Latina soldier shares stories at Texas school

By MARIA CORTES GONZALEZ | El Paso Times | Published: October 4, 2012

Retired Lt. Col. Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch was the highest-ranking Latina in the Army's combat support field when she retired in 1996. She served 20 years in the Army.

But Wednesday morning, Kickbusch was simply "Chelo," an engaging storyteller inspiring students and teachers at La Fe Preparatory School with heartfelt stories of growing up as the daughter of poor immigrants in Laredo.

"I find great pride and joy in being able to speak my first language. And I am very proud to be the daughter of immigrants," she said. "I am extremely proud of my own parents' journey from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, because there was a time, perhaps some of the elders in the room se acordaran (will remember), when a young girl like me, a little Chicanita, was not allowed to speak Spanish."

Sounding more like a loving matriarch than a high-ranking military official who broke barriers, Kickbusch spoke to more than 100 La Fe middle school students at La Fe Child and Adolescent Wellness Center.

She transitioned from English to Spanish, weaving lessons about appreciation for her parents and the importance of an education in stories of her childhood.

She brought chuckles from the audience when she talked about her mother's habit of bellowing her name, even when she was nearby. But she also evoked tears as she painted a picture of a hard-working mother who suffered from depression and cleaned hotel bathrooms for a living.

"I've been on 'Oprah' and in a lot of magazines, but fame doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is knowing who I am. And that is why I am here. I am the daughter of a mother who cleaned toilets in a hotel," she said with emotion in her voice.

"But my mami didn't just clean toilets, she made them sparkle," she said. "And here's my lesson: No matter what you're asked to do by your teachers, everything is important."

She added: "My mother told me one day, 'I pray to a very mighty God that you don't have to do what I do. But don't ever feel ashamed or look down on anyone or think you are better than they are. And if you have to clean a toilet, make sure it sparkles.'"

Estela Reyes, public information officer for Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, said a staff member heard Kickbusch speak at another function and pushed to bring her to La Fe.

"We quickly knew this woman was very much a soul sister for us. She has the same values and emphasis on pride and culture and heritage. We knew we wanted her to share her experience with our children," she said.

Reyes added: "We're constantly trying to expose our children to messages of self-empowerment, culture, pride and activism. We knew they could learn from her."

Kickbusch entered the Army as an officer after graduating from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene.

The veteran said her father always thought of the United States as a "magical place" and yearned for that hand-size American flag, as a symbol of attaining U.S. citizenship.

"He was very grateful to this country even though this country saw him as different," she said. "He would always tell us we were the American dream. And I would think, really?"

Despite his best efforts, her father was never able to acquire his citizenship but rebuked his children's offer to at least buy him a small flag.

"He told us, 'Nobody better buy me a flag.' And in some of his most important words about loving this country even if it was lacking in many ways, he said, 'This is not my country but it is yours. If you can't add to it, then don't take away from it. The only flag that I will have is one because one of you or all of you loved this country,'" she said.

Kickbusch added: "On that day, all of us promised my dad that we would all serve this country well. So out of 10 brothers and sisters, eight of us are veterans."

Once she was in the military, Kickbusch realized she was going to have to be tough to be a good leader.

"In the '70s, I was the only woman in my unit. My first platoon, I had 68 men. There were so many things I didn't realize back then. I wasn't trying to be a trailblazer or pioneer -- those words that you hear about you. I was just trying to survive," she said.

The Latina is certain her difficult upbringing helped her succeed in the military and overcome chauvinistic views by some male soldiers.

"I came from a barrio en donde nadie se raja (from a neighborhood where no one backs down)," she said. "I never looked at my barrio life as a deficit. I've always looked at it as the most wonderful training camp for leadership. And so I know that my success has a direct link to my barrio life."

Upon her retirement, Kickbusch became an avid community leader, speaking around the country, in honor of her mother. She also founded the human development company, Educational Achievement Services Inc.

She travels around the country and abroad, speaking to schools, corporations and government institutions on a variety of topics, including parenting and being an effective leader..

Jazmine Lopez, a sixth-grader, said she enjoyed meeting Kickbusch in her class before her speech.

"She talked to us about doing right things and not bad things and responsibility. She was very interesting," Jazmine said.

During her talk, Kickbusch handed out a few copies of her book, "Journey to the Future: A Roadmap for Success for Youth," including $20 to several youths so they could take their mothers out for a meal.

"... I know that my success has a direct link to my barrio life."


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