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Hispanic Heritage Month: Respectful Salsa

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Senior Airman Emily Alicea, 721st Mission Support Squadron personnel programs manager, right, created a scenario for an assignment in high school in Puerto Rico (2006) which required each individual to portray the cultures that make up Puerto Rican culture – The indigenous Tainos, the Spaniards and Africans. (courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Senior Airman Emily Alicea, 721st Mission Support Squadron personnel programs manager, right, created a scenario for an assignment in high school in Puerto Rico (2006) which required each individual to portray the cultures that make up Puerto Rican culture – The indigenous Tainos, the Spaniards and Africans. (courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Senior Airman Emily Alicea, 721st Mission Support Group personnel programs manager, right, poses for a photo with her sister, Erika Alicea, at Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2011. The historic landmark took nearly 200 years to build and has stood for more than 400 years. (courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Senior Airman Emily Alicea, 721st Mission Support Group personnel programs manager, right, poses for a photo with her sister, Erika Alicea, at Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2011. The historic landmark took nearly 200 years to build and has stood for more than 400 years. (courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The culture in Puerto Rico puts an emphasis on family and respect. The traditional culture holds dear events involving groups of people like salsa dancing and religious holidays.

Even though she grew up in the United States and spent only eight years in Puerto Rico, Senior Airman Emily Alicea, 721st Mission Support Group personnel programs manager, said it is those aspects of the culture that make Puerto Rico feel more like home to her.

Her parents are from Puerto Rico and moved to New York, where Alicea was born. She grew up like many other American children, she said, learning English as her first language and American culture and traditions in school. At home, she learned about her Puerto Rican heritage from her parents.

At the age of 11, Alicea moved with her family back to Ponce, Puerto Rico. It was there she really got to know her extended family and felt a strong connection with them and her heritage, she said.

"It's very close-knit, very religious as well," she said.

Many of the traditions throughout the Puerto Rican culture are based off the strong Catholic presence in the country.

One such custom is to "kiss the bread" before throwing it out because it symbolizes the body of Christ and it would be disrespectful to not do so, Alicea said.

Similarly, it is custom for Puerto Ricans to say "buen provecho," to someone who is eating, otherwise it is considered rude. It's comparable to the French saying of "bon appetite."

"Here, I remember I started saying it, but no one knew what I was saying," Alicea said. "When I'm eating and someone passes by, I have to think that it's not rude. It's just that they don't share the same culture that I do."

The biggest thing she said that is different in their culture is how people always get together and go places in groups - it's such a community based culture.

"We go out in groups and don't have to go to a bar to have music," she said. "You just go to someone's house and there's domino tables right there because we all play dominos."

With such a large focus on family and community, the next best thing is the amazing food, Alicea said.

"Rice, beans and chicken. That's the most traditional thing," she said.

Also on her list of traditional Puerto Rican food is mofongo.

Mofongo is a plantain based dish that is mashed together and fried with olive oil and garlic. It can then be filled with seafood, chicken or other vegetables. While it's delicious, she said it's only found in Puerto Rico.

These traditional dishes are often devoured during the holidays, Alicea said. The biggest holiday is Christmas, also celebrated in the U.S., but possibly a more traditional, and expectedly religious-based, holiday celebrated in Puerto Rico is Three Kings Day.

"Instead of putting out milk and cookies for Santa, you put grass and water for the camels under your bed," she said. "It's for the three kings going to visit Jesus."

These traditions, and many more, Alicea said are what makes her proud to be Puerto Rican and are the reason she feels that it is more her home than the U.S.

Still, she wanted to do something for herself and thought the opportunities were greater in America. Alicea joined the U.S. Air Force in 2011 from Puerto Rico, leaving her family behind, and went directly to basic training.

"I think I would be scared to just move back and not know anybody and not have the financial stability at 19 to move to the United States," she said. "I thought the military was the best option for me."

Moving to the U.S. without her family was a culture change, even though she lived here longer than in Puerto Rico. Family, community and respect is such a large part of their heritage that being without them took time to get used to.

"It was more of missing home than anything," she said. "The traditions you had become accustomed to were kind of thrown out."

While certain traditions are not practiced in the U.S., Alicea said the value of being part of a close-knit community and respect for each other helped her transition well into the military.

She said she tries to have get-togethers often with coworkers and friends here to continue the sense of community that turns ordinary people into family. She's even tried to teach them salsa dancing.

"Being able to let them know that it's more than just a work environment," she said. "You're still a person. You should still have fun and be happy."

Alicea brought her colorful Puerto Rican heritage with her to the U.S. and shared it with everyone around her, making the bond between her Hispanic heritage and the Air Force even more powerful and complimentary.

(The is part two of a four part series highlighting Hispanic Airmen for Hispanic Heritage Month)

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