Lumping people together; it’s only human

I suppose I was lumped into a few categories in my Coast Guard career – mostly for the good – although there were a few who just couldn’t seem to see any value in me. I never did understand why. Fortunately, several people took me under their wing, at several stages in my career, because they saw potential and a strong work ethic underneath the rough edges I displayed.

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Posted on behalf of retired Rear Adm. Joseph “Pepe” Castillo.

SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- Rear Adm. Joseph Castillo, Commander of the 11th Coast Guard District, takes the helm of a 41-foot utility boat from Station Los Angeles-Long Beach in the Port of Los Angeles Monday, Aug. 17, 2009. Rear Adm. Castillo is in the Los Angeles area conducting unit visits with Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach. U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.
U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Here we are, celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month again. We’ve been doing this for a while now – since 1968 to be exact. So what should you be doing during this month?

I still remember the first time I was asked to speak at an Hispanic Heritage event. When I told a good friend from Puerto Rico about it, her indignant reply was “ you’re not Hispanic!”

That pretty much stunned me. Was it because of my limited Spanish? Because my bloodline wasn’t pure enough from the “old country”? Because I was raised in a military culture and not an Hispanic one? She then clarified that there was no such thing as “Hispanic” – that it was a term the “Anglos” made up to lump us all together.

That got me to thinking. Sure, her use of “Anglos” lumped people together as much as her concern about the origin of “Hispanic,” but isn’t that what we as people do? We lump things together in categories so we can process information, analyze and respond. That doesn’t make people bad – it makes them human. But we all need to be careful about how, and what and why – and who – we lump together.

I suppose I was lumped into a few categories in my Coast Guard career – mostly for the good – although there were a few who just couldn’t seem to see any value in me. I never did understand why. Fortunately, several people took me under their wing, at several stages in my career, because they saw potential and a strong work ethic underneath the rough edges I displayed.

I believed I knew what was right but I never would have amounted to much without those other people who believed in me. They helped me see that I could go further than I thought. They showed me see the right way to lead, and to live. They taught me to see things from perspectives I lacked – and once or twice they got my butt out of the fire – after extracting due penance!

Once I got past the over-confidence and impatience of a young ensign – ok, maybe Lt. j.g. or even Lt. Cmdr., I began to understand the importance of what these mentors had been trying to get me to see. You can’t go it alone. I learned that you need heroes to emulate, mentors to guide you – and that you need to pay it back by mentoring others.

While heroes and mentors come in all races and ethnicities, Hispanic Heritage Month is a great to time learn more about those from our culture and their contributions to our Service and community. The recently completed Project Hernandez has brought to light many contributions from Coast Guard Latinos and Latinas which were previously unknown. As a result, the Coast Guard Historian’s Office has a more complete picture available of what Coasties of Hispanic descent have accomplished for our country.

And organizations like the Association of Naval Services Officers are full of mentors who can help fan the fires in your belly, and people who could benefit from you as one of their mentors. Being a part of ANSO inspired me, and their core values speak volumes about what they stand for: “Leadership, Excellence, Dedication.”

The theme for 2014’s Hispanic Heritage Month is “Hispanics: A legacy of history, a present of action, and a future of success.” To answer the opening question, “So what should you be doing during this month?” I suggest the following:

  • Focus first on how you serve and lead in our Service – without respect to your gender, race or ethnicity. Would ‘legacy,’ ‘action’ and ‘success’ be words you would use to describe how you work? Would others use those words to describe you? Remember that people see the little things too – and since there are far more little things going on than big things, the foundation of your reputation is really built on how you handle the little stuff.
  • Then – and only then – take a look at how “others who are like you” see you. You are a leader first, but you are also an envoy of your background – you always represent. Like it or not, others look at you – and up to you – to gauge their possibilities of success in our Service. Be aware of your role in this and take a look at how you are meeting this obligation.

We’re all busy and have more work than we can possibly get finished in the time we have. But make sure you make time to stop and take a look at your professional and personal growth and development, and how you can help others in their growth. Each year, consider this month and its theme as a good opportunity to do that. Join a service or affinity organization of your choice – and be active in it. Accept the hand offered by people who want to help you succeed; and reach out your hand to help others succeed with you. Standing on the shoulders of those who came before us is only of value if we in turn offer our shoulders to others.

Joseph “Pepe” Castillo
RADM, USCG (ret)
“Be safe, get the job done, and have fun!”

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