Meet Debbie Velasquez. Debbie (in the blue dress) is 42 years old and lives in Utah. She and her husband Rolando raise their four children together. I first met Debbie in my previous ward. We served together in Young Women and I immediately fell in love with her. Debbie is one of those women who lives what they preach. She is kind and accepting, devoted to her beliefs, and dedicated to her family. Debbie is as authentic as they come. She loves being with her family, salsa dancing, and digging up family history. What I love most about Debbie is her unwavering devotion to her family. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her two beautiful daughters, and they are a testament to the kind of mother she is. She’s taught them to be obedient, to love others, to accept others, to chase your dreams, to develop a relationship with Christ, and where to turn when you are depleted. I hope to be a mother of her caliber someday. And her food! If you want an authentic Latin meal, you need to be sitting her kitchen. I never knew food could taste so good. Here is what Debbie has to say about happiness…
Let me give you a brief (maybe not so brief) background. First I need to disclose, that my parents were not members of the church, nor my grandmother, at the time of my birth. My mother fell in love with the wrong person. She was a student and employee at the University of El Salvador, and met a professor named Dr. Carlos Ferrufino. He had quite the reputation around the school of his charming disposition and easiness to get any girl he wanted. He was a married man, but that didn’t seem to stop him. He was also an alcoholic, which pretty much was the reason for most of his bad behavior. Soon after meeting him, my mother got pregnant with me. He did take responsibility and took care of my mother during her pregnancy, but of course it was an impossible relationship. At the time, she was a bit blind about the whole situation as love can tend to do that.
As soon as I was born, my grandmother, being the stalwart head of the household, convinced my mom she needed to leave El Salvador. There was a rumor going around, that my father’s wife was looking for her to kill her. Sounds like a telenovela (Spanish soap opera), but it’s the truth. When these rumors became more and more real, my mother did decide to leave and visit her sister, Blanca, who lived in New Jersey at the time. The plan was for her to stay for 3 months until things smoothed over, but the telenovela continued. I stayed behind, I was 3 months old when my mother left. My grandmother, Mama Concha, and nanny, Tia Oli, became my caregivers.
After 3 months had passed, my mother was ready to head back home. A day before her flight she packed all her bags and asked her sister for her plane ticket. Upon her arrival, 3 months earlier, my mom had given all her documents to her sister for safe keeping, including passport and return plane ticket. What my mom didn’t know, was that Blanca and my grandmother had planned to “lose” her plane ticket on purpose. My grandmother did not want her back. My mom was furious. She had no money to buy another ticket and she immediately left her sister’s house. She knew what she needed to do. She immediately found a place to live, found a job, began learning the language, applied for U.S. residency and save money to head back home.
She was finally able to go home almost 2 years after my birth. In January of 1976, she had a very important appointment at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador. This was going to determine her residency and mine as well, since she had applied for both of us. When she arrived, she was told residency had been approved for her but not me. Again she was furious and stormed out of there declining the whole thing. When she got home, my grandmother asked her what had happened, my mom casually said, “Debbie’s residency didn’t get approved so I’m staying and never going back to the U.S.” Like I mentioned, my grandmother was not soft spoken and very overwhelming and told her she needed to go back to the embassy. After a week of nagging and persuading, my mom finally went back to the embassy.
When my mom had started college, in 1968, her catholic upbringing soon diminished and new ideas of atheism had entered her mind. The day she went back to the embassy, was the day a new seed of faith was planted. As she arrived, she spoke with the receptionist and explained her situation and she needed a new appointment date. The receptionist nodded her head and clearly stated, the wait would be long, it could be months and maybe even years for her to get another appointment. My mom was fine with that, she had all the time and was in no hurry. She was asked to sit and wait until she was able to find an opening. A few minutes passed when she was called back up and the receptionist said, “Someone did not show up so you can go right in.” My mom was speechless! She could not believe it. Of course, the news was the same, residency was approved for her but not me. This time she humbly accepted knowing she would have to leave me again. She headed back to New Jersey in April, and the day after she arrived she met the missionaries. That’s a whole other story!
It took another 2.5 years for my residency to be approved and for me to finally join my mom. By this time, my mom had been baptized and had moved to Fullerton, California. I was almost 4.5 years old when my grandmother dropped me off. I had no idea I was staying. The whole time, I thought I was just visiting my mom. When the moment came to drop off my grandmother at the airport, I was ready to go with her, but my mom stopped me and held me and told me, “No, you’re staying with me.” I had no idea who my mother was. She was a complete stranger to me and I did not want to stay. I guess you can say that was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. My world came tumbling down and everything I knew was taken away in a matter of seconds.
This was just the beginning of my unhappiness in my life. From that point on it was one thing after another that brought much sadness, anger and disappointment. Instead of my mother making up for the 4 years lost, it became apparent her priority was not me. Two years after my arrival, my mom married a man that brought much heartache into our lives. I don’t like going into details, but the next five years were the most detrimental that left both my mom and myself completely broken. I was eleven years old by the time he left our house, and it took even longer to completely be out of our lives, since he is the father of my new siblings.
