For Alma -- as is the case for many immigrants living in the U.S. -- this meant applying herself to physically demanding work instead of continuing her education.

Today a hard-working, single mother of two girls, Alma is a seamstress working in the factory at American Apparel. At 6:15 a.m. sharp Alma and her team are ready to begin working, and will produce hundreds of t-shirts, which today are the color grey. When Alma clocks out in the afternoon, she goes home to do the chores around the house, then picks her kids up from school. They make dinner together, and both girls bubble over telling Alma about their day.

Alma's dreams of getting a degree in El Salvador did not become a reality, but she has made the most of her opportunities. Thanks to an amnesty program, she is now legally a resident of the United States. Here her job pays her fairly and enables her to make an honest living for her family. She never did see her mother again, but if she did she would thank her. The risks her mother encouraged her to take not only saved her life, they helped Alma make her own dream a reality for her two girls. Alma feels rewarded by her kids' successes and brims over with pride when they exhibit the drive to seek out opportunity for themselves. Her daughters Ashley and Katherine follow in their mother's example; they study and work extra-hard to find what they want out of life. The oldest dreams of someday becoming a police officer, lawyer, or maybe an architect.

In the United States, so many begin their lives with with doors open to them, and in this light, Alma's accomplishments may seem fairly ordinary. She lives an honest life, within her means, and works hard as a basis to grow opportunities for her family. I can't think of a better measure for success as a parent, or in life, and people like Alma have been what makes this country great for generations.

Originally published on I Am Los Angeles, 2014.

Check out more video portraits at I Am Los Angeles.


About the Author

Dutch-born journalist and filmmaker now based Los Angeles.
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