U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

10/15/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 10/15/2021 15:59

Esperanza: A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Hope

NASHVILLE, Tenn.- (Oct. 15, 2021) National Hispanic Heritage Month gives us an opportunity to recognize Hispanic American's stories, contributions, and achievements throughout the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the military, and across the United States.

Many people migrate to America to attain the "American Dream" and give their families a better life. Overcoming obstacles in a foreign country while still excelling in a challenging career field can seem impossible to some, but many immigrants and their families navigate these types of challenges daily.

Those who come to this country and help build it up through selfless service are assets to the melting pot which helps make America a diverse eclectic. That is what USACE Program Analyst Sondra Abanto's family did when her mother migrated from San Sebastián, a municipality of Puerto Rico, to New Jersey in the early 1950s at the tender age of seven.

Similarly, Cordell Hull Lake Park Ranger Luke Navarro's father immigrated to the states with his family from Mexico before Navarro was born. His mother's family immigrated from India a few years before she was born.

USACE Civil Engineer Project Manager Omar Acevedo's grandparents were raised in Puerto Rico, but they were born in Brooklyn, New York and moved to Puerto Rico as young children. At the age of 19, Acevedo's father joined the Army and Omar was born at Fort Stewart, Georgia.

According to the New Jersey State Department of Education Division Against Discrimination, there were approximately 13,140 to 37,440 Puerto Rican's living in New Jersey by 1955. Out of 5.5 million residents, Puerto Ricans were 0.24 - 0.68 percent of the state's population.

An estimated 470,000 Puerto Ricans made their way to the mainland United States for work during what historians classify as the "Great Migration." Twenty-one percent of the island's total population left Puerto Rico for the United States between 1950 and 1960.

In North Brooklyn thousands of Puerto Rican migrants moved into communities and homes left behind by white Americans who left Brooklyn for the suburbs.

Simultaneously, the U.S. saw a large increase in first-generation Mexican immigrants, and 9.7 million immigrants lived in the states accounting for 5.4 percent of the total U.S. population between 1950 and 2000, according to PEW Research Center.

Migrating over 1,564 miles at such a young age would be a challenge for any child, but Abanto recalls her mother's very specific struggle: language.

"Language was the biggest challenge for my mother because she was very young when she came to the states and she only spoke Spanish but, she was extremely intelligent and she learned English in no time," Abanto explained, "she actually taught herself basic French, Italian, and Yiddish because in New Jersey, there were so many people from all over the world and at every different job she worked she'd pick up languages, just like putting on a coat."

Navarro recalls his own family's hardships when coming to America. "My grandmother immigrated to America leaving my father behind with his grandparents on the family's farm," Navarro said.

When his father was 14, his mother left him behind in the U.S. with a woman he hardly knew acting as a mother figure. He had could not speak English and was several years behind the American school system which was very challenging.

Navarro recalls, "I was born when my parents were in their teens. We lived in poverty, with my dad working multiple jobs to try to provide for the family."

As a child, Acevedo's father explained to him some of the hardships he may face growing up in America as a foreigner. "I recall my dad trying to explain to me a certain derogatory slang used against Latinos and Hispanics to degrade and demoralize us."

The slang was used to taunt the way Latin Americans said the word, "speak" due to their foreign accent. Luckily, Acevedo never experienced this type of racism and bullying.

Despite the strenuous obstacles of language, finances, and degradation, these USACE employees have defied the odds and taken advantage of opportunities to have their "American Dream" come true. Part of that is having the ability to make such an important impact here in the Nashville District.

Navarro, who went to university and graduate school to be a minister, left the ministry about 12 years ago and started a second career in natural resource management. "After some time with a state agency and with the National Park Service, I made my way to the Corps," Navarro said.

Abanto also began with one career direction in mind but transitioned into another which led her to the Corps.

"I originally wanted to be a translator and interpreter, but then when I met other people that were much stronger in Spanish than I was I decided to keep that as a hobby or tool rather than my primary job," Abanto said.

Abanto worked for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda Maryland in administration. She also worked at the VA for the financial services center in Austin, Texas.

"Being a military spouse, I have worked for different agencies," Abanto recalled. "I worked for the Army medical command in Fort Lewis, Washington and in Germany. I also worked for the 405th Army Field Support Battalion logistics readiness center."

She also worked for the Navy in Millington, TN, eventually moving to the Nashville District. "I was so lucky to get a job here and work for the Corps," Abanto shared.

Acevedo studied at the University of Puerto Rico which led him to an opportunity to work with the USDA Forest Service through a summer internship program in Cleveland, Tennessee. He then worked as a co-op student for two years with the Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico.

After graduating with his bachelor's degree in civil engineering, Acevedo and his wife began looking for work in Nashville since they had both worked at different internships making them more familiar with the state of Tennessee.

After working a local internship, Acevedo started a career in 2012 with the technical services section in cost engineering until June 2021. He now works as a project manager.

By migrating to the states, these USACE employee's families ensured they had opportunities that may not have existed in their home countries. Chances to future their education and enter career fields that have huge impacts on the local community and throughout the country.

"As rangers we spend most of our time in the field" Navarro said, "while we do occasionally find ourselves in high intensity situations, we generally have positive interactions with the public. The comradery between rangers both while on duty and in the office make for an enjoyable workplace."

Abanto enjoys the fact that she is constantly engaged and working with different people across USACE.

"Because we work so much with the project managers, and we work with other areas of USACE I get to interact with different people and departments constantly."

Abanto also appreciates the opportunity to flourish in her career and meet new people.

"I loved going through things like the leadership development program I just finished, it was filled with amazing people from all over the organization and it's like a family," Abanto said, "I really appreciate the way the district makes sure that we are all taken care of and have the training and opportunities we need to grow."

Acevedo enjoys the opportunity he's had to move around over the years and experience other branches and divisions within the Corps for himself.

"I was really grateful to do a rotation when I started here in Nashville," Acevedo shared, "a lot of times a company will bring people into engineering and they'll stay within their certain engineering section. They're molded into doing that specific job and in a lot of cases they don't interact much with other fields and branches. Through my experience, I was able to learn what each division does, their responsibilities, and challenges. Also, getting to know the people and creating a network so you know who to reach out and contact with any questions."

As the Latin population grows in Tennessee, the diversity at USACE grows with it. Many immigrants come to this country with a unique perspective and an urge to defy all odds they may face in their pursuit of the "American Dream." Employees like Abanto, Acevedo, and Navarro are excellent reflections of the strength USACE receives from the diversity our country has always thrived from.

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