The Hampton Roads defense and business communities came together at a local Navy base to celebrate Hispanic heritage October 8.
Captain Eric Tapp, Commanding Officer, Combat Direction Systems Activity, Dam Neck, a Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) warfare center, hosted a panel discussion and luncheon for sailors, government civilians and the community featuring prominent Hispanic military and civilian leaders in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month at the Shifting Sands Club on Dam Neck Annex.
Bryan K. Stephens, President and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce was among the audience members who attended. “Captain Tapp and his command are not only recognizing the importance of Hispanic contributions to our community, but how vital it is to offer a unique dynamic of military and business leaders contributing to the discussion. It was an honor to take part in such an excellent event.”
In keeping with the 2014 national theme of "Hispanics: a legacy of history, a present of action, and a future of success,” the panelists shared their challenges and best practices.
"The U.S. truly is the land of opportunities," said CAPT Andres Delgado, Chief, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, U.S. Coast Guard, who immigrated from Cuba in 1966 during the rise of President Fidel Castro. "In Cuba, I came from a very wealthy family, but we lost everything and started again. It was not easy, but my family made it happen." Delgado recalled his early personal struggles to join the military after his college graduation. Delgado credits his wife, Ann for her persistence and support of his dreams.
"She called the Navy recruiter once a week until he suggested we give the Coast Guard a call and they said yes. Always move forward and you will achieve."
The three other panelists are originally from Puerto Rico, but their individual experiences provided the audience with diverse perspectives.
“Never stop learning,” advised Olga Torres, President of the Hampton Roads Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Torres was 13 when she moved to New Jersey and just 18 when she made the cross-country trek to California with a teenage friend in search of higher learning. What she found on the West Coast went well beyond books. “Californians I encountered in the business world assumed I was Mexican because they never met any other Latin people. This shocked me, but I looked at this as an opportunity to educate people about the broad spectrum of Hispanic culture. And, for me, I gained tremendous business insight on the cultural gaps between non-Hispanics and Hispanic consumers and businesses.” Torres took those lessons and applied them successfully throughout her career and still uses them today to advocate and educate the business world.
Joel Vargas was living in the Bronx when he entered the Navy at 16 on a waiver that his mother couldn’t read, but signed anyway at his urging. “I got my first taste of success in the way of a promotion after graduating from my first Navy training school. After that there was no turning back. “Vargas, who ended up retiring as an officer and is now a military representative for USAA insurance, has the opportunity to speak frequently with Sailors. He tells them to work hard and stay positive. “Everyone has to earn it. Success comes, but only if you make it happen.”
“It wasn’t cool to be Latina in the 1970s mid-west, said Dr. Gladys Brignoni, who landed in a small Indiana town with her parents and a few words of English just in time to begin school. Brignoni, who is the Deputy Commander, Force Readiness Command U.S. Coast Guard. “My early reaction to the situation was to assimilate, not embrace my ethnicity. When I realized my error, I knew I would choose education as my profession in order to educate others. “
Brignoni joined the Peace Corps and then accepted a Department of Defense position where a colleague gave her unusual and unsolicited career advice. “A male co-worker who outranked me took me aside and expressed his doubt that I would be successful because I was a woman and a Hispanic.” That was a powerful motivator for Brignoni. She set out to prove them wrong by completing additional training and education that eventually led to her rising to the senior executive service (SES) which is the civilian federal service equivalent of an admiral. Now senior to most federal employees, she is the one giving advice. “Everyone has something to offer – a diverse point of view. It is up to leadership to recognize that and bring those people in. And when that door opens, you must be ready and bring something to offer.”
Pictured: Bryan K. Stephens (right), Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce President & CEO, speaks with Olga Torres (left), Hampton Roads Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President after her presentation to Navy sailors and civilian employees at the Dam Neck Annex Hispanic Heritage Event October 8. The event was hosted by Combat Direction Systems Activity, Dam Neck - a Navy warfare center on the Annex located in Virginia Beach.