Fresh out of St. Louis Community College-Meramec last spring with a certificate in graphic design, she began freelancing for Red Latina. Velazquez offered to sponsor her for a three-year work visa, which requires employers to spend thousands in government and legal fees. But, as Castillo tells it, Velazquez asked to be paid back because times were tight. Castillo knew this was illegal but wanted to stay in St. Louis, so she agreed.

Soon, the publisher was creating a buzz about her new graphic designer, featuring her on radio, TV and in the pages of Red Latina. At one concert, Velazquez sang Castillo's praises into the microphone. Later, some girls in the restroom noticed the young lady and asked to pose in a picture with her. Thanks in part to all the publicity, Castillo says, her freelance graphic-design work soared.

"That's what she does," Castillo says. "She gets a new person and makes them famous."

Former U.S. senator Jean Carnahan poses with Velazquez.
courtesy Cecilia Velazquez
Former U.S. senator Jean Carnahan poses with Velazquez.
Cecilia Velazquez and American Andrew Jones at their 2006 wedding in Cancún, Mexico.
courtesy Cecilia Velazquez
Cecilia Velazquez and American Andrew Jones at their 2006 wedding in Cancún, Mexico.

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Editor's Note: Village Voice Media, in a national series, is chronicling the stories of Hispanics among us and the struggles they face amid the groundswell of anti-immigration anger. The project also addresses the consequences when federal authorities lack a coherent immigration policy. Read the series on our website, at www.riverfronttimes.com.

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On one memorable day, Castillo says, her boss let her see her some video footage of a scuffle she'd just gotten into. The video showed Velazquez confronting Michael Graff, a lawyer on Cherokee Street.

As Graff remembers the incident, Velazquez ambushed him with a video camera, demanding payment for some ads she'd run for him. Graff told her he wasn't sure he owed her anything. Velazquez then started shooting the inside of his office, he says, and when he tried to snatch away her camera, she threw a punch.

It never happened, sniffs Velazquez, "He grabbed my arm. And how can I stay in business if people don't pay me?"

"I don't like her heavy-handed methods of collection," Graff says. "But she's probably no different from the rest of us. Business is tight, and she's trying to make it. I don't hate the woman."

On another day, Castillo recalls, the two were delivering some newspapers to a grocery shop on Cherokee when she noticed Velazquez hoist up a stack of El Mundo copies and drop them in the van. Asked what she planned to do with them, the publisher replied she was going to toss them in the trash. Impossible, says Velazquez, for she only delivers papers far from Cherokee, near her home in north county.

Castillo was fired from Red Latina the very same day her visa came through. The two women give conflicting accounts as to why. But whatever the reason, Castillo says, she'd blown thousands on a useless visa.

Velazquez insists that Castillo owes her money and never paid for her visa. "We have everything in writing," she says.

So does Castillo. She's obtained checks from her bank showing that she reimbursed Red Latina for at least part of the work visa fees that, under federal regulations, employers must always assume.

Castillo says that in the days after departing the newspaper, her cell phone lit up several times with calls from acquaintances wishing to share what they'd gone through with Velazquez. Some of the callers did so without giving their names. "It was kind of scary," she says. "I didn't even know some of these people."

Last Saturday, more than 2,000 people poured into the Kiener Plaza amphitheater downtown following a march for immigrant rights. As a group of speakers assemble onstage, Cecilia Velazquez moves up to the front of the crowd. She wears a neon-green Radio Cucui hat, snaps pictures and shoots video.

She doesn't take the microphone this time. "No way, José," says Velazquez, a permanent resident still awaiting naturalization as a U.S. citizen. "I learned my lesson on that!"

Velazquez says she's happy with the turnout, but noticed a lack of Hispanics in attendance. "Maybe they were afraid," she says, signing a petition for immigration reform. She leaves behind several bundles of Red Latina on a petition table.

She's tan, having just returned from a cruise and a vacation to her native Mexico. Asked recently what kind of child she had been growing up there, she says she was always organizing the other kids, convincing them to go to the park or play hooky. "I don't know if I had ADD or what, but I was always doing something," she says.

"I was always the leader."

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