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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

South L.A.'s Low-Wage Workers: The Yogurtland Server

Alyssa Nakamoto |
May 21, 2013 | 10:02 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Esmeralda Villagomez, a Yogurtland employee, said she hopes to become an actress. (Alyssa Nakamoto)
Esmeralda Villagomez, a Yogurtland employee, said she hopes to become an actress. (Alyssa Nakamoto)


This story is part of a Neon Tommy series exploring the lives of low-wage workers in South Los Angeles. In his State of the Union address this February, President Obama unveiled a plan for the minimum wage to be raised to $9 an hour from its current level at $7.25. 

 The issue of minimum wage became one of renewed pivotal importance in the final weeks of the L.A. mayoral election, with candidate Wendy Greuel pledging to support an increase in the wages of hotel workers to $15 an hour. Workers featured in this series earn wages below, at, or slightly above the California minimum wage rate, which currently stands at $8 an hour. These are the workers who would be affected by a new policy.


As customers walked into Yogurtland, Esmeralda Villagomez greeted them with a hearty welcome and a smile. 

Villagomez, 21, has been working at Yogurtland for one and a half years. This summer, it will be two. "It's been a while, so I'm acquainted to everything that goes on in the store," she said. 

Currently, she works three days a week. But in the summer, when frozen yogurt is most popular, she works longer hours, often five to six days a week. After attending class at Los Angeles City College, she heads to work at 5 p.m. and finishes about 1 a.m., when she starts her homework and prepares for the same routine the next day. 

Villagomez says minimum wage should help people survive, but calls the cost of living in L.A. "insane." "I'm still under my parent's house, but I'm struggling. I'm happy, but it's not enough," she said. 

When asked about President Obama’s Feb. 12 remarks on raising the minimum wage, Villagomez said she thought it was an important step. “It's something," she said. 

Originally from Mexico, Villagomez moved here when she was eight. She described her childhood in Mexico as "all play and all fun." 

But her move to America was difficult: "Everybody was already ahead of me," she said. 

Villagomez couldn't speak English, and it took her five years to gain fluency in the language. She really wanted to learn the language as a way to fit in, saying she felt bullied and put down by classmates because of the language barrier. 

Now, she is a child development major at LACC, and hopes to transfer to a four-year university. 

Her real passion, however, is in acting. "I feel like everybody has that dream. Even though you're going to school, you still have that passion," she said. 

With the stress of school and her daily routine sometimes bringing her down, Villagomez sees acting as a way to express her creative side to the world, if only to a small group of people. "It's just something I love because it awakens people's emotions," she said. "To be able to tell a story through acting is such a beautiful thing, to make them feel what you feel for that little moment... That's why I've been doing it for a long time." 

She has wanted to act from a young age, taking drama classes in high school and performing at the Odyssey Theater in L.A. Now, she says, she’s looking to get signed to an agent. "Everything I'm doing is for that goal,” she said.

Although Villagomez views her life as "kind of bland," she spends the little time she has away from work and school blogging about and reading anime. Other than writing about what's current in the anime world, she also pens fan-fiction of her own, stories she said she often tries to get others to read.

When asked what her favorite anime was, Villagomez replied, "Oh my God, don't even get me started.”

"You can still make happiness out of every situation,” Villagomez declared.

For more stories from this series, click here.

Reach Staff Reporter Alyssa Nakamoto here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.