FORT DETRICK, Md. -- For U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Joel Lara-Baeza, the United States was a beacon of hope and opportunity for a struggling family.
A native of Jalisco, Mexico, Lara-Baeza lost his father at a young age, leaving his mother to raise four boys on her own.
“Her desperation to provide her children with a better life drove her to immigrate to the United States for a better quality of life,” said Lara-Baeza, currently serving as the senior enlisted adviser at the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Korea, a direct reporting unit to Army Medical Logistics Command.
Lara-Baeza’s story is not unlike many others from Mexico and other Hispanic nations as AMLC and its direct-reporting units recognize the efforts of some of their own service members and Department of Army Civilians during National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Each year from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, the U.S. Army emphasizes the value of contributions of American Soldiers with ancestry from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Hispanic Americans have not hesitated to defend and show their allegiance to this nation in many ways, but especially through military service.
The Army and the U.S. continue to draw strength from the diversity that makes up the United States.
Similar to Lara-Baeza, Jorge Magaña was just eight months old when his family immigrated to the states from Mexico.
Magaña, a retired chief warrant officer four who is currently serving as director of the Medical Maintenance Management Directorate at the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency, said his family’s roots go all the way back to the native tribes of Mexico.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Magana’s grandfather, a migrant worker, started traveling to the U.S. seasonally for work. In the early 1970s, just after Magaña was born, the family moved to the states for good.
Growing up in Orange County, California, the family maintained many of the cultural norms and customs of their native Zamora Michoacan, Mexico, while putting their own culinary spin on American culture and holidays, like Thanksgiving.
“With the turkey, we would add mole (pronounced: Mole-Eh), which is a traditional Mexican dish that’s like gravy made with a variety of chili peppers and lots of spices,” Magaña said.
Later, in high school, Magaña enrolled in ROTC and decided to join the Army at 17 years old. He credits the positive influence from the Soldiers leading the program for his reason to join the military and further his education.
At the same time, he never forgot where he came from.
“My heritage is important because it’s where my family came from,” Magaña said. “It’s always important to remember the struggles of your family, the struggles of what made us; what made you, what made me, and the sacrifices that our family gave to get us where we are.”
Staff Sgt. Jose Negron has a similar story. He, too, looked to the U.S. and the military as a way to find new job opportunities and further his education.
Negron, a non-commissioned officer for the G-4 at USAMMA, was born and raised in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory where many of his family members still reside today.
He joined the Army National Guard in Puerto Rico in 1997 before deciding to go into active duty service in 2003. Almost immediately, he got orders to deploy to Iraq.
It was a quick change and steep learning curve for a Soldier largely still learning the English language.
“It was hard, especially for me with the language,” Negron said. “… The National Guard in Puerto Rico, most of them spoke Spanish. But when I came onto active duty, it was a big change because everyone spoke English.”
Diego Gomez-Morales, a native Colombian, recalls sort of losing connection to his heritage in his early years as a Soldier.
“Everybody’s the same [in the military] and it makes it harder,” said Gomez-Morales, a retired chief warrant officer three and current deputy director of AMLC’s Policies and Analysis Directorate. “And there weren’t a lot of fellow Colombian natives in the Army then.”
But an assignment as a medical logistics instructor that took him to Texas, where he first met the woman he would eventually marry, changed all that.
“How I got back to my roots was because I met my wife,” he said. “My wife is Colombian.”
As they raised their family, they decided to instill their Colombian heritage by teaching their children Spanish as their first language. They also embraced traditional holiday celebrations and Colombian cuisine with community groups and during family gatherings.
“As I retired [from active duty in 2011], we were able to rebuild those roots,” Gomez-Morales said, adding that they typically try to visit family in Colombia at least once a year. “And at the same time, the kids were able to see that too.”
Pete Ramos’ family, too, is rooted in Puerto Rico. His grandparents were originally from the tropical island before his family settled in New York, where he was born.
His father joined the Army when Ramos was just seven years old.
“After that, I was raised in the Army,” he said.
The family moved around a bit before Ramos finished high school in Hawaii. He then decided to enlist in the Army himself in 1988, beginning a nearly 26-year career that ended when he retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Ramos, a logistics management specialist now for AMLC, recalled memories of growing up where their heritage as Puerto Ricans “was synonymous with our American heritage.”
“Whether it was deliberate or not, we were never raised to think of them as separate,” he said. “Although we spoke primarily English at home, our parents took us to church and community events where people spoke both English and Spanish, in communities blended with of Caribbean, Central and South American cultures.”
Like many families today, Ramos said his own family is blended, so their cultural values are “kind of a fruit salad” with influence from both sides.
“I think it’s important to embrace the beneficial aspects of our different cultures,” he said. “… The same can be said about our service members. They represent the nation, and their varied backgrounds and wide-ranging viewpoints lend to our strength as an Army.”
Lara-Baeza summed it up well, saying the U.S. is a “representation of every world culture” and that “makes us stand out amongst all others.”
“After all, this nation was founded on the principles of acceptance, tolerance and inclusion,” he said. “Our Army is represented by different colors, ethnicities and cultures. We all bring a different flavor to the table.
“This ultimately adds to the fact that we are the greatest Army in the world.”