Hispanic Heritage Month 2018

Enhancing tradition, celebrating Hispanic veterans

“When I said it was an honor to be there, it really was. It was full circle for me. And for my dad — for what he worked for,” said Elizabeth Perez, CalVet deputy secretary for minority veterans.

Perez was one of several guest speakers at the Los Angeles County Military and Veterans Affairs department Celebration of Hispanic Veterans. Other speakers included notable Hispanic veterans such as Hector Barajas-Varela, director and founder of Deported Veterans Support House, and Keith Jeffreys of the U.S. Veterans’ Artists Alliance.

The event, hosted at the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in an area with one of the highest concentrations of both veterans and Hispanics, aimed to recognize the service of Hispanic veterans while also raising awareness of the unique community opportunities made possible by the demographics of the area.

“I think it’s really important that each and every one of us that have served tell their story to their neighbors, their family, their loved ones and their friends,” said Ruth Wong, director of the LA County Military and Veterans Affairs department. “Because it’s important for us to get the word out for people to know about how important it is to support our military members that have served and are still serving.”

Perez, a Navy veteran, is not the first Hispanic veteran in her family — her father joined the Army when he was 17, after moving with his family from Mexico to LA.

“I grew up an Army brat. The military was part of my DNA, but I have a lot of emotions about it,” Perez said. “We spent about eight years in Kentucky at Fort Campbell, and, to be honest, people made fun of us. Our last name, our food, how my dad looked. Even in Kentucky, even though it was a military base, even though people didn’t all look Caucasian — I knew we were different even if I didn’t understand it.”

Perez remembers being eight when she first encountered racism, and she remembers getting “the talk” — a different “the talk” than the one most other eight-year-old girls receive.

“I went home and told my mom what kids were calling me at school, and she had the talk with me,” Perez said. “She said, ‘This is why you have to work ten times harder than anybody else. This is who they think you are, and we’re not that.’”

Perez received this message of hardwork from her mother, but received it even more resolutely from her father up until he passed away when she was a junior in high school.

“My mom and my dad both didn’t finish high school, but my father was adamant about education,” said Perez. “He didn’t get to see me be the first to finish high school, but it meant a lot to him. It’s why my family came to the U.S. It sticks with me to this day.”

Perez worked hard throughout her time in the Navy and afterwards, and attributes her career success to the work ethic she inherited from her father.

“He worked so hard to give us a better life than he had, and give us that message of hard work that maybe I didn’t fully understand when I was a kid,” said Perez. “It went a long way in my life because it prepared me for this role. I really felt his presence there with me at the event.”

Looking forward, as ranks of the military become more and more diverse, Perez plans to tailor veteran services in her area to reflect these demographic shifts. As the state with one of the highest populations of veterans, Perez believes California can serve as an example to other states by developing programs and services that take into consideration the future face of the military.

“The face of the military is becoming more and more diverse,” said Perez. “We take those numbers into consideration when we’re planning and designing programs. It’s important to plan for that as the state with one of the highest populations of veterans. It’s important that we’ve planned and prepared and we’re able to serve them.”

Text by Elizabeth Howe, radio.com