Fleet Week: Latina sailors strengthening U.S. Navy, military

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What comes to mind when you think of New York’s Fleet Week?

Perhaps, big ships and strong Navy men in their pressed white uniforms taking photos with eager female fans and tourists in Times Square.

But what about the women? If you pay attention, you’ll notice the face of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. military continues to change and Hispanic women are serving like never before.

Consider this: The number of enlisted Hispanics in the U.S. military has more than doubled since 1995, from 6.4 percent to 13 percent in 2014, according to the Department of Defense. Overall, the number of Hispanic enlisted women has increased nearly 10 times over the past two decades. In 1995, Latinas represented just 4.9 percent of all enlisted women in the military, today that number is 48 percent. During that same time, the number of Hispanic females enlisted has also doubled in the Navy, growing from 8.6 percent in 1995 to 18.3 percent of all enlisted Navy women in 2015.

“We are really like a small percentage of the Navy, and it’s really exciting to one be a woman, and to be a Hispanic woman in the Navy,” Bertha Favela-Xiang, who goes by Stephanie, is a 19-year-old Ensign in the Navy onboard the USS San Antonio. “This is a very male-dominated work environment.”

Favela-Xiang is Mexican-American from Saint Paul Minnesota and she’s been on the ship for a year and a half. She is a fire-control officer who often finds herself working in the Bridge, where the USS San Antonio command operates the 10-year-old Amphibious Assault Ship docked in New York City in honor of Fleet Week.

“Are you sure? Are you sure that’s what you want to do sweetie?” said Nancy Quezada, 21, recalling how her traditional Mexican parents responded to her lifelong dream of serving in the military.

“They had a video of me in the fifth grade up on the stage at our graduation and they are asking me ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ and I said I want to be a Marine, and everybody stayed quiet. I guess they were expecting something else.”

Quezada, from El Paso, Texas, is one of seven children. She has two brothers and is the only one in her family to have ever served in the U.S. military.  Today her job is to make sure the USS San Antonio’s antenna are working properly. Without them, the vessel cannot communicate with other ships.

She’s highly recognized, winning an award for best sailor of the quarter, an impressive feat, especially because the sea makes her nauseated.

“I get very, very sea sick,” she explained. “It can be a 5-, 6-foot wave and I get so sea sick…But I wouldn’t trade it. I love being out to sea.”

Dry crackers and a little Dramamine help her get through it and she’s hoping to one day become a Naval officer and pilot.

For other Latinas onboard, like 19-year-old Brittany Roa, going out to sea has changed her life.

“I grew up a little on the rocky edge,” Roa, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx in New York, told Fox News Latino. “The navy has provided me with financial stability, education, a place to stay, food to eat. This really has benefited me so much.”

Roa performs maintenance onboard the USS San Antonio for just six months and she says the number of Latinas onboard has made being away from home easier.

“I feel comfortable. They understand my culture,” Roa explained. “We are family oriented. We talk Spanish to each other. We’ll cook for each other. Go to clubs and dance salsa.”

For the three sailors, Fleet Week gives them a chance to unwind.

“My friend told me there was a “Sex and the City” tour so I’m excited to do that,” Stephanie said.

But it also gives them a chance to give words of encouragement to other young women out there.

“Stand your ground, just because you’re a woman don’t let other people push you around or think that you’re going to be nice just because you’re a girl,” Stephanie said, adding: “it’s OK to be a girl onboard. I like putting on makeup and doing my hair well and that’s OK.”

Favela-Xiang wants to be a doctor, maybe an OBGYN, for the Navy one day. Quezada wants to be a Naval pilot one day.

Roa, however is still deciding, but in the meantime she’s happy to see Latinas excel.

“Make our ancestors proud, and just be educated and have self-respect, self-confidence, and just reach for the stars.”