By Petty Officer First Class Alexandria Florez
As a second-generation Mexican-American growing up in Sacramento, Calif, my father instilled in me a sense of duty. He is a very proud Mexican, and he always states, “I am Mexican, but I am an American first.” I was always a good student, but I wasn’t sure where I was headed after high school. I started at community college, but I knew I wanted something more. I joined the Navy as an Information Systems Technician Seaman Apprentice in December 2004 and left for boot camp 10 days before Christmas. At my graduation, I was reunited with my family, and my father asked me what I wanted to do. I replied, “I want chorizo con huevo!” I didn’t think it was possible, but my father found a restaurant. I don’t know why I thought joining the Navy would take me away from my Mexican roots, but it actually brought me closer to them
Next, I was stationed onboard USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20) in Gaeta, Italy. One would think that getting stationed in Europe would completely disconnect me from my heritage, but it actually brought me closer to it. There was an established community of Latinos onboard that welcomed me with open arms. Weekends were filled with barbecues at someone’s house. Hispanic heritage was celebrated with a party that could be heard all over the small town of Gaeta. Everyone was invited to the celebration regardless of their background.
While living in Italy, I honed my cooking skills. Many food staples I grew up with were limited in Italy. I couldn’t drive two hours to go to commissary in Naples every day so I had to learn to make most dishes from scratch. I made many international calls to my abuela in California asking her what I needed to do. I learned to make masa, tortillas, and mole from scratch. I used my shipmates as taste testers, and dinners at my house became a regular event. It brought me joy to cook and care for my fellow shipmates and share with them many of the traditional dishes I grew up with.
There was always a strong sense of unity and community. When I left Italy, I was sad. I was leaving behind my second family. However, I was happy to find a new community aboard USS Makin Island (LHD 8). Our hangout was the bakery on the ship, and the baker’s nickname was Osito. The door to bakery had “Osito’s Panadería” painted on it, and during deployment we would gather in there on Sundays for menudo y pan dulce. One of our Master Chief Petty Officers was a salsa instructor and started Latin dance nights to teach us how to dance and help reduce the monotony of being out to sea.
In the Navy, we are taught to celebrate and embrace our diversity. Over the years, I’ve met so many people from different backgrounds and cultures. Each and every one of us has something to contribute and it is from our diversity that we draw strength. We put aside our differences and work together to achieve greatness. No matter where I have gone, no matter how far away I was from my family or how many holidays I have missed, I never forgot where I came from. My father’s words mean more to me now than they did when I was a child because I now fully understand their importance. Twelve years ago, I swore an oath to defend this Country and uphold the Constitution, and I can honestly say it was the best decision I made in my life.
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