Wilfredo Zelada
Country of Origin: El Salvador.


Occupation: Finance Manager, Victoria Women’s Trust. State of residency: VIC. Favourite place in Australia: Yarra Valley. Upon arrival: Surprised that you were not required to show any ID to open a bank account.

This story is part of “Nuestras Voces

Interviewed by Carlos Colina. Translated from Spanish by Claire Bower. Edited by Zoe Gleeson. Digital by Cristy Abela

Arriving in Australia in 1987 with his family as refugees from a civil war in El Salvador, Wilfredo Zelada met his new city, Melbourne, with hope. Since then, he has firmly planted his roots in the vibrant migrant communities of the South-East of Melbourne. From his life in El Salvador, Wilfredo brought with him personal attributes such as education, professional expertise, and skills, as well as strong family and social values including his mother language: Spanish. He has been involved in several committees of various Australian organisations, city community consultative committees and established his own consultancy office for several years. Currently he works for the Victorian Women’s Trust as the Finance Manager and IT co-ordinator. Wilfredo’s commitment to community organisations can be tracked back to his early years arriving in Springvale. Wilfredo was quick to recognise the gaps in services for new families coming from Central America countries, and the importance of cultural establishments. One of his contributions to Springvale Neighbourhood house was co-founding the festival Sumnation, meaning the sum of nations, that celebrated the culture from communities around the world by coming together to share music, food and traditions. Wilfredo hopes to continue to promote Latin American culture and artistic expression through his new project named Tequila Entertainment. Ultimately, Wilfredo’s legacy is rooted in his intrepid nature, family, culture and community.


Well, except for the first peoples of Australia who have been living in this land for many millenniums, all Australians have a story as migrants or descendants of early settlers. Depending on the time of the arrival these stories can be sour, sad or sweet and happy. This is a short story of myself and my family. From 1979 to 1992 as a consequence of long-lasting socioeconomic inequalities and raising aspirations of social justice from the people of El Salvador, the country endured a devastating civil war. The military-led government backed by United States of America fought against a coalition of left-wing aligned guerilla groups. At this stage, the United States was fighting the expansion of communism in Latin America and financing civil wars in several countries. The war created a great division in El Salvador: If you were in favour of social changes, you were identified as a communist; if you were in favour of the government, you were identified as right-winged … yet from both sides, you could be killed.  

During the decade of the 80s some countries opened humanitarian programs for people at risk in El Salvador including Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and in some special cases, the United States of America. My role as a leader of the association of professionals from the national energy company where I was working, and also a leader of a cooperative of employees, was seen as communist activities and my life, including the life of my family, were at risk. Considering the needed of protecting my family I decided to apply to the humanitarian program from Australia. I chose Australia because this country had the quickest process. My family was granted humanitarian visas to migrate to Australia and we arrived in Melbourne on 5th December 1987. I was lucky to be able to migrate with my wife Ana Concepcion and our three children: Lissette was then twelve years old, Cesar was nine, and Carlitos, the youngest, was four. My mother Maria Amelia and my brother Walter also came with us. Sadly, my mother passed away in 2011 after losing a battle with cancer. Walter also died two years ago. My original family has dwindled but in other ways it has grown. In 1993 Ana and I decided to add a number to the Australian statistics by having a baby boy: Vinicio.

At the time of our arrival, the Australian government was in the process of closing down the Midway Migrant Hostel in Maribyrnong and reopening the Enterprise Migrant Hostel in Springvale. People was opposing the closure of the Midway hostel. There were protests in the CBD. Given that I had only a couple of weeks at the hostel I did not understand much the issues of closing it. A reporter, who interviewed me, tried to explain me that the government was relocating us far away from the City to another hostel in Springvale. I didn’t feel too concerned by this because I really didn’t have a concept of what was ‘far’. We didn’t have a house neither work, my children were not attending any school etc. so I really could not have a point of reference to compare both places. Before the relocation happened, we decided to explore Springvale and we made an excursion by train and had a picnic in the front garden of the Enterprise Hostel. To us Springvale didn’t seem much different than Maribyrnong. As part of the relocation process we were offered the option of staying at transitory apartments in Maribyrnong, but we decided to accept the relocation to Springvale. So, on 11th of January 1988, we were relocated at the Enterprise Migrant Hostel in Springvale. After four months we moved to a rented house where were stayed for four years. After we moved to Noble park where we lived for seven years. Finally, in August 2001 we moved to our own home in Rowville. Maybe it’s something rooted in the Latin culture: We like to stay in places close by to where we first settled, and the first own home is for life. Following the tradition from El Salvador we placed a metal plaque at front of the house that read: “Familia Zelada-Escobar”

