Hola America and Hola Iowa present the Hispanic Heritage Month Special Series: Orgullo Hispano, Latino trailblazers and leaders that inspire us in the communities of Iowa and Illinois.
By Jeff Hutton, Hola Iowa Corresponsal
DES MOINES – To say Al Mena’s early life was a struggle is an understatement.
At age 9, he was smuggled into the United States from his native Guatemala; his family seeking a better way of life.
One of Mena’s earlier memories when his family was migrating from Guatemala was waiting at a farm where the coyotes had taken his family along with many other people right after they crossed the U.S. border
“At this point we had not eaten for days and we were very hungry. The coyotes were eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and when they left outside for a little while my brothers and I dug through the KFC buckets that they had thrown away for scraps” he said.
“When you are a hungry child you don’t care what people might say. I’m sure my mom must have been embarrassed but I think she preferred seeing us a little satisfied than to keep starving.”
And if the trek to the United States wasn’t harrowing enough, as an undocumented immigrant and as part of a family struggling to make ends meet, Mena would not have it easy in this country.
In his first two years in the U.S., he did not go to school and life in Florida, where he eventually landed, was a hardship for him and his parents.
“We were the poorest of the poor,” Mena said.
Eventually, young Mena did go to school but he was already behind compared to his classmates and English was not his native language. But he persevered, mastered English and began to demonstrate that he could learn, and be successful.
“I knew that I had ambition and that I didn’t want to be left behind without a future,” Mena said.
And with that, he set three goals for himself – become a U.S. citizen, buy a house and go to college.
In the 1990s he became a legal U.S. resident thanks to his parents’ employment, but family issues and financial hardships proved difficult and Mena dropped out of high school.
“I wasn’t the best kid and we lived in the bad part of town. School was no longer a priority,” he conceded.
Dropping out of school, however, didn’t mean Mena’s goals were out of reach, but he needed the inspiration and the drive to make a positive change. He began to work full-time in order to help his family, but the drive to finance an eventual college education weighed heavy on him.
At 24, and shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Mena decided the military might be a way to help pay for college, focus on being a more productive citizen, and give back to his adopted country.
“A lot of things were going on in my life,” he said. “But there was a point of realization that I needed to give back. Yes, going to the military would help me financially go to college, but enlisting would give me a sense of pride. I wanted to be a decent human being.”
Mena entered the Marine Corps in April 2002.
“Basic training was really hard,” he said. “I’ve always been a hard worker and this really appealed to me. There I learned you have to be the strongest and the smartest. And I found it really was a calming influence. ”
Mena became a platoon sergeant early on because of his abilities and his work ethic.
It was while in the Marines that one of his superiors asked him if he was a U.S. citizen yet. He said no and the superior told him to go to the legal department to fill out the paperwork to become a citizen.
“At that time it wasn’t in my mind to apply for citizenship, I just did it because he told me to go do it.” he said. “And that’s fate, that’s how I became a U.S. citizen.”
Over the course of his career, Mena has served across the U.S. and around the globe, including stops in Hawaii, Germany, Japan, northern Virginia and now resides in Des Moines. While overseas, he was part of the Marines’ new development of a tracking system for injured and dead Marines, helping with medical evacuations out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Following a serious training accident in Hawaii where he broke his back, Mena recovered and helped in other aspects of military life, including the training of reservists, making a positive impact on those with whom he served. .
Mena, now a staff sergeant E6, is nothing but grateful for the chance to serve his country.
Yes, there are some heartbreaking moments, including the loss of many friends and colleagues. But he knows for him the rewards have proven greater.
“As far as me being in the Marine Corps, I can honestly say I’ve given it my all. It’s been a humbling experience – I’ve been given the opportunity to not only serve in the Marines, but to fight for what this country believes in.”
As an immigrant, Staff Sgt. Mena takes exception to the concept that immigrants are the enemy.
“Not everybody is a criminal, not everybody is here to loathe and just get things,” he said. “I wanted to give back and I feel honored that I have given back.”
With two years left until his retirement, Staff Sgt. Mena will remain in Iowa. At that point, his options are unlimited.
“Des Moines has various organizations that help undocumented immigrants, like I once was. I have a lot of friends here and all these individuals contribute to help our people here to be successful and to be productive citizens.”
When he joined the Marines, the concept of helping to finance college was a main reason for enlisting. But serving in the Marines meant college was pushed back. However, Mena is only three credits short of attaining his associates degree, and following his retirement he plans to finish school.
“I still have a lot of fight left in me,” he said. “I’ll continue to take courses and set a goal of continuing my education.”
He said doing so will serve, he hopes, as an inspiration to not only his children, but to everyone who thinks it’s impossible. And Mena fully understands obstacles. From his treacherous entry into the United States, to living in poverty in Florida and not speaking English early on, Mena is now an American success story.
“I just bought a house, I’m ready to retire from the Marines and I’m a citizen,” he said. “It wasn’t even a thought, but once I started to see what was possible, it shocked me and scared me because it gave me a glimpse into what my life could be.”
But Mena is emphatic that while there will always be challenges and skeptics around every corner, one must always have a vision for better things. “You have to move forward, be a good person, be a good human being, be a good Marine, be a good father and just do the best that you can,” he said. And Mena said even if you are satisfied in meeting goals, set new ones and build on the accomplishments you’ve already established. “The longer you live by those rules, the happier you’ll be. Always give it your all, no matter where you come from, good things do happen to good people.”