Latinos and US Army: Sergeant Major Jose Velazquez Reflects on Hispanic Growth

José Velázquez is proud of his Puerto Rican roots. Born and raised in a bilingual household in Lawrence, Massachusetts, he enjoys talking about how his parents moved to a small neighborhood from their native Puerto Rico to work in factories. He also doesn’t mind revealing his favorite traditional dish from home (arroz con pollo and tostones). It’s this same love for his culture that drove him to make one of the most important decisions of his life.

In 1990, Velázquez joined the U.S. Army.

“I grew up in a very poor part north of Boston and opportunities were few and far in between,” explains Velázquez. “As a kid with a dream of working in broadcast, I wanted to be famous. There was just no way I was going to get work at a TV or radio station without being experienced and having the right education. The Army gave me the chance to go to school. It gave me the opportunity to learn the business of broadcasting at a very high level. And also, it paid me.”

Velázquez is one of many Latinos who were celebrated by the U.S. Army during Hispanic Heritage Month. And while the festivities are long over, the Army’s efforts to honor the contributions of Latinos is ongoing.

This year’s national theme is “Diversity United, Building America’s Future Today,” in reference, according to the military’s website, “to the vital role Hispanics play in the moments that shape our country.”

It’s one of the many reasons, Velázquez explains, the U.S. Army is continuing to develop relationships with Hispanic organizations in hopes of recruiting those seeking career options.

Of course, joining is no simple matter.

“My mother thought I was crazy,” reveals Velázquez, laughing. “My mom’s experiences with the military really were what her uncle told her from his experiences in Korea. I think it’s important to reach out to parents, educators and community leaders and let them know the Army is a place where you can make a career."

He said he can't think of a place that offers more opportunities to develop skills than the U.S. Army.

While parents, like Velázquez’s, may be hesitant in seeing their children leave behind their homes to become soldiers, more Hispanics have been getting involved. According to the Census Bureau, there are 1.1 million Latino veterans of the U.S. armed forces and nearly 122,000 of them on active duty in the United States. The Army says the trend for active Hispanics over the past 10 years has increased from 8.9 percent to 11 percent, overall.

The reasons for joining vary, but Velázquez believes that they all demonstrate the importance of Latinos serving their country.

“I’m incredibly proud of how far we have come,” says Velázquez. “The fact that many Hispanics have done so well in the Army is a reflection of how well we’re doing throughout the nation. We are at the forefront of a great time in America, where our community can add to the story of what is America.”

Since Velázquez was shipped off to boot camp 22 years ago, he’s dedicated his time to speak at local schools in Lawrence, encouraging fellow Latinos to serve the country and letting their voices be heard.

“I’ve spent more time in uniform helping people than I have trying to hurt people,” says Velázquez. “Like the people in Haiti and Japan during the earthquake and tsunami. They didn’t see a soldier. They saw an American. And that has been, for me, the highlight of my career, helping people in need. And I think that story isn’t told enough. I wish it were.”