In Spanish, America refers to the land that is both North and South America, not just the United States. In English, to say you are American means you are from the United States. But in Spanish, to say you are Americano means you could be from any of the 21 countries that span both continents. This distinction is important to Hispanic Americans, especially during National Hispanic Heritage Month.
One of this year’s themes is “Todos Somos, Somos Uno: We Are All, We Are One,” which gets at the heart of the matter — Hispanic heritage is diverse but united. For Andy Guzman, public affairs specialist at the Kansas City District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to celebrate all Hispanic cultures and the language that unites them.
“[National] Hispanic Heritage Month is a chance to celebrate culture, celebrate that melting pot that we are, celebrate that we have a common language that we share even if we come from different parts of America,” said Guzman.
Breaking the cycle
Born in the Dominican Republic, Guzman’s mother presented him and his brother with two prospects: a life in the Dominican Republic or a life in the United States. With the support of their mother, and at just 13 and 12 years old, Guzman and his younger brother decided to make a life for themselves and their family in the U.S.
According to Guzman, it is common in Hispanic culture for children to take care of their parents and elders. In the Dominican Republic, it can be difficult to escape poverty unless you have connections in high places. Although family is very important to them, Guzman and his brother had dreams for themselves. So, together, they made the decision to move to the U.S.
“We have to break the cycle and the cycle ends with our generation,” recalled Guzman of the conversation he and his brother had before deciding to move to the U.S.
Shortly after, Guzman and his family immigrated to New York City, a city which symbolizes all that the U.S. has to offer for those who have the courage and ambition to chase their dreams. Guzman’s brother pursued a career in medicine, eventually becoming a medical doctor. For Guzman, his American dream was to join the military and become a U.S. citizen.
Enlisting in the military allowed Guzman to fast track his citizenship. At the time, those who enlisted could expect to wait five years or less for citizenship. Those who went through the civilian channels could wait up to ten years to obtain citizenship.
After graduating high school, Guzman enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Before leaving for basic training the following year, he got a job at a movie theater in downtown Manhattan, spurring his interest in film.
“My first job … was at a movie theater,” said Guzman. “I think one of the most awesome experiences that I have ever had prior to the [U.S. Air Force] was helping … the projectionist … take the film out and put it on a bed and tape it together … then hearing that reel go in front of the lamp, that was super cool. I caught the movie bug.”
Although a career in broadcasting with the U.S. Air Force was unavailable at the time Guzman enlisted, his love for film never wavered. While his career with the military did not lead directly to a career in film, it allowed Guzman opportunities that few could ever dream of.
Only in America
The entire world changed on Sept. 11, but for Guzman, life changed drastically, not only as an enlisted Airman, but as an immigrant awaiting citizenship. After the attacks on the U.S., the military accelerated citizenship of those who were currently serving. On February 1, 2003, Guzman applied for citizenship and just 27 days later, he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
During his first assignment with the U.S. Air Force, Guzman was fortunate to have had a supervisor and mentor who believed in him, even when, at times, he doubted himself. Guzman worked hard and enjoyed his job as a logistician. So, when the opportunity to work at the White House presented itself, Guzman needed some encouragement to realize he was qualified and deserving of the position.
“Because of that good supervisor who kept on pushing me as I was putting myself down for being Hispanic, for being a minority, being an immigrant, he said ‘no, [the military is] a different place, based on merit. It’s a meritocracy,’” said Guzman.
Guzman applied for the White House position and was accepted in 2005. He worked for both the Bush and Obama Administrations with the White House Communications Agency. While working at the White House was a dream come true in and of itself, the highlight of Guzman’s immigrant story was voting for the first time in the 2008 general election.
“That was my first time voting and I cannot describe the feeling of casting a vote and then going to shake my new boss’s hand. And I cried,” said Guzman. “Only in this country. I kept my head down, I worked really, really hard, I had a good mentor, and I was [at the White House] and I lived it.”
Guzman continued to work for the White House Communications Agency until 2010. He credits this time with how he initially became interested in pursuing a career in public affairs.
“I worked in a communications agency, and it was interesting to see … there is a lot of protocol involved … making the president look presidential. How can you not get that public affairs vibe when you see it at that level?” said Guzman.
Although Guzman was unable to retrain in public affairs or broadcasting while in the military, he still loved his time in the U.S. Air Force and retired after over 21 years of service. Now, as a public affairs specialist with USACE, Guzman can finally pursue his love of film and storytelling. He is also currently a Media, Art and Design (Film) major at the University of Missouri - Kansas City.
A citizen of the world
Guzman’s military career took him all over the world and has helped shape his Hispanic American identity, but he still honors his Dominican heritage. He acknowledges that keeping up with his culture requires intention and was sometimes easier to do when he was living in New York City.
“Keeping up with culture in New York City was definitely easier … food was everywhere, and the music was everywhere,” said Guzman. “You join the Air Force and you are stripped of that, by choice, and you see a whole other world that enriches your life, but also comes at the detachment … of your roots.”
Most important to Guzman’s Hispanic heritage is the Spanish language.
“I cannot tell you how good it feels to speak your maternal language,” said Guzman. “It feels like home speaking Spanish.”
Guzman and his wife, who is half-Korean, have one daughter, who they are raising to embrace all parts of her ancestry. Guzman hopes to take his wife and daughter to the Dominican Republic one day to see where he was born.
“We are a multi-racial, multi-cultural family … all that DNA that’s mixed up is our daughter. She is a citizen of the world,” said Guzman. “It’s like a whole blend of food and culture and I want [my daughter] to see the Dominican Republic because it’s hers, too. She has it in her blood.”