In June 2001, an 11-year old boy left his home in Santa Tecla, a picturesque city of more than 133,000 in El Salvador, to start a new life in the United States with his family in Freeport. So began a very American journey.
Sigfredo Arturo Velasquez made his way to the U.S. with his grandmother in search of a better life.
Then it happened: Three months later, terrorists slammed two jetliners into the World Trade Center, setting the two towers ablaze in massive fireballs and killing 3,000 people. The images of that horrific day were seared in Velasquez’s mind at a young age.
“It was scary,” Velasquez said of the Sept. 11 attacks. At school, teachers tried to explain the unimaginable. Velasquez remembered watching the World Trade Center crashing to the ground on TV.
“It made an impression on me,” he said.
Velasquez wanted to help. Eventually, he did just that. With much support from his family, he graduated from Freeport High School in 2007, despite having to learn English from scratch as a teenager. Two years later, at age 20, he signed up for the U.S. Marine Corps, serving two tours –– one in Afghanistan and one in the Pacific. At 27, he’s now a Village of Freeport police officer and volunteer firefighter.
“I joined [the Marines] to serve my country,” Velasquez said. “I wanted to belong to something bigger than myself and explore different places in the world.”
In 2010, Velasquez was sent for seven months to Afghanistan. “I was reminded of El Salvador –– farms, rivers, low-income people just trying to get by,” he said.
Velasquez worked alongside Afghan police and military personnel, who acted as the Marines’ translators. “I remember seeing what a struggle it was to communicate with us,” Velasquez said. “At times, it reminded me of myself when I came to the U.S.”
In 2011, he was sent to Hawaii and was then deployed in 2012 to Japan and South Korea. ”Another language, another hurdle,” he said.
In joining the Marines, Velasquez was put on a fast track for U.S. citizenship. He took the citizenship test while in Hawaii.
Sean Sparks, a fellow Marine who accompanied Velasquez when he received citizenship at a ceremony, said, “He was very excited. It was a long-awaited dream for him. I saw all this through his eyes. He wanted it so bad.
“V. was my team leader. He raised me to be a mature Marine. He’s my man, a role model,” Sparks also said, noting that Velasquez leads from the front, not the rear.
Velasquez was honorably discharged from the Marines. In 2013, he took the Civil Service Test, intending to become a police officer. He passed. In 2014, he joined the Village of Freeport police force.
“It’s my hometown,” he said. “I’ve had a very positive reaction from the public.”
When Velasquez spots teenagers on the street, he greets them. “I always stop to talk. I want them to approach me. I’ll be happy to help them,” he said.
Velasquez is also a volunteer with Freeport’s Adopt-a-Cop Program, through which he meets informally with fourth-graders in Freeport schools. “I see young kids coming from different countries who have challenges,” he said. “They can see it’s possible to overcome and achieve.”
Ernesto Melara is one of Velasquez’s fellow firefighters in Freeport’s Vigilant Hose Company No. 2. “He’s someone you can depend on who always has your back,” Melara said.
“He’s a role model,” said Jose Rogers, a fellow Freeport police officer and high school friend. “I was a bit rebellious in high school, and he was wise. He helped me.
“He is a true public servant,” Ray Maguire, the Freeport Fire Department executive director, said. “His whole drive is around helping people, so it’s a natural for him to pursue a career in law enforcement.”
“It’s an honor to serve,” Velasquez said. “I have this sense of gratitude for being here and to live in this wonderful country alongside so many wonderful, diverse people.”
Coming to America
As is true with many immigrant families from Mexico and Central and South America, Sigfredo Velasquez’s mother came to the U.S. first and later brought her son, when he was 11 years old. She had married a Freeport police officer and had two sons with him. When Velazquez arrived in America, his step-brothers greeted him “with open arms,” Velasquez said.
Velasquez recalled his first months in Freeport. “There are so many people from all over — Dominican, Colombian, Puerto Rican, black, white,” he said. “You pick up a little bit from everybody.”
Velasquez attended Dodd Middle School in Freeport taking bilingual-education classes, in which “they speak to you in English and then explain things in Spanish,” he said. At home, he practiced his English with his step-father and little brothers. “It was important that I pick it up quickly,” he said.
A happy family life helped Velasquez succeed in school. “They stressed education and made me feel safe,” he said. When Velasquez entered high school, he was placed in mainstream, not bilingual, classes. “I had to speak English,” he said.
Velasquez also knew that he had to reach out to others to make friends. He played soccer and joined the football team. “He is a very focused guy,” Kevin Escobar, Velasquez’s high school friend, said. Escobar, a professional soccer player, recalled how Velasquez was “quiet, not shy, but [he] always went after his goals, whether on the field or with people. You meet him and you want to be his friend. He’s that kind of guy.”
Sigfredo Arturo Velasquez
Birthplace: El Salvador
Citizenship: American as of 2013
Family: Six-year-old son, Andrew
Languages: Spanish, English and some Pashto, which is spoken in Afghanistan
Favorite sports: Football and soccer
Favorite football squad: The Giants
Favorite soccer team: Real Madrid
Favorite foods: Turkey burgers and pupusas