From Puerto Rico to the world

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

“Hijo aqui no hay nada para ti, ve y persigue una mejor vida.”

I’ll never forget the day my mother said those words to me. It was a Wednesday evening, and I had just finished my shift at a local grocery store.

In English, the phrase translates to, “Son, there’s nothing here for you. Go and pursue a better life.”

When she said it, I knew she was referring to me joining the military. And so I did.

Born and raised in Manati, Puerto Rico, my family faced constant struggles. We were a family of six, and both of my parents were unemployed.

We lived in a small, wooden house with a roof made of zinc. To paint a better picture, whenever it was hot outside, the zinc would make it feel as if we were inside a huge oven. And in bad storms, we would worry our roof could fly away, especially during hurricane season.

We didn’t have much, but we always found ways to manage. And although we weren’t financially stable, I was raised on a foundation of good morals, particularly to respect and care for others.

While in school, I never had a specific idea on what I wanted to do with my career. I always enjoyed helping people, and knew I would love to have a job that would let me do that.

I first tried to pursue a degree in computer science, but realized it was not for me. So instead, I chose to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology. However, I struggled to find a job in my chosen career field and spent the next five years working a part-time job in a supermarket.

I knew something had to change. I barely made enough money to survive, and at the time, I was trying to also support my mom.

Soon after our conversation that Wednesday evening I started the recruitment process with the U.S. Air Force. Even though I was scared, I knew it would be for the best and I would be able to help my family with our economic struggles.

I would be lying if I said this wasn’t the most difficult decision I've ever made in my entire life.

Once I raised my right hand, my life changed completely - starting with Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in San Antonio, Texas.

Before BMT, I thought I felt confident speaking English. I had studied English throughout my childhood, and felt very familiar with the language.

Once there, I realized I was mistaken.

Throughout BMT, I tried to avoid speaking because I didn’t want to pronounce a word incorrectly. For the first time I felt uncomfortable with the language I had been so proud to speak.

I enlisted with an open general contract, meaning that I didn’t have a specific job guaranteed to me. Right before graduation, I received the news that my job would be photojournalism.

I was very excited because it was one of the jobs I was hoping to get.

But, I didn't know exactly what working in public affairs would entail until I found out the hard way in technical training at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland.

Once there, I realized the difficulty of the job.

I was used to writing from my time in college, but this type of writing was completely different. I also struggled with listening and translating everything in my head, while also thinking and translating what I needed to write. It was mentally exhausting.

Usually, I had to stay after classes were over to do homework so I could keep up with the rest of my classmates. My instructors understand my situation and were very patient with me, which I'm so grateful for. Their patience and the way they pushed me to keep moving forward, helped me graduate from the Basic Photojournalism Course.

Since then, my experiences in the operational Air Force haven’t always been the best, but I’ve learned a lot.

One time in particular, I remember giving a presentation to my coworkers. After I was done, I asked if anyone had any questions, and someone made a joke on how I was pronouncing a word wrong.

The room had an awkward silence for a few seconds. I always appreciate someone correcting me or helping me finish what I'm trying to say, but this time felt different. Out of a whole presentation, the only thing that stood out was a word I had trouble pronouncing.

I had many instances like that, but not all of them were bad or out of place.

One time I was trying to explain to a coworker something that I was having issues with. After a pretty long explanation, he replied “say it in English now,” which was hilarious to me. Both of us started laughing, especially because I knew he said it as a joke, and not in a disrespectful way.

Now, I realize that you can either let the bad experiences consume you or you can let them fuel you. For me, it’s the latter.

After a challenging journey, I have been able to help other English as a Second Language speakers keep their heads up and continue to do great things, even though we all face similar struggles.

I have also found joy in sharing my language and culture with my fellow Wingmen.

I’ve enjoyed taking my friends to a local Puerto Rican restaurant, and every single time I'm so happy to see how much they love the food. From helping them order the food to watching them take that first bite, it amazes me how much they appreciate me and my culture.

And sometimes unexpectedly, I will hear my coworkers say a short phrase in Spanish, like “un momento por favor”(“one moment, please”) or “buen provecho” (“bon appetite”), and I’m instantly reminded of home.