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Latinos aren't reaching top military positions, study shows
Hispanics have failed to reach top leadership positions in the military even as Latino participation in the armed forces overall has remained on par with the group's demographic growth, a study shows.
The study by Casaba Group, a Hispanic veterans organization, showed that between 1995 and 2016, only one Latino had become a three-star general, even as the number of active-duty Hispanic officers more than doubled, from 6,117 to 15,033, during that period.
Overall, 17 percent of active-duty enlisted service members are Hispanic, on par with the 17.5 percent of the general U.S. population that is Hispanic, according to the report.
Edward Cabrera, president of Casaba and a manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says many factors have kept Latinos from the top military positions - and not enough is being done to alleviate the problem.
"One of my primary concerns is the fact that it's gone on so long and the trends are going the wrong way," said Cabrera, a former Air Force test pilot.
Cabrera added the military tracks minority enlistments and promotions, but it bundles all minorities together in tallying its diversity.
"That's why we lost sight of what was happening with Latinos," said Cabrera, "Generally you see a lot of good news ... that's only true for African-Americans and females, absolutely not true for Latinos."
The Pentagon replied to a request for comment with a full breakdown of racial, gender and ethnic diversity within its officer ranks and civilian staff.
The data it provided showed that out of the 37 highest ranking officers in the military - four-star generals in the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, and admirals in the Navy - 32 are white men, two are white women, two are black men and one is an Asian-American man, according to data from the Department of Defense.
The next-highest rank - three-star generals and vice admirals - is slightly more diverse, according to the data from the Pentagon. Out of 144 officers, 115 are white men and seven are white women; 13 are black men and three are black women.
The list is completed by two Asian-American men, one Pacific Islander man, one man with unknown ethnicity, one Asian-American/Hispanic woman, and one Hispanic man.
The Coast Guard is not included in these numbers, as that branch is managed under the Department of Homeland Security in peacetime.
Cabrera says the problem, while systemic and structural, is not an issue of racism.
"No, there is not any kind of agenda or any kind of cultural bias per se," said Cabrera.
"When you have good representation at the upper ranks, it helps to promote younger generations from the group," he said. "Human nature comes into play. Generally speaking, people will pick people like themselves to replace them or to get promoted."
And the lack of diversity in leadership is also reflected at the top of the civilian structure of the Pentagon.
Out of 45 civilians with the top Defense Department pay grade, only one is Hispanic, according to the study.
Despite the numbers showing a lack of Hispanic diversity in leadership posts, Cabrera says the military has been slow to respond when confronted with the issue.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Alfred Valenzuela wrote a book, "No Greater Love: The Lives & Times of Hispanic Soldiers" in 2008 that highlighted the lack of Latino leadership in the top brass, but "it doesn't seem like anybody listened to him," said Cabrera.
In 2016, 26 members of Congress, led by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, wrote former President Obama a letter asking him to address the issue directly.
The letter quoted numbers from 2014, which are virtually identical to current numbers.
Across the services, diversity increases as rank decreases, particularly when it comes to Hispanics.
Retired Army Gen. Albert Zapanta, who started his military career as an enlisted special forces soldier in Vietnam, said that part of the issue is the career path that Hispanics tend to take in the military.
"We as Latinos usually go into the combat arms. Airborne, Ranger, Special Forces, Marines, you name it, where the African-Americans have all been basically promoted through the combat services support and services support, meaning transportation, logistics, administrative functions," said Zapanta, now president of the U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce.
Zapanta added that for African-Americans in the military, noncombat functions have become the "pipeline to their stars."
Zapanta added that it's a "sad commentary on the structure" of the military that service members in combat roles have a more difficult trek to the top than support staff.
"It's part of the macho, I think, the warrior we have as a culture. [Latinos] never want to be viewed as weak or not strong, and so we jump out of airplanes, we do Ranger, we do all the tough stuff, but at the end of the day that's not how you become general," he said.
Cabrera said a cultural tendency among Hispanics to avoid self-promotion has also played a role in keeping Latinos away from the top posts.
"If we were more vocal, we'd have twice the amount of generals and admirals," said Cabrera.
Zapanta added that achieving parity for political representation in Congress would also help to address the issue.
Currently, 8.4 percent of Congress is Hispanic, compared to 17.5 percent of the general population.
Of the Hispanics in Congress, Reps. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Brian Mast (R-Fla.) and Northern Mariana Islands Del. Gregorio Sablan (I) are also military veterans.
"We just need to get more of our people in and have 'huevos' to push forward, it's that simple," said Zapanta.