When we were accepted by the Australian government to migrate, we were advised that the government would not be able to guarantee us employment in the fields we were qualified and working in El Salvador. However, I didn’t experience any discrimination to get my qualifications recognised and had the process completed by March 1988, only four months after arriving. After living and working in Victoria, I realised that the expression of “Australia is a lucky country” is not quite right, a most suitable expression is “Australia is the country of opportunities”. As a country, Australia would give you opportunities so that you were able to study, work and compete with other Australians. Australia is a dynamic country and the society is rapidly changing in terms of equality for all people. I am proud of having achieved an important level in my position as a professional. Alongside this work, I am a proud of being an Australian citizen. In 1993 I run as a candidate to be elected as a councillor of the former City of Springvale. I wasn’t successful, however, the whole process taught me that opportunities exist in Australia, it doesn’t matter how do you look like. People may or may not vote for you but at least you can have a go. It was an incentive to continue working for the community and being part of the transformation of Australia as a vibrant, harmonious ad prosperous country.

Family get together with the kids and grandkids. Left to right. Enrique, Cesar, Antonio, Vinicio, Aaliyah, Sofia, Michael Brearley, Lisette, Wilfredo, Ana Concepcion. Tosaria Restaurant Rowville June 2021

Family get together with the kids and grandkids. Left to right. Enrique, Cesar, Antonio, Vinicio, Aaliyah, Sofia, Michael Brearley, Lisette, Wilfredo, Ana Concepcion. Tosaria Restaurant Rowville June 2021

As for my family, I am so proud of everything they have achieved. Ana is a coordinator of before and after school programs at primary schools and is currently working at an early learning centre. Lisette is secondary school teacher supporting disadvantaged students including kids from migrants families. She is married to Michael and is raising two beautiful girls: Aaliyah and Sofia. Cesar is an electrical engineer working for a consultancy firm. He is the father of two boys: Antonio and Enrique. Carlos studied applied science – geomatic and works supplying geomatic technology. Vinicio studied management and is currently working as a venue manager of at the Crown Casino. All the above is a confirmation that Australia is a country of opportunities. Dedication and hard work brings treasured rewards and the opportunity of finding your place within this multicultural society. I arrived as a refugee, with very little possessions, and only four suitcases. Today, I am proud of having created a family and earned a place in the country that I now call home.


Professional qualifications - Having the professionals qualifications recognised in Australia is the first step. Getting familiar with Australian standards and practices requires going back to school. I was told to complete additional subjects at any university. It occurred to me that instead of completing the subjects that they requested, I thought that I would be better off if I completed a post-graduate degree in finance as I would get ahead faster. It was the wrong decision. The English language was a big hurdle to overcome. I only completed one year of the two-years required. Once my formal qualifications were recognised, I was able to find work in the accounting field.


Language - At my arrival I was able to read English, the problem with the language came when I was trying to speak as not many people was familiar with the Spanglish accent. Our children were able to learn the language much faster. It is very difficult to lose the Latin American accent, especially when you arrive at an older age. It’s something that we have to face but is a characteristic of having two languages. After more than three decades Spanglish has prevailed!

