From the steps of destitute to the land of opportunity

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jose L. Hernandez-Domitilo
  • 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
This story is in support of National Hispanic Heritage month to pay tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our nation and society.

"Llegaron los Americanos!" [The Americans are here!]

These words resounded loud throughout a crowd of children racing toward a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules, each hoping to get clothes, toys and other humanitarian goods being delivered to them in the capital of Ecuador.

Running in that crowd alongside his friends more than 30 years ago, a young Erick Fonseca could see in the distance the red, white and blue of the American flag visible on the tail of the aircraft, as crew members prepped bags of goodies for the local community.

What Fonseca never imagined at that moment was one day he would be a part of that American force.

Fonseca's childhood was never one of luxury and riches -- he was raised in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Quito, Ecuador, until the age of 14 before immigrating to America.

"Growing up as a kid, I hung out at the typical 'barrio' or neighborhood -- my entertainment was playing around with other kids," recollected Lt. Col. Erick Fonseca, 35th Fighter Wing chief of command post. "Toys would only come on Christmas or your birthday. I was not economically rich."

However, the richness that filled his life came from the love of both his mother and father who did everything they could for him and his siblings.

"My parents tried to provide as much as they could," said Fonseca. "I was rich spiritually in the fact that my parents truly cared about us."

With a mom who worked at a grain mill and dad who was a security guard, he spent his days either in school, in the streets playing with his cousins or taking care of his baby brother at home. It was a culturally different upbringing than what is the norm in America.

Fonseca recalls his home as a wooden shack with just one room in which they all lived, no shower and no refrigerator.

"For a shower, we would let water warm up some in the sun and use that," Fonseca reminisced with a smile.

Despite the hardships, Fonseca lived a happy life. Wearing the same clothes for what seemed like years to him, walking with the same hole-ridden shoes and pretending sticks were little toy trucks was nothing unique to him.

"It was a life of innocence," Fonseca said. "I was a happy kid just like any other."

It wasn't until he arrived in New Jersey at age 14, after his mother petitioned for him to immigrate to the U.S., that Fonseca feels he faced the biggest challenge of his lifetime.

Being thrust into a completely new atmosphere where the culture, language, food and way of life was abundantly different, the task of assimilating was no easy feat. Not to mention the high school thugs who harassed him at any opportunity, punching and beating him to the ground on several occasions just for being "different."

Undeterred by the assaults, he decided to focus on his academics, because the resources available were rich in comparison to what he had in Ecuador. He even joined the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps. For him, just having a chemistry lab, computer lab and other educational facilities presented quite a difference in opportunity.

"I think I had a better appreciation of what [was] in front of me," Fonseca said. "Sometimes you hear that our education system is terrible, and to a degree I can understand that, but you can never compare an entire nation like ours to a small country elsewhere."

For his family, the fact that he graduated high school was an accomplishment alone.

His struggles acclimating to the roughness of the neighborhood continued after graduation, but it was during this time he decided to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. After two years of serving as an information manager at Hill AFB, Utah, he was recommended to attend a two-year ROTC program for commission.

"The Air Force provided the structure I needed," Fonseca said. "It gave me the opportunity to get away from my troubled neighborhood."

Upon commission he remembers how proud his parents and siblings were of his accomplishment.

"A lot of things were going through my mind," he said. "For me, it was primarily being grateful to see how suddenly I came from one side of the spectrum [in Ecuador] to where I am now."

His work in the space and missiles career field has taken him far and wide across the globe, embarking on missions to Uruguay, Colombia, Chile, Iraq and others.

Along the way he has been able to use his fluent Spanish and cultural skills to help network with allies in South America. Whether it was assisting in the war against narcotics trafficking or helping recover space debris, building partnerships and strengthening relationships with those partner countries is something of which he said he is proud.

According to Fonseca, It is hard at times for him to believe he contributed to satellite launch operations like the QuickBird-2 and Digital Globe among others.

"It's an awesome feeling once I look back and see what I have accomplished," Fonseca said. "Sometimes I doubt myself and don't even believe it."

Marisa Fonseca, Erick's wife, immigrated herself at a young age from Mexico and knows how hard Erick has worked to be where he is today.

"I'm proud like any other military spouse, but mostly because my husband is a good man, full of integrity and humbleness at the same time," she said.

When putting things in retrospect, only in America are we able to accomplish the things we do, Fonseca explained.

"When you go from being a poor little kid, to launching a rocket in space -- it's a huge accomplishment," Fonseca said. "If nothing else, for others out there, I hope I can be an example and show them that if you put your mind, heart and hard work to it, you can accomplish anything."