By 1st Lt. Nadine Wiley De MouraMay 25, 2018
MCALLEN, Texas -- In a small barbed-wired enclosed, green-pastured yard in Tamaulipas, Mexico, just three hours south of the Texas-Mexico border, six-year-old Liliana Chavez Uribe marveled at the sight of crop-dusters flying over her home and dreamed that one day she, too, could fly.
A short 18 years later, 2nd Lt. Liliana Chavez Uribe smiles as she recalls the memory that propelled her ever forward, ever upward.
"I grew up in a rural area where we didn't have running water - we had wells," Chavez, 24, said. "We had outhouses, so, no toilets, and the first time I saw a shower I was in second or third grade - I grew up in the projects."
Chavez, now an Aeromedical Evacuation Officer, 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment, General Support Aviation Battalion, who flies Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters, said that her accomplishments are far beyond what her six-year-old self could have imagined.
"I have been wanting to fly since the first time I saw an airplane, but I kind of put that dream aside, since I thought it was very competitive," Chavez said. "It was like dreaming to be a movie star, you put it aside because you think it will never happen."
Despite the obstacles that Chavez and her family endured as immigrants during their journey, Chavez realized her dreams were more of a reality than she thought.
"I came here as a permanent resident," Chavez said. "My dad worked his butt off to get us all here the correct, legal way, and now I am citizen."
Upon moving, to Pharr, Texas, with her parents, Chavez and her older sister went to school in the Pharr-San-Juan-Alamo Independent School District. It was during her high school years that Chavez discovered her love for the disciplined military structure when she joined the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.
Chavez graduated fifth in her high school class with an associate degree under her belt and landed a two-year Texas Armed Services scholarship to the University of Texas Pan-American where she joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps.
"In ROTC I got the opportunity to go up for the aviation board," Chavez, a biology major, said. "I put in the packet, took a physical fitness test, went before a whole bunch of important people and was selected," she casually recounted without hubris, as if it was no feat at all.
Chavez graduated flight school and Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape training.
SERE is a 21-day training requirement for all pilots and U.S. Special Forces that tests the limits of the participants' mental and physical fortitude to prepare them to evade capture and survive extreme conditions and unforgiving elements, while maintaining the military code of conduct.
Chavez said that SERE training was the most challenging experience that she has faced in her life.
OVERCAME 'LOWEST POINT WITH LAUGHTER'
"My lowest moment (during the training), I can't say it, but it was really, really low," Chavez said. "But I started laughing, even though there were tears coming out of my eyes. It was tough, but I always had a positive attitude. I tried to sing and make something positive out of a crappy situation."
Chavez credited her father's work ethic to the reason she is so driven to overcome the multitude of challenges she faced during SERE training.
"My dad, he is really motivating," Chavez said. "He works in construction, in roofing. He would come back home just burned and blistered -- everyday nonstop and he never complained."
Chavez said that she admires her father and that he is the force that continues to keep her on track. "I always stop to sit down and think 'would this make my dad proud?'," Chavez said as her eyes glimmered with pride.
Silvano Chavez, Liliana's father, also frequently expresses his pride for his daughter when talking to his friends. His pride gleamed through his eyes as he spoke of her.
"I tell my friends that Liliana is on another level, she isn't just any normal college graduate - she is way more than that," Silvano said. "Liliana serves as an example that if you work hard and persevere you can get to where you want to be."
Silvano was one of 14 siblings and never had the opportunity to finish his education or go to college. He started working at the age of 13 to help provide for his large family.
Silvano said that he taught his three daughters that if you want to do better in life you need to focus and take every opportunity that you have.
"When Liliana went to Alabama (Ft. Rucker for flight school) she had never thought of flying as a possibility," Silvano said. "It was an opportunity that she had and she took it."
Chavez remembered being one of three women and the only Hispanic woman in her flight school class.
"There is a challenge in being a Hispanic woman and being a minority -- that's two things," Chavez said. "But now, I think it's a great thing, because we can actually go all the way to the top."
'I EMBRACE EVERY STEREOTYPE'
Chavez said that she overcomes discrimination the same way that she conquered her challenges during SERE training - with a splash of humor.
"I just play along with it, and I say 'so what?' I'll cross with my sombrero and taco machine, I don't care, I'll make you tacos right now," Chavez laughed. "I'll prove a point, I'm Mexican, I'll braid my hair. I embrace every stereotype, and I think that's the way to do it instead of being thin-skinned."
Regardless of all the obstacles she has faced, whether it was getting through college, financial setbacks, discrimination or SERE, Chavez never saw failure as an option.
"My main drive was not to disappoint my father," Chavez revealed. "I wanted to finish school and do amazing things for myself and him also. I want to eventually pay him back for all he has done for us."
Chavez, a lean five-and-a-half-feet tall, walks ruler-straight and with purpose, radiating positivity, while also having a steadfast command presence.
"The leader I hope to be - I expect to touch many, many lives," Chavez excitedly exclaimed. "I am already a joyful leader, always looking at the positive side. I am always smiling, I don't want to be bitter. If you aren't happy and have a moody face that is contagious."
'I WANT TO FLY IT ALL'
When Chavez talks about her job and flying, her face lights up, and her voice exudes an energetic rhythm and tone that only proves that long after achieving her dream of flying, she is still filled with the same wonder and awe she had watching the crop dusters as a young girl.
"I want to fly a fixed wing. I want to fly it all (all aircraft)," Chavez said.
"I feel really proud, she loves what she does," Jessica Chavez, 27, Liliana's sister, said. "Every time she talks about it, you can see a little spark -- the glow in her eyes, the spark in her face."
She has this strong character everywhere she goes, even in the way she stands, you can see it, Jessica added.
The 2nd Lt. aviator reflected upon where she would be in life had her father not brought her and her family to the United States.
"I would be living a sad life, probably with like, five kids, not in school, not educated or maybe something even worse - just the way stuff is down there," Chavez said.
With a smirk on his face and standing very straight, Silvano crossed his arms and shook his head in disagreement with his daughter's statement.
"If we hadn't come here, nothing would be different," Silvano said. "I would have wanted them to keep up with their education, and if Lily were in Mexico she would move somewhere else and still succeed because that is the way she is."
Many DREAMS LEFT TO FULFILL
Although she has reached what her family and many people would see as the pinnacle of success, Chavez said she still has many dreams to fulfill.
"My other plan is to go back to school for Earth and Coastal Sciences, diving and studying earth forms," Chavez said. "I want to be an astronaut too, one day."
Chavez said that working in the community where she was raised is a humble reminder of all the people who have shaped and molded her life.
"I would never have thought I would be in this position to make a difference or implant a seed in their (her community) brains so they can actually grow their ideas and be something," Chavez said.
Sitting up straight on the end of her office chair, both hands on her knees, Chavez leaned forward and passionately voiced her message to other girls who have big 'movie-star dreams' like hers.
"I'd tell them don't limit yourself, the sky is actually not the limit -- you can be an astronaut if you want to."