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(Enlarge) Seventeen-month old Luis Gustavo, held by his mother Maria DeLeon, chews on a miniature maraca while standing in the food sample line at the Hispanic Heritage Celebration.

When Charlotte Ann Gaylin, a professional Latin dancer, asked for volunteer dancers to learn a quick salsa lesson at this year's National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration, Installation Commander Kenneth O. McCreedy was the first person to get out of his seat and join Gaylin on the dance floor.

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven," said Gaylin, a member of the Dance In Time Latin American dance troupe, as she moved her feet to the rhythm of the Latin music. McCreedy and a group of 20 Fort Meade employees and service members tapped their feet and swung their hips as they followed Gaylin's lead.

A bit of laughter could be heard from the audience.

"I don't think it's very nice to laugh at them. Let's try it again," said Gaylin as she led the dancers in a new combination of salsa steps. The audience's laughter turned into cheers and claps.

Gaylin's dance lesson was one highlight of this year's annual celebration held Oct. 12 at the McGill Training Center. The annual event was organized by the Fort Meade Equal Employment Opportunity Office with the theme "Hispanic Americans: Strong and Colorful Threads in the American Fabric," celebrating the diversity of Hispanic cultures.

McCreedy picked up on the theme of diversity and welcomed the audience in Spanish. He said the diversity of Hispanic America is "important to the Army and the nation." McCreedy explained how he was raised in southern California and grew up around Hispanic Americans and met many during his military career. He called the diversity of Hispanic cultures "incredible."

Command Sgt. Maj. Abednego Vega-Valle, command sergeant major at Fort Myer, Va., the guest speaker for the day, shared how his reverence for Hispanic culture and the love and dedication of his mother helped to mold his character and Army career.

"I've always been extremely proud of my Hispanic and American heritage," said Vega-Valle, a native of Salinas, Puerto Rico, as he explained how he has always celebrated Christmas and Three Kings Day, a holiday celebrated by many Hispanic Americans. Three Kings Day is celebrated on Jan. 6 and is also known as Dia de los Reyes. It is a Christian celebration that commemorates the Biblical story of the three kings who followed the star of Bethlehem to bring gifts to the baby Jesus.

At home in Puerto Rico, Vega-Valle said small groups of people would visit their neighbors' homes late at night to sing Christmas carols and play instruments as part of the celebration. The festivities last until dawn and end in a hearty meal of chicken soup.

Vega-Valle also shared how his mother moved him and his four brothers from Puerto Rico to Brooklyn, N.Y., in the late 1960s in search of a better life. Vega-Valle said although his mother did not speak English, had limited formal education and was in frail health, she raised him with strong moral values. His mother emphasized church, education, and "the importance of being a good citizen," church and education. "My mother gave me a lifetime of encouragement," he said, noting that he and his brothers had to return to Puerto Rico after his mother died in 1977. He was only 14.

When Vega-Valle returned to Puerto Rico, he and his brothers moved in with their sister. Vega-Villa worked part- time at a seafood restaurant in his hometown to make money while he finished high school. Since he was able to speak English, he did well on the military entrance exam and enlisted in the Army in 1981 after marrying his high school sweetheart.

"Failure was not an option," Vega-Valle said of his military career, noting that the Army's discipline and core values were a "perfect match" for him. "It (the Army) was an opportunity to make something of myself and honor my mother," he said. "The Army has been a part of my family for most of my adult life," said Vega-Valle. "I have always felt a part of the team."

McCreedy gave Vega-Valle a Commander's Certificate of Highest Recognition for his participation. Prior to his speech, Denise Nooe, a representative from Senator Barbara Mikulski's office, shared greetings from the senator who paid homage to the "distinction and courage" displayed by Hispanic Americans in the armed forces. Gaylin and Konstantin Smirnoff, a member of the Salsa Fuego dance company, also performed a salsa dance for the audience.

Following Vega-Valle's speech, the audience enjoyed a lunch of authentic Mexican food prepared by Pachangua Grill, of Odenton, Md. Many people also browsed a display of biographies about famous Hispanic Americans such as entertainer Rita Moreno, former Surgeon General Antonia Novello, Nobel Prize winner Severo Ochoa and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena.

Colleen Turpin, an employee in the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center (CPAC), said she came to the celebration to learn about Hispanic culture. "It was a very nice program," said Turpin. "Very lively." Pfc. Andrew Milner, a Defense Information School student, said he came to the event as part of a journalism assignment and because of his interest in Hispanic culture. Milner said he was inspired by Vega-Valle's speech. "It's neat to see how he came from his poor upbringing to become a command sergeant major in the Army," said Milner. "It motivates me to do good things."

Editor's Note: Some information from this story was taken from the Web site www.calendar-updates.com.

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