Faces of Dyess: Path to Citizenship

DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- It’s three in the morning and sunlight won’t break the horizon for another several hours. While most people are still sleeping soundly, for one family living in a Mexican town near the U.S. border, it’s time to wake up and get ready for school. An elementary-school-aged girl named Alicia “Alice” Contreras, along with her three younger siblings, are used to this early morning ritual. Over the course of four hours, Contreras and her siblings will take an array of buses and walk several miles to attend a school in El Paso, Texas. This was just one of the challenging experiences she would face while growing up.

Fast forward more than a decade later, the now paralegal for the 7th Bomb Wing Legal Office, Airman 1st Class Contreras recalls the many difficulties she and her family had to overcome, with the very first challenging her as an infant.

“When I was born, a muscle in my hip and leg wasn’t developed,” Contreras said. “I couldn’t walk on that leg, so the doctors thought I would have to be in a wheelchair. When babies would normally start walking at one or two years old, I couldn’t. I was in physical therapy for about a year.”

To support the physical therapy that Contreras received to overcome the medical issue, her single mother worked three jobs, one of them in the same clinic that provided the treatment. Things seemed to get better when Contreras’ mother met a U.S. Army Soldier through a mutual friend, and later got married. The family moved to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, allowing Contreras and her future younger siblings the ability to attend a school within the United States.

The hopeful outlook for Contreras and her family was short-lived however, when her mother and father were divorced, forcing the family back to Mexico. The move wasn’t going to dissuade Contreras’ mother from ensuring her children received a good education however, and she kept them enrolled in a Texas school in El Paso.

“The schools in America are far better than the schools in Mexico,” Contreras said. “The education is better, the benefits are better, and in Mexico you have to pay for everything: classes, books, uniforms, report cards, certificates…

“Basically, anyone who finishes high school in Mexico is met with surprise, something like, ‘Wow, you actually finished?’ And then college? That’s even worse.

“My siblings were all citizens after all, except for me, so my mom decided it wasn’t fair that her children would get to lose out on the benefits of their education because she couldn’t afford to live in the states.

“She pushed herself really hard to bring me and my siblings to the United States, because she saw what it could offer us. She had went to school in Mexico, and she didn’t want the same for us; she wanted better.”

Getting up so early in the morning became a normal part of Contreras’ daily routine during her elementary school years, having to catch several buses and walk a long distance to both to and from school, always accompanied by her mother.

“The biggest challenge I really had was being tired—and homework,” Contreras said. “The same way I’d get to school would be the same way I’d get home, so it was just as long, just as much walking and just as many bus rides. I would be exhausted all the time.”

On top of these daily treks, Contreras also had to juggle learning English.

“When I was in kindergarten, my mother was still married to the military member, so I was in a bilingual class, which was still largely Spanish-speaking. My mom quickly noticed I wasn’t picking up any English—at home, all I spoke was Spanish—so she did a 360 and put me in an all-English class for first grade.

“Having homework in English was hard, and my mom would try really hard to help me; she even bought a Spanish-English dictionary to help me with homework.”

Eventually, Contreras and her family were able to move once more, maintaining a one-bedroom apartment closer to the school district to ensure that she could keep attending the school. Though it proved easier in some respects, such as being closer, the new home came with its own set of difficulties.

“We would get the cushions from the sofas and then cover them with a bedsheet, and that’s where we would all sleep,” Contreras said. “It was hard to live on top of one another, but we made it work. My mom was very good at making things look better than what they were.”

When she turned 14, Contreras’ mother remarried, leading to the family moving once more—this time to New Jersey. The move promised an increase in income for Contreras’ step-father, but at the cost of having to sell or leave almost everything behind outside of a few sets of clothes.

The move to New Jersey also proved to be a trial all its own.

“We sold everything, taking a little U-Haul with only our clothes. On our way there we experienced everything; snow, blizzards, a flat tire...it was a hot mess,” Contreras said. “We didn’t have a place of our own either right away, so we had to bounce around with my step-father’s family members.

“When we did eventually find an apartment, it didn’t have heat or electricity because it was so old. And that winter, the first winter, was the worst on record in years for New Jersey, and for most of it we didn’t even have working heat. We managed to get through it with lots of blankets and layering up.”

Winter was only the first challenge in Contreras’ new home. With a new country came new experiences, and she was not without a fair share of them during her years in high school. Fast-paced city life and an unfamiliar culture was a lot for Contreras to get used to.

