General Says Ethnic Months Good, But Looks for Day They're Not Needed
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 17, 2003 Hispanic American Heritage Month raises the information level of all American citizens regarding the contribution of Hispanics to the nation's history and its defense, Puerto Rico Air National Guard Maj. Gen. Juan Garcia said during a recent interview.
"But I also look forward to the time when our society will not need to be reminded of the accomplishments of Hispanics, or any other member of an ethnic group," said Garcia. He lives in Puerto Rico and "commutes" to Arlington, Va., to perform his military duties as assistant to the Air National Guard's director for human resources readiness. In this capacity, he serves as the chair of the Human Relations Quality Board and adviser to the Air Guard's Committee of Advisers.
Garcia, 58, said, "If we achieve anything during Hispanic American Heritage Month, it's to get all Hispanics to understand that we need to increase our school enrollment and completion all the way through college. We have to reduce the school dropout rate so that as a minimum, they finish high school so they can be gainfully employed or be able to join the military."
Garcia's concerns are substantiated by U.S. Census Bureau statistics, which show that Hispanics make up the fastest-growing segment of the nation's public education system, but have the highest school dropout rate. More than 30 percent of Hispanic students drop out every year, which is twice the rate of African-American students at 14 percent, and nearly four times the rate of Anglo students at 8 percent. Only about 10 percent of Hispanics obtain a college education.
However, educators note that the dropout rate is higher among Hispanic immigrants than those who were born in the United States. In addition, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that foreign-born Hispanic youth either speak English "not well" or "not at all."
Spanish is Garcia's basic language at home and in daily life in Puerto Rico, but he emphasized that doesn't mean English is his second language.
"English is my other basic language," he pointed out. "I can read and write on a personal and business level in both languages. I say this because Hispanics have to understand that being fluent in both languages is a career benefit in the business environment. Neither one should become second to the other. I always encourage my fellow Americans to learn a second language."
His advice to young Hispanic men and women about the military service is "there can be no better choice," whether it's for a specific enlistment period or a career.
"In this day and age, with the business world changing, very few people can have a career with one company that can offer the income, benefits, protection, job security and camaraderie that the military career will.
"A young person right out of high school can learn discipline and work ethic that will serve you for the long term," said Garcia, who, with his wife, Irene, has four sons. Their oldest son, Juan Carlos, 31, is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate with a degree in electrical engineering. He spent five years in the Navy as a Seabee and resident officer in charge of construction. He's now a major in the Puerto Rico Air National Guard's 156th Civil Engineering Squadron.
"Military experience will help you in the civilian job you get," noted Garcia, who started working for Xerox Corp. in July 1973 as a sales manager, and is now the company's national account manager.
The general said he's a shining example of how skills learned in the military can help in the civilian job market.
"Several years ago, one of my customers, to whom I sold office supplies, put together my selling and military experiences and hired me as a manager in his office machine and furniture company," Garcia noted.
Garcia said he always tells his fellow Hispanics that this is the right time for them to further their education and career goals.
"Military and civilian companies are providing excellent opportunities for all who want to further their education or careers to do so," the two-star general said. "They, however, have to be willing to devote their own time to complete the requirements for a degree or any other course requirements."
Growing up near San Juan's Roosevelt Roads Naval Base created a hankering in Garcia during his formative years to be in the military, he said.
"The Navy impressed me a lot, and so did the Marines stationed there," he noted. "My spouse and friends have always stated that I was 'born in uniform.'"
His fascination with the military service prompted him to join the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets and the Boy Scouts, both of which he credits with helping him learn military discipline. Starting at age 14, whenever he wasn't busy with the Scouts and cadets, Garcia said he did anything he could to earn money, working in a car rental office, then a department store, then selling office supplies as he got older.
He joined Air Force ROTC while majoring in business administration at the University of Puerto Rico.
"That was the way for me to achieve my dream of becoming a military officer," said Garcia, who also has a master's degree in marketing and a law degree from Inter American University in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. "From the beginning, I wanted to be an officer, so college was just an interim step to get to my intended objective. Different from my counterparts, I never wanted to be a pilot."
Shortly after graduating from college, Garcia went on Air Guard active duty from June 1967 until June 1971. He went back to regular Guard status that would allow him to hold a civilian job, attend law school and have time for military duties.
The son of an Army civilian accountant father and housewife mother said neither his father nor his grandfather served in the military. His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all were residents of Puerto Rico.
"So for four generations we've lived here," he said. "My ancestors came from Spain in the 1500s when migration from Spain started."