Latina Letters from the Front! By Captain Paulina M. Ali, United States Air Force

Air Force Diversity & Inclusion Summit in 2020, various attendees – Gen Larry O. Spencer, retired Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, in the center while most of the Company Grade Officers and Junior Enlisted planners are seated around him – Capt. Paulina Ali seated second from the right.

I am often asked why I joined the U.S. Air Force, simple, a college scholarship. A more important question is why I choose to stay. Our service, much like society, has its challenges. I love the Air Force, so it is incumbent upon me to improve it and help it grow.

As a Mexican immigrant, I never had hopes, dreams, or aspirations of becoming an officer in the world’s greatest Air Force. That is not what little girls from San Felipe did. My parents instilled in me the importance of education. College was the epitome of the American Dream to them but it was my job to figure out how to get there.

1. (L-R) Jose Montaño (father), Capt. Paulina Ali, and Patricia Montaño (mother). College Graduation, 2011.

Additionally, I had to find some semblance of being the quintessential Mexican daughter and inculcating in me the American entrepreneurial spirit. This was no easy task as I was faced with the cultural expectations of marrying early, having children, and being a good wife versus being independent and having my own career. Immigrants are often called to balance the duality of both cultures, sometimes with devastating effects on their mental, emotional, and physical well-being. In my junior year of high school, I learned about ROTC. Little did I know this would be the first step towards a rewarding but challenging path in life. ROTC provided me the opportunity to be the first in my family to go to college and commission, but it also presented several obstacles.

After commissioning, I had a career to call my own but struggled with cultural expectations. I aspired to lead and be assertive, but at the same time keep my head down and not “rock the boat”. I would accept, like immigrants before, that I should just be grateful for being here. Little did I know that this balancing act had effects. It led to abusive relationships, missed opportunities, and exhaustion.

Capt. Paulina Ali (third from the left) along with various AWC students and one Ecuadorian officer served as a translator and cultural advisor. Air War College Regional Security Studies, 2019.

Before I was even 25, I was divorced, devastated, and staring at my shattered life. In hindsight, the devastation was an awakening. It afforded me growth and self-realization that being strong, assertive, and independent did not mean I was selfish, arrogant, or any less of a Mexican woman. On the contrary, I learned never to be satisfied with only opportunities, but strive for the highest levels of leadership like my colleagues born and raised in America. With this new mindset, combined with meeting great women and mentors, I have truly found myself in a rewarding career.

As I grow older and promote in rank, I refuse to assimilate and shed my Mexican background, I refuse to hide my femininity, and I refuse to stay silent about the problems within my own service and society writ large. I am proud to be a Mexican, Muslim woman. I will not hide any of these parts of my life to make others comfortable. Furthermore, I will make it my mission to mentor and impart my knowledge so the next little Mexican girl doesn’t have to do it on her own.

 

Three generations. (Clockwise from bottom): María del Carmen Navejar (grandmother), Patricia Montaño (mother), and Capt. Paulina Ali. 2016.
(L-R) Sandra Bess (mother-in-law), Capt. Salahuddin Ali (USMC, brother-in-law), 2d Lt Misty Palacios-Ali (USAF, sister-in-law), Capt. Mika’il Ali (USMC, spouse), and Capt. Paulina Ali. Newest Lieutenant, 2019.
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