By Lance Cpl. Thomas Sheng
The smell of home-cooked meals and music quickly surrounded service members and their families as they poured into USO Camp Foster in Okinawa, Japan, to celebrate Mexican Independence Day and National Hispanic Heritage Month in September 2022. With each bite of food and note of music, some attendees shed tears as they shared memories of growing up in their unique cultures. Some said they had not experienced an environment like this in years, while other attendees had never experienced it at all. That is why during National Hispanic Heritage Month, it was important for USO Camp Foster to bring these experiences to service members and their families, to give them both a sense of tradition and home.
While some relived unforgettable moments from their childhood, others experienced the unique cultures of Spanish-speaking countries for the first time. Attendees of the USO event watched as dancers performed cumbia, folklorico, mapalé, and joropo dances while they indulged in tamales, mole, chicharrons, and horchata.
“I attended this event because I have many Hispanic friends, but I’ve never received the opportunity to experience their true culture,” said Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Marquise White, who is stationed on the island. “I felt like I was in a Spanish-speaking household surrounded by a community of people who just love each other.”
One of White’s favorite recipes was horchata, a Mexican drink made from rice, milk, vanilla , and cinnamon. He and other attendees were also taught how to dance to “La Raspa.”
“I loved it. It was amazing to see how the colors, dances, and sounds represented the different countries that make up the Hispanic culture,” said White. “I wish more people attended because they would have felt how lively and family-oriented the Hispanic culture is.”
According to White, the cultural celebration hosted by the USO is something he will never forget. He plans to recreate dishes and drinks he discovered and take his newfound dance experience to the next gathering he will attend.
“The most important thing about my culture is that we invite anyone into our family with open arms,” said Mardie, the senior center manager of USO Camp Foster. “It means everything that we were able to connect people back to their homes and help them forget how far they are from home.”
Velasquez joined the USO mission four years ago to provide resources for service members. As a USO employee, she understands the importance of caring for and supporting service members while ensuring they are in a relaxed environment, especially in Okinawa, where they are thousands of miles away from home.
“This celebration shows our dances, dishes, and traditions to the people who are not as familiar with it,” said Velasquez. “My culture is vibrant and warm, and we wanted to share what it feels like to dance, eat, and laugh with people who have never experienced this.”
While the night of celebration included solo dance performances, entertainers invited attendees to join them in various dances. Attendees also ate homemade food and shared their personal stories and recipes at the dinner table. Events like these embody the mission of the USO: boosting the spirits and morale of our service members, and keeping them connected to the people and things they love – especially when they are so far from home.
“The USO celebrates everything, and while there are many different cultures in Okinawa, there’s a huge population of Hispanic Marines that come to the USO,” said Velasquez. "This event allows us to celebrate our culture back at home and share it with others.”
-This story was originally published on DVIDShub.net, it has been edited for USO.org.
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