Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month

Celebrate the contributions of Hispanic Americans during Hispanic Heritage Month Sept. 15 - Oct. 15. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Travon Dennis)

Celebrate the contributions of Hispanic Americans during Hispanic Heritage Month Sept. 15 - Oct. 15. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Travon Dennis)

DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga. -- Today, I am a proud Hispanic American and an Air Force officer celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.

I was born to two loving parents, Rosa and Carlos DeGracia, in Bronx, N.Y., Sept. 30, 1972. Both parents were born on the beautiful Caribbean island of Puerto Rico and moved to New York City during their late teens. Rosa humbly worked in a textile factory and Carlos served the public for 23 years as one of "NY's Finest" in the New York Police Department (NYPD), all while instilling the deep-rooted ideals, norms and values of a proud Hispanic culture. 

One day, while off duty and walking my oldest sister home from school, Carlos selflessly intervened in a street brawl that ensued into a fierce gun battle. He was shot twice - one bullet to his chest and another to his arm. Despite the odds, he quickly recovered and realized the escalating crime rate made the neighborhood far too dangerous to live in. An immediate move landed the family in sunny Tampa, Fla., the place I called 'home' until 1990. 

Despite spending most of my younger years running around the streets of NYC playing various city-centric activities like hand ball, paddle ball, street baseball, kickball, break dancing, etc., I found it easy to acclimate to all my surroundings. This would not be the case in Tampa. 

The slower and more structurally disciplined life of the South was something new to me. One humorous aspect of the change was people mocking my N.Y. accent just as boldly as I mocked the 'Southern Twang.' Fortunately, great friends and success in sports such as football, soccer, wrestling and baseball helped me mend the culture gap with little effort. 

With no Air Force Junior ROTC program offered in my high school, I enrolled in the Air Force Auxiliary's Civil Air Patrol program. Being in the CAP program fueled my passion to pursue a career in aviation and leadership. After high school graduation I enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard then attended the USCG Academy in New London, Conn., in pursuit of saving lives as a helicopter pilot. However, poor vision would not allow this dream to come to fruition. 

I transferred into the Air Force and later into the Air National Guard with assignments in Puerto Rico and then Idaho. Through changes in medical and vision requirements, I was selected for pilot training and now fly C-130 Hercules here at Dobbins Air Reserve Base and the Boeing 717 for AirTran Airways, headquartered in Atlanta, Ga. 

I could not have accomplished these great feats without the endless love of my family nor the available opportunities presented to me throughout my career and life. These opportunities were the direct result of the distinguished accomplishments, hard work and sacrifices of many Hispanic Americans before me. Hispanic Heritage Month provides the medium to revisit these accomplishments and their value to our Hispanic community. 

Hispanic Heritage Month begins on Sept. 15, the anniversary of independence for five Latin American countries--Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico declared its independence on Sept. 16 and Chile on Sept. 18. 

The recognition period highlights these events and significant accomplishment of Hispanics in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the term Hispanic refers to Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. of any race. The estimated U.S. Hispanic population as of July 1, 2008, was 46.9 million, making people of Hispanic origin the nation's largest ethnic or race minority. Hispanics constitute 15 percent of the nation's total population. In addition, there are approximately 4 million residents of Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory. 

Most recent contributions from the Hispanic community include the government work of Alberto Gonzales, President Bush's selection for U.S. Attorney General in 2005, and Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's selection for U.S. Supreme Court Justice earlier this year. Astronauts Franklin Chang-Diaz and Ellen Ochoa have 11 total space shuttle flights between them. The musical brilliance of Carlos Santana secured his selection to the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame in 1998. Actress Rita Moreno and Actor Benicio Del Toro have sparked up the world of theater and fine arts. 

The sports world has been propelled by the strengths of baseball greats including Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, Tony Pena, Alex Rodriguez and Ivan Rodriguez. Famous boxers John Ruiz, Felix 'Tito" Trinidad, Juan Marquez, Cesar Chavez and Miguel Cotto have left their stamp on the sport. Former Formula One driver, Juan Montoya is revving it up on the NASCAR circuit and the Puerto Rican and Spain men's basketball teams keep the U.S. Olympic Dream Team on their toes. 

These achievements have helped create the proud Hispanic culture of today and will help in molding an even brighter tomorrow. Hispanics are loving and kind - reach out to hear another's Hispanic journey today. I promise it will be filled with laughter, joy and great pride.