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Base member shares Hispanic heritage experience

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, I would like to share my experiences with the Incirlik community. 

I was born and raised in the small town of Hoboken, N.J., which is predominantly Hispanic. It seemed like everyone in my town spoke both English and Spanish and there was little distinction between the two languages. The neighborhood stores were always fully stocked with the latest shipments of food and products from our native countries. When my brother and I walked through the park, you could always hear people joking around in "Spanglish" as they played basketball. The weekly circulars from the chain stores in our town were always bilingual. Even the people who owned the Chinese food restaurants in our town spoke Spanish better than English. 

In this small town, there was always a sense of unity and camaraderie because almost everyone knew each other and understood each other's backgrounds and culture. My childhood was spent immersed in my language and culture even though my family was hundreds of miles away from my native Puerto Rico. 

I was given an opportunity to enroll in a school that provided an accelerated curriculum when I was in fifth grade. Even though the school was physically located in Hoboken, I felt like I was in a different world for nine hours a day. I was one of two Hispanics in the entire school the first year I was there. It was the first time I had ever encountered stereotypes about my culture or felt like I had to defend myself against racism. I felt very much like an outsider for the three years I was there. 

I did, however, have two salvations. The first was that I could leave at the end of the day and find refuge in my neighborhood and friends outside of school. The second was that my mother also worked at the school and she was the only Hispanic faculty member. We were able to commiserate and keep each other strong. 

She also did her best to remind me that beyond the perimeter of Hoboken, there existed a much larger world that was mine to explore and where things would be very different. It was her idea for me to apply to out-of-state high schools so I could be more independent. I was accepted to an all girls' school in Massachusetts. 

I remember being so excited for the drastic change. I remember seeing so many different faces just as I was getting settled into my dorm room. My roommate walked in and she was Japanese. Sixty-five percent of the student body in my high school was made up of international students. That meant the majority of the girls in the school were experiencing the same things I had experienced in my junior high. Believe it or not, my first year was so difficult and I had a horrible time adjusting because I found myself perpetuating stereotypes on others. It felt like I couldn't relate to anyone because I knew nothing about their lives or countries and they knew nothing about mine. 

My second year, however, went a lot smoother. I joined a group called Women of Color. It was comprised of all the girls in my school who were minorities. At first, some thought that it was a bad idea and could be viewed as self-imposed segregation. However, the purpose of the entire group became to educate the rest of the school about our cultures and countries while providing a safe haven for discussing issues pertaining to each particular ethnic group. Periodically, the entire group would meet to plan events, such as seminars and shows, for the rest of the school. 

It was an amazing array of women and one that helped me be more outgoing and want to learn about other people's cultures instead of being bitter that no one understood mine. Without them, I don't know how I would have gotten through the next three years. We would get together and cook and share our experiences and it created a bond between us that to this day remains strong. 

By the time I got to college, I was so secure in myself and my culture that I no longer cared if I was the only Hispanic in Boston. I was also encouraged by the willingness of people to open up and share themselves and their eagerness to learn about others.
It is that enthusiasm on people's part that makes all the difference. It is that unity that I continue to look for everywhere I go and think I have found here at Incirlik. During this month of observance, I would like to ask that everyone take an opportunity to show a little willingness to partake in the activities that the Hispanic Heritage Month Committee has so diligently planned. To be Hispanic means so many things to so many people within the Hispanic community. 

The blanket term "Hispanic" applies to more than 20 countries, most of which are represented here by generous people who are excited about sharing a little taste of home with you. Let us foster that sense of unity and camaraderie by opening up and learning about each other the way I was able to.