MANNHEIM, Germany — Air Force Staff Sgt. Miguel Gavilan can say, with authenticity, how it is to live in poverty and work to the bone.

On a recent morning, Gavilan, whose family roots extend from the Huancayo soil of Peru, flashed the same relaxed smile when telling of his intense past as when speaking optimistically of his future.

America is currently celebrating the culture and traditions of U.S. residents who trace their roots to Spain, Mexico and the Spanish-speaking nations of Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Mid-September was chosen as the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through Oct. 15, because five Latin American countries — Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — mark their independence Sept. 15. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence Sept. 16 and Sept. 18, respectively.

With his strong Indian bone structure and naturally tanned skin, Gavilan is often mistaken for many other Hispanic nationalities.

Gavilan represents well the more than 63,000 people of Hispanic origin the U.S. Census Bureau says are on active duty in the U.S. armed forces.

Gavilan, 28, draws his spirit from his culture, but his strength from being an American, he said.

He retains his sense of self the same way that many Hispanic men do — based on the stories told to him by his father. Dario Ruben Gavilan once tried to explain to his young son why he had to live in the United States so long, while the rest of the family struggled alone in Peru.

“My father said life was like a river. He said, ‘When you swim halfway, and you’re in the middle, never turn around and swim back. Always go forward.’ That’s why he stayed working in the States as a sheep herder in Montana for so long, so our family could go forward. He didn’t want to have to come back to Peru after years of trying, just for the same life. He stayed until we could join him.”

Gavilan didn’t meet his father until he made it to the States at age 7, but his father’s words have stuck with him throughout his life.

Gavilan became a naturalized citizen June 24, 1999, while stationed in San Antonio, and remembers saying: “I have always been an American, but today I’m receiving the papers, the certificate, that say I’m American.”

He understands the power in his citizenship.

Before going to America, Gavilan remembers walking to school in shoes full of holes, but carrying good shoes to wear while in class. He remembers he and his older sister and brother selling books, vegetable oil, pens and pencils to make money for the house. And he remembers asking strangers in the street to teach him as a father would.

“I know what it means to be American,” said Gavilan. “It’s a lot of opportunity for me. … My roots are from Peru, South America, but the person I became is American, and no one can take that away from me.”

These roots include being raised alone by his mother, Gregoria Felicia Morales Gavilan, until the family met up in California. Though the family was poor, she taught him how to live a rich life with an open soul. She asked that her son read her poetry, which he can recite from memory today, and to treat women like flowers, gentle and with care.

After becoming a resident alien in California via Los Angeles, the family moved to Holtville, Calif., a small border town only 10 miles from Mexicali, Mexico. In Holtville, he spent the rest of his childhood learning American ways of life, while becoming entrenched in Mexican culture.

These formative years helped Gavilan learn how to adapt and be part of different cultures. During deployment to Iraq, it was not as hard to learn the Iraqi culture, since it was comparable to his memories of Peru.

“I once saw a child cupping his hands under a dripping water buffalo, trying to get something to drink,” Gavilan, who spent nearly six months in Iraq after meeting up with the 4th Air Support Operations Center in support of V Corps from the Army’s Sullivan Barracks in Mannheim said. “His hands were so dirty that the small drops of water he caught made a cracked, little stream running in his hand.

“The child reached down to drink this dirty water and I wanted to throw him a little bottle of water or something, but we were not allowed to. The military said it was forbidden to give locals food or water because the child could get beat up or hurt for what we gave him. This really reminded me of home.

“In Peru, children are just like this. Coca-Cola is something you serve to guests in your house, not something you give to children. I saw that child in Iraq and it reminded me of who I was.”

Now, as a personnel actions manager in the Air Fore for the last seven years, Gavilan has sufficient water to drink, has even invested money, and makes enough to splurge, but he doesn’t. Instead, Gavilan said, he remembers the value of money, saves for what he wants and is never wasteful.

This attitude comes from many hard years when the whole family toiled as migrant workers, picking grapes and berries in the vast California fields; it comes from having not had a home or bed to lie in; and it comes from working for everything he has.

Now, with a prosperous military career ahead of him, Gavilan looks forward to living the American dream by one day becoming, not necessarily in this order, a biomedical engineer, a teacher for young special-education children, a school counselor and a principal, since he said all his dreams can now be met. He also looks forward to guiding his daughter, Fiona, 4, into a rich American life, with deep roots that grow in pride for her Hispanic culture, as well her Indian culture from her mother’s New Delhi nationality.

“I live the richest life,” Gavilan said, slipping into his native tongue. “The beauty of keeping your heritage is so important and really makes people so rich.”

Gavilan said he wishes all Americans knew how fortunate they were simply by virtue of their nationality.

“I don’t feel like I’m going to die because I’m fat or die because of an accident,” he said. “I feel like I’m going to die because I’m tired of being happy. Have you ever heard of that?

“I never knew a person could do that, but my parents gave me so much that there’s no other way I could die.”

In the end, Gavilan will have made his father proud by swimming the entire river.

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