Service gaps - At that time we were settling in Springvale, the Latin community in the area was small. The most representatives communities were Chileans, Argentineans, Uruguayans and a few Peruvians. Services in our language, except for an ethno-specific association named PRODELA, were non-existent. It was important helping our community to integrate into a community where the English language was prevalent. Together with other recently arrived families we established an association that provided support to the new emerging community arriving to the Enterprise Hostel. This was named: Central American Association of Community Development. We had the support from the Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau. They also connected us with the Springvale Neighbourhood House so that the community could have a place to meet. Receiving assistance wasn’t the solution to our needs, more helpful was guiding us to integrate by using the services which already existed for Australians in general. Both organisations provided interpreters to help us in understanding the Australian system. This allowed the Salvadorian community settling in the south-east of Melbourne to integrate faster than other Spanish-speaking communities who arrived earlier.


Opportunity - An abundance of opportunities exist for all in Australia. This is something we do not have in the same way in many Latin American countries. Australia is a democracy where laws are applied to everyone, regardless of your status in society. There is an understanding that nobody is above the law. This is different to the experience in Latin American countries where justice is not for all.

Individualism vs Family - Australians strongly believe in individualism, and government support is provided to individuals; however, Latin Americans have a strong cultural tradition that family is important to maintain a more cohesive and harmonious society. It is a response to the absence of government’s social or welfare support. So, family members are fundamental to support each other. In Australian society rights are for individuals, such as freedom of expression, faith and association without any limitation of age, gender, ethnicity, skin colour, language, religion, and political affiliation. Children have rights to be protected from abuse, independently of who the aggressors are. Marriage is seen more as a legal union rather than a sacred union for life as it is considered by the majority of Latin Americans.

Culture - Australia, compared to other countries around the world, is a young country. Its colonial history begun in 1788 in comparison with Latin American countries which have over 500 years of cultural transformation. Australia is a unique country, where a myriad of cultures from other parts of the globe have come together to live and work. The mix of cultures and traditions makes Australian society special and unique. Australia is in the journey of achieving a representative culture as older countries have. The richness of this process is the diversity of traditions, cuisine, music, dance, and religious celebrations coexisting in harmony. For us, as newcomers, it is important to make our contribution by sharing our culture, respecting and understanding other cultures.

Physical characteristics - Australia is a very different country compared to El Salvador. Physically, In El Salvador everything is small and close by; and the weather is also very different. In the first weeks of being here we were invited by a family to visit Williamstown, as a traditional Salvadorean I saw the beach and I ran to get into the water. I didn’t know it was so cold and when I got out my ears were hurting me due to the cold water! Nothing compares to the tropical water of the Pacific Ocean.


Maintaining an open mind - As new Australian it is fundamental to understand how the system works. It also is important to proudly preserve your own cultural roots. We came here as migrants, we cannot re-create the lifestyle of other countries because it is a different society where traditions, social, political and economic frameworks work in different ways. Instead of continuing saying “this doesn’t work!” or “why people don’t understand me?” we must understand the Australian system and society. This will help us to better integrate ourselves. We are not just “one Australian more” we are enriching the Australian society with our experiences, values and culture.

Understanding your profession - Arriving in Australia with overseas qualifications, expertise and skills is a bonus, but it is fundamental to gain a good understanding of how professions are practised in Australia. Generalists, as many multi-skilled Latin American professionals are, will find difficult to compete with local professional who are specialist in particular fields. The most important task is to find our strongest areas of expertise, updating it with Australian standards and we are in the right pathway of becoming a successful person.


Left to right. Carolina Montoya (Carlos’s wife), Ana Concepcion (Wilfredo’s wife), Wilfredo and Carlos Zelada. Piatellla Cafe Glen Waverley June 2021


Wilfredo says” After living half of my life in El Salvador and half in Australia, I now understand how important it is to maintain our cultural roots, understanding and living as an Australian instead of being an eternal migrant. In return, our contribution should be devoting some time in working for the community.”

In the next few years he will be focused on supporting Latin America artistic flavour, with Tequila Entertainment. It’s a platform created with the aim of supporting the new generation of Latin American musicians and artists with high quality events open to the general Australian community. He hopes to bring all Melbournians closer to the feeling of Latin American Fiestas!

The story “Latin Stories Australia - Wilfredo Zelada” first appeared on Latin Stories Australia.


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