Building Bridges Across the World

By Ashley Cisneros

Special Assistant to Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Zoraida Velasco is not only focused on economic development within the local comunity, but in building strong international relationships around the world.

Born in Bogotá, Colombia and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Velasco’s parents moved the family to Paramus, New Jersey when she was 13 years old so that her father could pursue a post-graduate degree at New York University.

Moving to a new place can be difficult on any child, but leaving her childhood friends and moving to a completely new continent proved to be extremely challenging. Velasco moved to New Jersey with her father, Roberto Velasco, a Peruvian international banker, and younger brother, Daniel. Her mother, Margarita Parra de Velasco, a bilingual international realtor, stayed behind in Venezuela temporarily to wrap up the family’s affairs there.

The family moved from a penthouse in Venezuela to a second-floor apartment in a two-story home in New Jersey with a shared bathroom. In Venezuela, it was common for many middle-class families to have help, but the family had to start over in New Jersey. “We went from having a lady make fresh-squeezed orange juice for us each morning in Venezuela, to using empty orange juice boxes as garbage bins in our apartment in New Jersey,” Velasco remembers.

Zoraida Velasco serves as a Special Assistant to Mayor Teresa Jacobs in Economic Development and Hispanic & Asian Outreach.

The family slept on the floor in the beginning because they had no furniture, and Velasco prepared the family meals. “I hated being in the United States at first,” Velasco recalls. “It wasn’t so much the language that was hard, because I attended bilingual school since I was 2 years old, but it was the culture that was so different. I had different clothes, spoke with an accent and the other students gave me weird looks.” Velasco wasn’t use to having to make friends, and spent lunch time in the bathroom at her new school. “I came to the U.S. in the middle of eighth grade, so the other kids had already found their friends and groups,” she says. “It was hard to be accepted.” 

When she was about to turn 15, Velasco told her family that she didn’t want to have a quinceañera, a traditional Latin birthday party for 15-year old girls similar to a Sweet 16 party in the U.S. They didn’t have family close by, and Velasco desperately missed her life in Venezuela. She opted to spend a month back in South America instead of having the big birthday party. The night before she was to return to New Jersey, Velasco’s mother told her that the family would be moving to Orlando, Florida, for a better quality of life. “I was finally making friends in New Jersey, was playing sports and talking to a guy at school, and now I was moving again,” Velasco says. “I did not want to get on that plane back to the U.S.”

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