From the Homefront: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, commanding officer of Air Station Miami, for nearly 13 years and currently serves as chapter director for Blue Star Families in Miami, Fla.

Hispanic American members of the Coast Guard throughout the service's history - (clockwise) Seaman William Flores, Engineman Larry Villarreal, Lt. j.g. Katherine Tiongson, Cadet John Martinez, Cmdr. Jose Saliceti, and Lt. Cmdr. Marilyn Melendez Dykman. U.S. Coast Guard illustration.

Hispanic American members of the Coast Guard throughout the service’s history – (clockwise) Seaman William Flores, Engineman Larry Villarreal, Lt. j.g. Katherine Tiongson, Cadet John Martinez, Cmdr. Jose Saliceti and Lt. Cmdr. Marilyn Melendez Dykman. U.S. Coast Guard illustration.

Written by Shelley Kimball.

Photo by Bill Keefrey.

Photo by Bill Keefrey.

One of my favorite things about Coast Guard life is getting to experience new cultures around the country. We live in South Florida, and we are pretty much immersed in the Hispanic community here. We have embraced the culture around us – so much that my daughter keeps asking me when she can have her own quinceanera, which is the Latin America celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday. She is not settling for the fact it doesn’t exist in our own Irish roots.

This past Sunday marked the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, which will run through Oct. 15. There are thousands of Hispanic family members within the Coast Guard ranks, and this is a great time to learn from some of them.

Hispanic-Americans have served in the Coast Guard since its inception. According to statistics from the Coast Guard Office of Diversity, 11.6 percent of Coasties are Hispanic or Latino, and that figure makes up the largest segment of the minority population within the service. Nationally, within all military branches, about 11.2 percent of active duty members are Hispanic or Latino.

The Torres family, currently stationed in Puerto Rico, makes it a priority all year through to celebrate their Hispanic roots. Colombia holds a special place for the Torres family because they adopted their youngest son, David, from there five years ago.

“The process of adoption made us even more aware of the importance of celebrating our own stories,” Torres said. “Our family’s story is a unique mixture of Colombia and the United States and is a source of pride for all of us.”

Torres said her family incorporates their favorite foods, like empanadas and arepas, into their daily lives and they decorate with items from Colombia. They include Colombian traditions in their bicultural family celebrations, she said.

The Torres family (Jennifer, Mateo, David, Cmdr. Robert Torres and Ariana) celebrate their son David’s Columbian roots as a multicultural Coast Guard family. Photo courtesy of the Torres family.

The Torres family (Jennifer, Mateo, David, Cmdr. Robert Torres and Ariana) celebrate their son David’s Columbian roots as a multicultural Coast Guard family. Photo courtesy of the Torres family.

“One of our favorite Colombian traditions is burning ‘el Año Viejo’ on New Year’s Eve. In Colombia, families build a representation of an old year and fill it with all of the old habits or past experiences that they do not wish to repeat. The concept is to burn away the old to make room for the new,” Torres said. “We have enjoyed sharing this tradition with many Coastie friends along our journey.”
This is the second time the Coast Guard journey has taken the Torres family to La Isla del Encanto, and they have enjoyed being surrounded by Spanish speakers, music and culture.

“Our years spent serving the Coast Guard in Puerto Rico not only allow us to explore the amazing beaches and wildlife, but also to embrace the Hispanic culture,” Torres said. “Even learning to recognize the similarities and differences between the United States, Colombia and Puerto Rico are great learning experiences for all of us. We hope that our children will be grounded and know who they are, but also be open-minded and willing to learn about other cultures as well.”

Torres said her families cultural pride in Colombia is something she would like to share with other Coast Guard families.

“Colombia cannot be solely defined by the war on drugs,” she said. “It is an amazingly beautiful country full of hard-working people. From the Andes Mountains to the coast of Cartagena, the country boasts site after site of gorgeous views. The Colombian people are warm, welcoming, educated, cultured, and forward-thinking.”

Colombia is also a big part of the lives of the Martinez family. Myrex Jennifer Martinez is of Cuban descent, while her husband, Mauricio, was born in Colombia. They are currently stationed in Miami, Fla. They celebrate their heritage, first and foremost, with family.

“We cook up a storm, inviting the whole family and close friends over for a get together,” Martinez said. “Usually, we each bring one of our favorite Hispanic dishes. One of my favorite Cuban dishes is called Arroz Imperial, and a Colombian dish called Bandeja Paisa. We play a lot of Cuban and Colombian music to celebrate my culture and my husband’s.”

The Martinez family (Junior, Myrex, Milani and Petty Officer 2nd Class Mauricio Martinez) blends Mauricio’s Columbian roots with Myrex’s Cuban ancestry. Photo courtesy of the Martinez family.

The Martinez family (Junior, Myrex, Milani and Petty Officer 2nd Class Mauricio Martinez) blends Mauricio’s Columbian roots with Myrex’s Cuban ancestry. Photo courtesy of the Martinez family.

Moving around a lot as a Coast Guard family has not been an obstacle to maintaining their heritage, Martinez said.

“Moving around duty stations has never affected who we are,” Martinez said. “Although, we might not have our families get together as much, we will have it with our Coastie families. No matter where we are we introduce our heritage to others. It is imperative to always be who you are whether one is Hispanic or not.”

No matter where they are stationed, they teach their children who they are and where they come from. They tell them never to deny their roots, Martinez said.

“We have taught our children to embrace their Hispanic heritage, to love the Spanish language, to learn about the history of Cuba and Colombia, our music, which is salsa, vallenato, and cumbia, and much more. The food from our culture, for it to always be a part of their lives” Martinez said.

While Martinez and Torres have had positive experiences as military spouses, there are others who may have difficulty. Janet Sanchez, and Army spouse, founded Esposas (os) Militares Hispanas USA in 2007 to aid Hispanic military spouses of all branches in their times of need. She said often the language barrier builds more than just a hindrance to communication.

“Our Hispanic military spouses sometimes are left behind with language barriers. There [was] no support for these families until we decided to get this group together,” Sanchez said. “Many families enter in the military and are lost in the community, more so if their loved ones are deployed. They are lost, not because they want to be, it’s just because there is no support, and the language barriers limit their involvement in the military community.”

Her group supports spouses by providing information in Spanish about military life, from financial issues like benefits, insurance and scholarships to information about community involvement. They also provide translation support by phone or e-mail, especially in times of emergency.

“We want our members to learn the language, to be involved in the community, to give back to the community, to volunteer, and we are the push and the support they need to do this,” Sanchez said. “We want them to feel that they are not alone, that they part of this wonderful community, and that we are here to help.”

Do you have a story about ways your Coast Guard family maintains it’s Hispanic heritage? Is there an Hispanic-American resource or support group you want other Coast Guard families to know about? Leave your comments below!

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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