“I came from El Paso—everyone felt friendly there, whereas in New Jersey everyone seemed to be more, ‘get out of my way, or I’ll run you over.’

“I was also in a really bad school. People got stabbed, there were canine units everywhere sniffing for drugs or weapons; when you entered the school you even had to go through a metal detector. I remember telling my mom after getting there, ‘mom this isn’t the right school, this is a correctional facility.’ Unfortunately, though, that was the only school in the whole town. Riots, gangs and drugs were common there.”

So what did Contreras do to combat these negative influences?

“I just focused on playing sports,” Contreras said. “I played basketball and softball; they were my outlets.”

With already enough for a young woman to worry about, life wasn’t done throwing challenges her way—and the next one came as a knock on the door. Two police officers arrested Contreras’ step-father without any explanation as to why or where he was being taken.

It left the family confused and devastated.

“They came and took him on allegations of abuse from his ex-wife, which he had been going through a child custody battle with. She lived in Florida and he with us during the time she had made the accusations, so it didn’t even make sense - she just wanted to get something out of it.

“It became a battle to try and find out where he was. We went to the police department and they said, ‘he’s not here anymore,’ so we went to the immigration department and they said, ‘he’s not here anymore.’ It was a stressful cycle, but we eventually found him and he was released. It was hard enough for me, and I spoke English. I can’t imagine how hard it would be for families who would have an even harder time communicating.”

Shortly after getting Contreras’ step-father back, he was involved in a car accident that left him unable to provide for the family for nearly a year.

“We were told he wouldn’t be able to work, but he wouldn’t get disability because he didn’t have papers—just a working permit,” Contreras said.
With him being the family’s only source of income, Contreras stepped up to support her family when she was a senior in high school.

“In my senior year, me and my mom were working so hard,” Contreras said. “My mother got a job at a gas station working 12-hour shifts. I would go to school from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., since I was a senior and would get out early. I would have sports practice at 4 p.m., so I’d have a couple hours to take a nap.

“I would have practice until 6 or 6:30 p.m., and then my coach would drive me to the mall so I could work until 12 or 1 a.m. On the weekends I would work two jobs; half a day at one place and half a day at the other. Paychecks would go straight to my mom to help pay medical bills and everything else.”

Her stepfather eventually recovered and began to work again, which helped the family out. Even after he began to work, Contreras wasn’t able to consider something that she had wanted for a long time: American citizenship.

“Out of my siblings, I was the only non-citizen,” Contreras said. “Applying for citizenship is like a grant you have to pay, and you’re not even guaranteed you’d get it or be approved after the lengthy process. It was money that I couldn’t spend because my family needed it. I’d always think about it and brush it off; maybe next time.”

But then, the possibility to gain citizenship changed when the idea of joining the U.S. Air Force came to her.

“My boyfriend at the time, his sister was in the Air Force,” Contreras said. “I remember seeing her after she’d graduated, and she had her uniform all tailored—she looked sharp. I remember thinking, she looks good, I want to wear that uniform too. She talked me into joining, and told me that I could get my citizenship for free.”

Contreras graduated basic military training July 19, 2015, continued onto her technical school, but still had to wait to finish her citizenship process due to some complications during BMT. After several tries to get the paperwork through and several months of waiting, Contreras finally gained her U.S. citizenship Feb. 7, 2017.

Now a citizen and proud member of the military, Contreras serves as an inspiration for her younger siblings, one of which who is also joining the U.S. Air Force.

“My sister is joining too, and already has a date for basic training: March 28th,” Contreras said. “She’s going to be a personnel specialist.”
Contreras’ dreams don’t stop in simply being the average Airmen either; she has far-reaching goals.

“I want to serve 20 years and do something meaningful, so people won’t just say, ‘Airman who?’ when they hear my name,” Contreras said. “Not so much for me, but for my mom. I want her to see that what she went through and how hard she worked has paid off. When I told her how I got to tell my story to Gen. [Robin] Rand, the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, she started crying; she never thought everything she did would be worth it.”

For Contreras, her mother is important in her life, and hopes to support her just as she has supported Contreras. For someone who had gone through so many difficulties and challenges in life, Contreras has a simple, but deep motivation to live by.

“I want to be able to make my mom proud,” Contreras said. “She’s what motivates me to be a good Airman, to do my job right and go home to say, ‘Hey mom, look what I achieved,’ because it makes her so happy!”