An independent spirit
By Diana Bejarano
As we celebrate Independence Day this month, I think about the sacrifices many have made for our freedom, including Latinas who have served and fought in the armed forces. Latinas have a proud history of serving their country.
Today, Latinas are a significant percentage of the 1.6 million women veterans and 1.2 million Hispanic veterans. Most have not engaged directly in combat, but played important support roles.
Rebecca Villalpando is just one of many brave Latinas who saw the military as a path to enhancing their lives. The 53-year-old, single mother of two joined the Navy when she was just 19 years old, served four years on active duty and another eight years in the Reserves.
Rebecca, a native of Arizona, has traveled the world with the military. Her love for her country also led to her a Fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington D.C. in 2004-2006.
She said she joined the military despite her family’s lack of understanding and support. They didn’t understand why she wanted to enlist in the armed forces and leave Arizona. Rebecca was a pioneer who says she doesn’t regret any of it, because it helped her grow, stretch and learn. I, for one, am thankful for her bravery and service. She and many other Latinas have kept our nation safe.
She is a military veteran. She is a mother. She has also survived divorce and single parenthood. She has worked during the day and has taken one or two classes at a time, year after year, and is now a few credits away from receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in political science from ASU.
When asked what she was most proud of, she said, “I was a single mother, who refused to be a statistic. I was raised to not rely on government assistance and to not be a quitter.” Rebecca’s advice to single mothers: “Follow your dreams … and take your kids with you!”
She exposed her two sons to education and exploring the U.S. Both are pursuing college degrees as well.
Latinas are smart, she says; they know how to make things work and keep everything together for their families. Rebecca makes us all believe that we can do just about anything.
Rebecca’s faith kept her going during tough times. Her advice is to keep focused on your goals and don’t be afraid to be the first in your family to do something.
“Our ancestors moved to a new country and made it,” Rebecca said, “Don’t let anyone’s lack of support stop you from accomplishing your dreams.”
Recently, Rebecca helped start a Veteran Women’s Shelter in Phoenix (MANA), a transitional residential program for women vets who served in the Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force. This is the first homeless shelter of its kind in the Phoenix area (perhaps, one-quarter of all veterans are homeless).
Rebecca is a proud veteran and a Latina Still Standing. Today and every day, let’s not forget our country’s best kept secret: Latina women in the military. We all need to support and honor them.
God bless all Latinas serving in the military and all soldiers who have given their lives for our freedom.
Diana Bejarano is an Arizona native and a graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or latinastillstanding.blogspot.com