Tulsa District employees recognized National Hispanic Heritage month and releived a little stress near the end of the workday by taking swings at a pinata, Oct. 7.
Pinatas are clay or paper mache animals or caricatures that are filled with sweets. In Mexico, and many other countries, blindfolded children take turns swinging a stick or bat at the pinatas to release the candy or sweets.
National Hispanic Heritage month runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, and recognizes Hispanic and Latino American heritage and culture. The pinata is believed to have originated in China, where paper was invented. The explorer, Marco Polo, is believed to have encountered it in his travels to Asia, and introduced it to Italy, where it came to be called “pignatta” which is Italian for “fragile pot”.
The practice spread to Spain and missionaries introduced it to the Americas.
For many Hispanics, their journey to attain their “American Dream” began from counties near and far and perhaps a generation or more removed. For Pete Perez, the Regional Business Director for Southwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, his journey began as a youngster growing up in the south side of San Antonio, Texas and has brought him to the ranks of senior leadership in our nation’s government and interactions with some of our national figures such as Ashton B. Carter, the 25th Secretary of Defense.
In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, Perez shares personal anecdotes to encourage students and junior professionals. He is also a member of the Senior Executive Service, a cadre of executive leaders within the Federal Government who lead America’s workforce. There are 41 members of the Senior Executive Service in the Army Corps of Engineers and 279 SES members in the U.S. Army. The number for Hispanics is even smaller: Perez is one of only two Hispanic members among the 41, and nine among the 279.
Observing Role Models
Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, Perez said his parents were his foundational role models, who strongly emphasized the importance of education. “My personal motivation was driven by meeting my parents’ expectation that I go to college, continue my education in whatever field appealed to me and make a difference with the opportunity I was given.”
Perez’s educational roots were in the culturally enriched environment of San Antonio’s south side, where he attended St. Leo’s Catholic School and then Central Catholic High School, a college preparatory school and one of the oldest high schools in San Antonio with many prominent executives and political figures among its alumni. He then attended Texas A&M University, where he graduated with a degree in civil engineering, and began a professional career with Powell & Powell Engineers and Consultants in Dallas.
Perez was also quick to note that he did not graduate at the top of his class, but was able to achieve through perseverance. “I’m an example of how anything is possible with just a little support. I think there needs to be some energy expended on that part of the student body population that represents the middle of the bell curve because you never know what might come out of it. I did. If I can come out of the bell curve, through perseverance and dedication and a long list of lifelines thrown at me within the organization, good things can come your way.”
Throughout his career, Perez has developed a network of coaches and mentors. “These folks exposed me to the wealth of opportunities and how that aligned with my own career goals,” he said. “The message was consistent from the coaches and the mentors: If these are the things that you want to do, here is what is required; there would be some mobility involved; there would be some cross-functional exposure required, as well as an understanding of all the Corps of Engineers programs.” I had some really sage advice from some great leaders within the Corps: James Dalton, Jim Hannon, Bob Slockbower, even going back I had a slew of people who were advising and guiding even when I wasn’t aware of it.”
Expanding Your Comfort Zone
After graduating from Texas A&M University, Perez began his civil engineering career with a job in the private sector. After several years, he joined the Corps of Engineers in San Antonio, working out of the Fort Sam Houston Project Office and the Kelly Air Force Base Resident Office, primarily on Army and Air Force projects. He held positions of progressively increasing responsibility within Engineering and Construction at multiple locations including San Antonio, Korea, Alaska, and Galveston, Texas. This career progression led to him becoming the Deputy District Engineer for Programs and Project Management in the Galveston District. He was honored with a Professional Achievement Award from the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference in 2002 for his work as a Resident Engineer at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea.
Geographically speaking, career moves — from San Antonio to Korea to Alaska to Galveston — covered the breadth and depth of the Corps mission areas, and helped prepare Perez for higher-level positions with each move. Each move incorporated specific professional development goals. “For example, my assignment in Galveston was a radical departure for me,” Perez said. “My first 15 years were almost solely focused on the military mission, very little on civil works, and Galveston District further diversified my skill sets and professional development by totally immersing me in civil works.”
Leadership assignments also provided unique opportunities to develop not just on the technical skills, but also on “soft skills” – presenting information, building relationships, building consensus, and working through difficult issues. Perez notes, “There is really an art to communication that builds trust and confidence with your stakeholders, and that foreshadows for the future. Your clients are generally going to be the same. Thus, it is your relationship skills that help the partnership survive the ebbs and flows, continuing to maintain the trust and confidence that we will meet our commitments and deliver quality products. That’s critical.”
Sharing With Others
Public service provides the underlying motivation for Perez’s activities within USACE. He shares, “For me, the reward I got was seeing the airman or the soldier when we were turning over a family housing project, to see the look in their eyes, and they earned it. For what they do everyday in service for our great nation, they deserved it. There’s no greater feeling in the world.”
Developed by these experiences, Perez continues to overcome personal and professional challenges with an optimistic spirit. He states, “For me, the goal is to get out in the community and inspire those that maybe do not get the attention or the encouragement that they may need. I can use myself as an example. I am someone who persevered and worked hard. I think I can be an example that anything is possible. I can tell the story of how I overcame, how I leveraged talents that God has blessed me with. At the same time, I think I can also tell the story of the great opportunities that the Corps has and how everyone can contribute by being a part of this great organization to make a difference in the lives of our men and women in uniform and to our Nation.”