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HISPANIC HERITAGE: A culture of support

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Senior Airman Laura Perez, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron aerospace and operational physiological technician, briefs pilots and aircrew members from across the nation about the high altitude chamber simulation in December 2015. Perez was born in California, but her parents are from Mexico and El Salvador, both of whom contributed to her dedication to hard work and strong sense of family. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Senior Airman Laura Perez, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron aerospace and operational physiological technician, briefs pilots and aircrew members from across the nation about the high altitude chamber simulation in December 2015. Perez was born in California, but her parents are from Mexico and El Salvador, both of whom contributed to her dedication to hard work and strong sense of family. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - Senior Airman Laura Perez, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron aerospace and operational physiological technician, works closely with coworkers at the high altitude chamber on Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Sept. 30, 2016. Perez’s Hispanic background emphasized a strong sense of family, which she found in her unit after joining the Air Force in 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - Senior Airman Laura Perez, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron aerospace and operational physiological technician, works closely with coworkers at the high altitude chamber on Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Sept. 30, 2016. Perez’s Hispanic background emphasized a strong sense of family, which she found in her unit after joining the Air Force in 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

DENVER, Colo. – Senior Airman Laura Perez, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron aerospace and operational physiological technician, was born and raised in the U.S., but has a strong Hispanic background. When she was 15 years old, her family held a quinceanera for her, a traditional celebration to demonstrate her coming-of-age and becoming a woman. (courtesy photo)

DENVER, Colo. – Senior Airman Laura Perez, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron aerospace and operational physiological technician, was born and raised in the U.S., but has a strong Hispanic background. When she was 15 years old, her family held a quinceanera for her, a traditional celebration to demonstrate her coming-of-age and becoming a woman. (courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- “I couldn’t even spell the color ‘purple.’ It was hard.”

Even though she was born and raised in the U.S., Senior Airman Laura Perez knows the struggles of feeling like an outsider. Her father is from Mexico and her mother from El Salvador, both of whom contributed to her dedication to hard work and strong sense of family.

Born in California, Perez, now an aerospace physiological technician with the 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, grew up speaking Spanish until she went to elementary school. She had to work harder than many of those around her to make sure she wasn’t left behind. For Perez, being successful is important, not for personal satisfaction, but to make sure her parents’ life sacrifices weren’t for nothing.

From escaping a war-torn country and constant hunger, they came to America to pursue a better life for themselves. They enrolled and met in an English class in California and worked to gain their citizenship. After children entered the picture, Perez said her family moved to Denver when she was three years old.

As she grew up, Perez said her family didn’t celebrate all the Hispanic holidays, but family was part of all the ones they did celebrate. That was particularly true for the party thrown for her fifteenth birthday.

One of the most important celebrations in the Mexican culture, her quinceanera began with a ceremony to constitute passage from childhood into becoming a young woman. Perez said there was a father – daughter dance which signified her father letting go as she grew into a young adult.

“I wore a big poofy dress,” Perez said. “There was a dance and cake. It was kind of like a small wedding, but for yourself.”

The food at her quinceanera and every family function was beyond phenomenal, she said. Her mom can cook both Mexican and Salvadorian food, which makes her taste buds quite blissful.

“I love tamales,” Perez said. “(My mom) always makes them for Christmas and sometimes Thanksgiving. …My mom also makes pupusas, which is a traditional Salvadorian dish.”

Through much of her life, her parents worked several jobs to ensure there was food on the table and there was no want for anything. Seeing their want to provide for the family made Perez see the value in a strong work ethic from a young age, beginning with learning English as a second language in school.

“In the afternoons we went to another class where they helped those of us struggling to learn English,” she said. “It was very difficult for me, but I tried harder so I wasn’t left behind. Now I love the fact that I can speak two languages.”

Unsure of her direction in life after high school, Perez joined the Air Force to be part of something important. It provided structure, independence and endless opportunities to thrive. She said it’s the best decision she’s ever made.

With her aerospace physiology family, she works hard to ensure pilots, crew chiefs and other air crew members are educated on the effects high altitude can have on the human body.

Outside of the workplace, Perez continues to take what she’s learned in life and give back to the community. Because she knows firsthand what it feels like to struggle with learning a new language, she volunteers at a local church teaching English as a second language.

She says everything she does is to make her parents proud. The hard work they instilled in her, along with a strong sense of family, pushes Perez every day to be the best she can be, and then some.

“For them going from nothing to where they are now is a big push for me,” she said. “If they can do that - not knowing the language, not being a citizen - I can do a lot more.”

*Editor’s Note: This is part five of a five-part series highlighting Hispanic Airmen for Hispanic Heritage Month.

Peterson SFB Schriever SFBCheyenne Mountain SFSThule AB New Boston SFS Kaena Point SFS Maui