JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas — “I was so afraid when I went to Basic Military Training because it was my first time ever being in an environment where everyone spoke only English,” said Staff Sgt. Soleine Izquierdo, international student manager at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
“Fast forward to 2020, and seeing how comfortable I am with the language, how my communication skills have improved, and how I’m serving at a special duty; it’s amazing,” she said.
Born in San German, a small town in Lima, Peru, Izquierdo has fond memories of being surrounded by family in her neighborhood.
“I grew up surrounded by love, a place where my parent’s friends were, and until this day, my aunts and uncles still live there,” she said. “Peru is known for its food; it’s an integral part of our culture. I remember my mother having a soup-kitchen style gig where she and my aunts would cook for more than 100 low-income families daily.”
Izquierdo would sit and watch her family having fun chopping vegetables and cooking rice while a nice conversation was simmering in the kitchen. This was where she learned the importance of community service and love for what you do, which is foundational to her life and career in the Air Force.
At the age of 14, Izquierdo and her family immigrated to the United States and settled in Long Island, New York.
“My parents moved to the USA in search of a better future for us,” she said, noting that her integration into American life was scary. “Freshman year of high school is hard enough as it is without having a language barrier.”
When Izquierdo was 16, she started her first job doing maintenance work at a state park. She said her parents did not realize people in America put away money for their children’s college, so that was not an option for her after high school.
Since she had nothing planned for her future, the Air Force seemed to be a good opportunity, she said.
“I knew joining the military would make my parents proud, especially my father who served over 30 years in the Peruvian National Police,” she said. “And, I knew it would give them, as well as me, a sense of security. It was also a way to thank this country for the many doors it had opened for us since we migrated.”
Izquierdo enlisted but struggled in Basic Training with the language barrier. After she went to her first duty station, she still had trouble keeping up, she said.
“I knew English, but I didn’t know military English,” she said. “I had to learn all over again and study twice as much just to make sense of things.”
Now, Izquierdo has been in the military for seven years and eight months. She has overcome much, and she knows many people do not understand the significance of that, which is difficult.
“The hardest part of being Hispanic in America is being told to ‘go back home’ and only speak English,” she said. “People don’t understand how much we gave up coming to the states. Sometimes, all we have left is our native language.”
Now that she works at IAAFA Izquierdo speaks her native language as part of her job.
Her favorite thing to do is to find a common word that means something different in other Latin American countries. The sheer number of ways to say the word “pen” blows her mind, she said.
“I still can’t believe the Air Force pays me for speaking Spanish,” she said. “It really is a dream come true.”
Meeting other Latinx service members and people with similar stories and backgrounds is also one of Izquierdo’s favorite things. Not only does it give her a sense of community, but it also motivates her.
“I will never forget the first time I met another Hispanic-female service-member from New York,” Izquierdo said. “She was smart, caring, hard-working, a great mentor, and respected by all, but more than anything, she was familiar. She instantly became someone I looked up to. She was (and is) the person I strive to become one day: a successful Latina.
“I’m so proud to be a Peruvian serving in the Air Force, speaking Spanish, and not being expected to forget my roots,” she said. “I look back to my first year in the Air Force and I’m amazed at how far I’ve come. I hope to one day be THAT sergeant that another Latina can look up to thinking, ‘I can do it, too.’”