With National Hispanic Heritage Month winding down, Aimee Pila-Bravo has some advice for other Hispanics, Latinos and Latinas looking to make a difference:
“Be a mentor,” said the 34-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, currently a member of the Air Force Reserve and director of the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative (LAVC). “Volunteer. Give back to the community.”
And to do that, those who want to help others succeed and thrive will need to learn what she learned and do what she has done.
“Get a seat at the table,” said Pila-Bravo.
It’s important because Hispanics have long been underrepresented in leadership positions, whether in the military and in veterans advocacy, despite their long history of service. Hispanics fought in the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
As many as 500,000 fought during World War II. Puerto Ricans fighting in the Army’s 65th Regiment during the Korean War earned high praise from Brigadier General William W. Harris, who called them “the best damn soldiers that I had ever seen.”
More than 80,000 served with distinction in Vietnam and Hispanics comprised over four percent of U.S. forces during the Gulf Wars. And 19 Californians of Hispanic heritage received the Medal of Honor. Their names grace the Medal of Honor Wall at CalVet’s headquarters in downtown Sacramento.
Indeed, they deserve their place at the table. Getting the seat can require persistence, Pila-Bravo said. Having earned hers, she offers this advice from personal experience.
Don’t be shy or hesitant, as she said she was too often in the military and later as she began working as a veterans advocate. It’s not easy when dealing with boards and panels from veterans’ organizations that typically include few, if any, women or minorities.
“When you look at the leadership roles even at the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), you will see a lot of white men,” she said. “Who’s not there? People of color … women veterans, Blacks, Latinos.”
She knew that must change, and to do so meant making her presence known and her voice heard, whether it be at work or as a member of her American Legion post in Los Angeles.
“I’d be at a meeting and I’d be in the back or on the outskirts,” she said. “People weren’t talking about my opinions because I wasn’t bringing them up. I had to bring it up.”
Otherwise, real issues would go unaddressed and real people would be underserved. So, she had to push herself to challenge the ingrained culture. She let her passion for helping veterans in one of those most diverse cities in the nation take over.
Pila-Bravo had long dealt with the roadblocks of being a woman and Latina in the military. A first-generation Mexican-American, she and her brother both enlisted, he in the Marine Corps. The culture she grew up in was not the military culture.
“I am proud to be a Mexican-American,” she said. “I was told I could not speak Spanish while in uniform. I had to act a certain way.”
After serving in Air Force security details, she left activity duty in 2016 and transitioned into the Air Force Reserve. Pila-Bravo went to the University of Southern California, enrolling in the department of Social Change and Innovation at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work concentrating in military social work.
In 2019, her reserve unit was called up for a six-month deployment to Kuwait, where she served at a new facility called “Cargo City” at the Kuwait International Airport, which replaced the 20-year-old Air Force/Coalition Abdullah Al-Mubarak Air Base.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, she obtained employment with the LAVC, helping service members transition back to civilian life and connecting them with local resources. In March 2021, Pila-Bravo became the director of LAVC. She uses her position to recruit and mentor a new generation of leaders, and cites two of her own role models who are right here at CalVet.
Pila-Bravo said that Xóchitl Rodriguez Murillo and Virginia Wimmer (deputy secretaries of the Minority and Underrepresented Veterans and Women Veterans divisions, respectively) are minority women who are making a difference as veterans serving veterans.
“It’s a beautiful shift in leadership,” Pila-Bravo said.
Indeed, they’ve taken their rightful seats at the table. There’s room for many, many more.