National Hispanic Heritage Month

'I wanted the American dream'

Legislature to honor East Meadow Hispanic activist

Posted

Part two in a Hispanic Heritage Month mini-series.

“Someone shouted, ‘¡la migra!’” said Yesenia Vasquez. The East Meadow mother of three sat behind a desk at her business, Laser Now, on Hempstead Turnpike, wearing an aqua suit and pencil skirt. “We all jumped out of the back of the truck and hid in bushes,” she laughed. “Because, you know, la migra are immigration officers.”

Vasquez, then 17, dived into a nearby bush. Her eyes darted back and forth in the night, desperate to find her 12-year-old sister and young brother. All of the travelers waited for officers to pluck them out, one by one, from underneath the vegetation that shielded them.

Now, as she prepares to accept the Hispanic Female Businessperson of the Year award at this year’s Legislative Hispanic Heritage Month celebration on Oct. 12, Vasquez, 43, will always remember her journey. 

A crowded situation

Vasquez and her siblings lay silent in the Mexican desert until they heard laughter.  “Someone yelled ‘la migra’ just to see what we would do,” Vasquez laughed. “It was nothing! And I hurt myself running, too. There was no moonlight, so no one could see anything at all.”

Vasquez, who said she is unfazed by the opinions of strangers about the way se came to the U.S., said that she and her siblings, went through hell to cross the border. “I wanted the American dream,” she added.

For an entire month, she walked, rode in the backs of trucks and squeezed into cars headed from her home country, El Salvador, through deserted Guatemalan fields and snake-infested Mexican territory. 

“A coyote” — people who lead undocumented immigrants across the U.S. border — “grabbed me from behind and started to kiss me,” she recalled in her native Spanish. “I shoved him away. He told me that women would often sleep with him to ensure they cross the border. I yelled at him and he never touched me again.” 

In fact, Vasquez eventually befriended him.

As they crossed into Mexico from Guatemala, she noticed that two men in their 60s were missing. The crowd moved fast, and waited for no one. “They were never found,” she recalled. “People starve, they faint from the heat or they just dehydrate to start a new life. You’d be surprised what people would go through for a new life.” 

When the Vasquez siblings finally arrived on Long Island, their uncle took them to a compadre’s house, where they lived in the basement. Without heat, food or much comfort, the three were glad — and scared — to finally get to America. An uncle eventually sheltered them in his Mineola home for a few months and, later, rented a room for them in a Roosevelt home for three months. 

“We lived with eight men,” Vasquez laughed. “And they all called us creidas. We ignored them. We wouldn’t listen to them when they called us mamasitas, so they called us creidas. Telling us we were stuck up.”

Eventually, the group formed a bond after Vasquez’s grandmother, who was already living in America, cooked meals and forced the teens to get along. Slowly, Vasquez learned English. She graduated from Mineola High School and vowed to fulfill her American dream. She became an American citizen in 2000.

How many awards?Yesenia Vasquez, an East Meadow activist, was honored with a Long Island Power Women in Business award by the Star Network last December.

No hay muchos líderes Hispanos,” Vasquez said. “There just aren’t that many Latino leaders in my community, or really across Long Island. And I hope to be a leader that my kids can look up to.”

She volunteers at McVey Elementary School (where her youngest son, Dylan, is enrolled) through its Parent Teacher Association, and at the Woodland Middle School and East Meadow High School. She contributes to the community by promoting Laser Now’s anti-bullying program, in which the practice donates laser sessions to children or young adults who suffer from acne, or other extreme skin conditions. 

Vasquez operates three Laser Now locations, East Meadow, Queens and Manhattan, with her longtime partner James Ehrlein, 48, of Franklin Square. Ehrlein, who used to operate a spa in Franklin Square, is a certified technician who treats patients, many from the Latino community. 

Although Vasquez is busy with her children and her three businesses, she still volunteers her. She is a member of the Long Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Kidney & Urology Association, the Long Island Arts Council, the Science Museum of Long Island, the Diversity Awards for the Boys Scouts Association of America, the Comité Cívico Salvadoreño, the Circúlo de La Hispanidad and El Salvador Needs You, an organization established to help flood victims in Central America. 

She is an advocate for SEPA Mujer, an organization that helps domestic violence victims on Long Island, has served as a mentor for the Moxxie Network on Long Island, which empowers and helps women improve networking skills, and organizes the Coordinating Agency for Spanish Americans in Nassau County’s Mother’s Day celebration each year. 

Vasquez also volunteers as a translator at RotaCare in Uniondale, a clinic that facilitates free health care for patients who can’t afford insurance. “RotaCare is very, very special,” she said. “They help so many people. I see people who have walked in my shoes, and people who are really trying hard to provide for their families. The volunteers there are excellent.”

In April, Vasquez was sworn in as one of 11 members of the Hispanic American Advisory Board, the first of its kind in Nassau County. The board aims to help the Hispanic and Latino community participate in local government. 

“This is a very important role for me,” Vasquez said. “We have a group of wonderful leaders who are advocates for the Hispanic community. Latinos are valuable. We’re important, and we’re here to stay.”