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Hispanic Heritage Month: Rick Pina's Story

My story is an immigrant story. It’s an American story. To me, it’s part of what makes America the symbol of hope for most of the free world. In this country, anyone can realize the American dream.

My father was raised in La Vega, Dominican Republic. He was not afforded much of an education. But what he lacked in school smarts, he made up for in street smarts and work ethic. He became a photographer and worked his way up, from position to position, until he ultimately worked in the presidential palace, capturing shots of the President of the Republic. 

My mother was born in a rural setting as the seventh of 10 children in the Dominican Republic. At a young age, she went off to a Catholic convent. She studied there and was able to complete an 8th-grade education – the most education any of her siblings received. Later, as a young lady, she was taking secretarial classes in La Vega, working for my grandmother, when she met my father. One thing led to another, they got married and immigrated to the United States in 1970. I was born in Brooklyn, New York a couple of years later.

Whatever their career aspirations were in the Dominican Republic did not matter much once they made it to Brooklyn. They were immigrants. They did not know the language, and they needed work. Both landed jobs as factory workers. 

I was raised in East New York (ENY), Brooklyn. At the time, New York City was the murder capital of the United States, and ENY was the murder capital of the murder capital. Violence, robberies, shootings, and even murders, were unfortunately an almost daily occurrence in my neighborhood. 

My parents divorced when I was three years old. This left my mother to raise me as a single parent, in a dangerous neighborhood, in what was to her, a foreign country. At one point, my mother applied for and received government assistance. As a child, I hated when my mother sent me to the store to purchase food with food stamps. I knew we needed the help, but I also knew we would someday overcome poverty. 

As a child, we visited my family in the Dominican Republic regularly. I remember not really knowing how to feel about our financial situation because we were considered poor in Brooklyn. However, when we went to the Dominican Republic, and I spent time with my cousins at my grandmother’s house, they told me I was rich. They did not have running water or electricity. Whenever I was there, I used an outhouse and bathed with my cousins in the river. At a young age, I learned that being poor in the United States is not the same as being poor in a third-world country.

My mother and I would arrive in the Dominican Republic with suitcases full of clothes, and whenever we left, the suitcases were empty. My mother gave our clothes away, and she always taught me to give to the less fortunate. This may be why I am so committed to Mission work today.

In Brooklyn, my mother collected pennies in a jar. When the jar was full, she would take it to the Dominican Republic. At some point during our trip, she would gather up a bunch of children in front of my grandmother’s porch and throw the pennies in the air. I was always amazed at how children were so happy to grab the pennies off the ground, just so they could run to the store to buy penny candy. Whenever this happened, my mother took it as an opportunity to help shape my perspective.

Back in Brooklyn, the violence grew worse as the crack cocaine epidemic exploded around me. I saw people walking around like zombies, day after day, hooked on crack. Crack destroyed lives, and it made an already-bad neighborhood even worse.

I wanted to get out of New York badly, and I secretly prayed that I would still be alive at 18. When I was given the opportunity to join the Army at the tender age of 17, I jumped on it. I just wanted to get away from the violence. I turned 18 in Basic Training on Fort Jackson, SC. Early that July morning, I woke up before everyone else, I went to the bathroom, and I wept uncontrollably. I cried because I was 18, and I was still alive.

Once in the Army and out of Brooklyn, I had to make a life for myself. By the grace of God, I had chosen the telecommunications field. I started in 1990 as a voice-switch operator/maintainer. In 1992 we started installing our first data-links via X.25 connections at 16kbs. We have come a long way since then.

Along the way, I got married, grew a family, became a network engineer, and progressed through the ranks from assignment to assignment. When it was all said and done, after 25 years in the Army, I retired as the Army Chief Technology Officer (CTO), working for the Army CIO in the Pentagon. The journey was not always easy and one of the things that ate away at me, in the back of my mind, was that I did not see anyone who looked like me in positions of leadership/authority.

I remember reflecting on this because of something that happened with my wife. My wife, Isabella, has her own amazing “American dream story.” She immigrated to the United States from the island of Dominica, joined the Army, and retired in 2015. One day Isabella and I were in the commissary (military grocery store) on Fort Hood when we ran across an African American Two-Star General in one of the aisles. Major General Larry Ellis (who later retired as a Four-Star General) is someone I had met in Bosnia. We stopped to talk for a few minutes in one of the food aisles. When he walked away, my wife looked awe-struck. I asked her if she was okay, and she replied, “Yes, but Babe, that is the first Black General I have ever met.” Isabella is Afro-Caribbean, and she identified with General Ellis in a way I had not. She connected with him, simply by virtue of ethnicity, and she left that encounter deeply inspired.

This caused me to consider why I had never felt the same about any leader. After giving it much thought, I realized that I had never (to that point), met a Hispanic leader in the Army. I wanted to keep progressing, but I was going to have to do so without seeing anyone who looked like me in positions that I wanted to strive towards.

Years later, I met Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez in the halls of the Pentagon. I stopped him, introduced myself as his namesake and fellow Hispanic, and he was kind enough to give me a few minutes of his time. He was the first Hispanic General I had ever met. I walked away from the encounter, feeling encouraged. I remember thinking to myself that I must have felt the same way my wife did when she met General Ellis. When you are a minority and grow up not seeing people who look or sound like you in positions of leadership, you can be deeply inspired by merely seeing someone you can connect with operating on a level that you aspire to attain. This is one of the many reasons why Diversity and Inclusion efforts are so important.

When I retired from the military and endeavored to enter corporate America, I was once again faced with the challenge of not seeing very many Hispanics in leadership positions in the technology industry. Thankfully for me, I joined a fantastic company. World Wide Technology (WWT) has a culture of Diversity and Inclusion, and I have been welcomed into the WWT family.

As we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States, I want to bring awareness to the importance of diversity at all levels. As a first-generation American, who is a son of immigrants and married to an immigrant, raising four minority children in this country, I pray for progress in this area. Hispanics in STEM positions are underrepresented today, but with the many Diversity and Inclusion efforts I see across the nation, I believe all Americans, of all backgrounds, will eventually be equally represented across all sectors in this great land. This is ultimately my American dream.