By Melissa Bower, Fort Leavenworth LampSeptember 29, 2011
FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. -- She was once a pepenadora, a poor girl in Mexico City whose family couldn't afford to live off garbage, but now she's studying in the School of Advanced Military Studies.
U.S. Army Maj. Leticia Walpole was one of three speakers at the Hispanic Heritage luncheon on post Sept. 22. The luncheon celebrated the diverse stories of a first-generation, a second-generation and a third-generation Hispanic American. Walpole emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico as an adult. Iris Hermosillo, a Kansas City television host, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico as a very young girl, and Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Luis Alvarez III is the grandson of a Puerto Rican immigrant.
Hermosillo is a member of KCTV Channel 5's Storm Track 5 Weather team and co-hosts "Qué Pasa, KC?". She was born in Hidalgo Del Parral in Chihuahua, Mexico, and moved to Phoenix, Ariz., as a child.
On the show "Qué Pasa, KC?" Hermosillo said she wants to show the diversity of the Hispanic community in the area.
"It's more than just television," she said. "I want to report for that Hispanic child who has no idea how he or she could succeed."
Alvarez served the Marines from 1999 to 2003. During that time, he was a member of the elite Marine Security Company providing security to the president of the United States at Camp David, Md.
"Earning the title of Marine still is the proudest achievement I have had in my life," he said.
Alvarez's grandfather was a World War II veteran and his mother and father were the first in their families to go to college. Following Alvarez's own graduation from college, he decided to continue serving the federal government as a law enforcement officer.
Walpole talked about her struggles growing up poor in Mexico City.
"I wanted to be a soldier since I was 5 years old, but because of poverty level, physical and emotional abuse from my father … family tradition and the Mexican military politics back in those days, I was not given the opportunity to become a soldier in my country of Mexico City, Mexico."
Today, Walpole has not only achieved her dream of becoming a Soldier, but studies at the School of Advanced Military Studies -- placing her at the highest levels among her fellow field-grade officers in the Army.
As a child, her family was part of the pepenadores, known as the people who live off garbage. Those who can afford it buy a monthly pass to sift through garbage to sell it and make money, Walpole said. Those who were doing well could afford a multi-colored card to pick food from the garbage as well.
"We were not wealthy enough to afford the multi-colored card, so all we picked up was glass," she said.
At the age of 32, her mother had no teeth. Later, they discovered this was because of malnutrition. Walpole was the youngest of six children. Her father did not believe girls should have an education.
"If he found me studying, he'd punish me severely and left marks on my body for months," she said.
Walpole would hide in dark places with a candle to study.
"Learning became an obsession for me, and I did not mind the physical abuse anymore as the years went by because learning overweighed the physical pain," she said.
When she learned that women could join the military in the United States, she decided to leave. Her father told her not to come back.
Walpole took a bus to Tijuana, Mexico. She was homeless for several weeks.
"Being homeless is an ugly feeling," she said. "You lose your pride, you lose your security, you feel shame and humiliation, but I knew that I wanted to come to the United States and become a Soldier. I wanted that more than anything in my life -- more than food and more than water. I wanted to achieve that dream if I were to die trying."
She got a job as a housecleaner and eventually began to work for a Mattel toy factory. Six months later, the president of Mattel gave her a sponsorship to the United States because of her job performance.
At 22, she immigrated to the U.S. with a green card, Walpole said, but didn't know where she was going.
"I had $100 to my name and I did not speak any English, had no job, no house, no insurance, no knowledge of the tradition and no physical security," she said.
Walpole said she took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test multiple times, but failed because she didn't speak English. She worked as a bus driver, waiter, and many other jobs while going to school.
She was finally accepted into the California National Guard on Dec. 24, 1985. Walpole said she was a "proud E-1" and worked through the ranks to become a staff sergeant. In 1991, she entered Officer Candidate School and used her military benefits to go to college. Walpole entered the regular Army in 2007.
Walpole is married and has five children.
"When I wear any version of my uniform, I feel honored, I feel thankful to this nation, and to this great Army, and to God for showing me the way and giving me courage," she said. "The United States has provided me with every opportunity I have always asked for."