In my teenage years, I had no self-esteem, I had no confidence in myself. I had no idea who I was. I tried to pretend and tried to live as normal as possible but I had no joy at all. There were brief moments of happiness as I listened to my favorite music, as I danced in my high school dance class, as I laughed with friends and got into some dumb messes, but those moments were brief, but I am grateful for them. At 15 I became the caregiver of my siblings. I cooked, cleaned, washed clothes, helped with homework, everything a mother does, I was doing. My mom had to work, she worked full-time, and was too tired to deal with us by the time she got home. She was depressed and as soon as she got home, she went to her room, closed the door and stayed there. At the time, I didn’t understand what she was going through but now I do.
My grades faltered and by the end of my senior year I barely made it to graduation. By then I was beginning to make huge mistakes, and didn’t really care about anything. Although I was going to church, I did not have a testimony of anything. I went to church to be with my friends, to get away from my house. I would listen to the lessons taught, and to our leaders, but I really did not take it to heart. I didn’t understand or grasp anything. At home, it was getting more and more difficult. I was getting tired of being the caregiver, of having to be a “mom.” Feelings of anger and bitterness began to seep into my heart. I would constantly remember all the bad things I had gone through and blamed my mom for most of it.
After graduation, things just kept spiraling down. But one day, a thought came to my mind, that I needed to leave. To get away from everything and everybody, especially my mom. I could have just left and moved in with a friend close by, but I went a little extreme, and told my mom I wanted to go back to El Salvador. She agreed with me and right away made arrangements for me to leave. I don’t even know where the money came from for my plane ticket. A week later I was heading towards the country I left 14 years earlier. I stayed for 3 months and it was the best and most profound 3 months of my life. All my extended family was in the States at the time and I ended up living with a family friend, Carmen, and her daughter Dinorah and her family. They had no idea all the things I had gone through, but they received me with open arms.
I knew things needed to change in my life, I wanted to feel joy and happiness. And little by little I began to realize what I needed to do. First of all, I had to do this on my own. Being away from my family was the best thing I could have done at that moment. I then began to pray, truly pray. I don’t think I had ever prayed in that way. I prayed for strength, for help, for guidance, for joy, for understanding, for patience, for everything. I learned to pour my heart out and even though I may have not had complete faith, I needed to share my thoughts and feelings with someone. Heavenly Father was the only one I could do that with. I also began to read the Book of Mormon. I knew most of the stories, but I had never really read it. One night, I came upon Alma 5:14, “…have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” I knew I hadn’t, but I had the desire to experience this mighty change.
This was the beginning of my mighty change, I need to emphasize, “beginning.” Carmen and Dinorah helped me through this change also. They embraced me, they didn’t ask questions as to what was happening in my life, they just loved me and cared for me. They truly showed and demonstrated Christ-like love for me. Something I never really felt, besides my grandmother. They came to know me and even surprised me with tickets to the American Ballroom Event at the National Theater. To me that was a huge gesture, not so much for the show, but the fact that they listened when I briefly mentioned the event one morning and took time out of their lives to take me somewhere that I enjoyed. No one had ever done that for me. Since then, Carmen has passed away and I just recently reconnected with Dinorah after 24 years. I expressed my gratitude for their love and specifically for that night. She hardly remembered it, but I explained how important that moment was to me, I couldn’t hold back the tears as I said, “thank you.”
This was just the beginning, but this experience continues to help me until now. Many things have changed since then. I got married, I became a mother, we’ve moved various times, we’ve gone through so many trials. At the beginning of our marriage, I was again allowing the anger and bitterness take over my heart. I could not get over all the difficulties I had gone through in my past. It was beginning to affect our marriage and being a mother. Rolando didn’t know how to help me, and in a way I didn’t allow him to. It’s hard to admit, but there were moments where each of us wanted to just throw in the towel.
I can’t recall a specific moment, but I knew things again needed to change again. I realized my life was too busy and I was not allowing myself to seek for the important things, like prayer, scripture study, fasting, temple attendance. This has been a focus, since we moved here to Utah. Are we perfect at it, No! But we strive each day. We don’t have to schedule every minute of our lives! We need to give us time to reflect, to rest, to think, to recharge. In my particular case, I do it in my home, on my own, sometimes with my family around, and sometimes by myself in my room. As a couple, for the past 2 years, we go on dates every week. We went on dates before but not every week. What recharges you, can be different from me.
In regards to those feelings of anger and bitterness, I can’t say they have fully disappeared, I would be lying if I did. But this is where the Atonement of our Savior comes in. I finally realized and received a testimony that our Savior went through exactly what I went through. He suffered all that I have suffered and I should not allow those feelings overtake my joy. I can’t change my past, I can’t wish for something better, or ask, why me? I’ve come to accept all those trials and at the same time, let them go. I couldn’t permit them to affect the remainder of my life. But only through the Atonement I have been able to finally find joy, I see joy everywhere around me. Joy can be found in simplest of things as I wake Diego up for school, as I’m doing laundry because my family will have clean clothes, as I cook dinner because they will have something to eat and not be hungry, as we sit as a family for dinner and talk and laugh and sometimes cry. At the end of the day as we come together for scripture study and family prayer. Even when we are faced with problems, I can still find the joy, and believe me our Heavenly Father is constantly humbling us.
It has not been easy, it takes time, it takes sacrifice and a lot effort, but that’s why we are here on earth. We are learning and becoming who are Heavenly Father wants us to become. Imagine how wonderful it will be when we are in His presence with our families and our loved ones. Let’s keep our eyes focused on eternity.