As dozens of audience members sat attentively listening to guest speakers, the sound of a Spanish guitar and trumpet abruptly blasted through the room.
A four-member Mariachi band casually walked in, playing music as they made their way to the front of the ballroom at Club Meade.
Fort Meade celebrated Hispanic American Heritage Month on Sept. 26. The hour-long event featured a musical performance by Mariachi Los Mensajores Del Sur of Silver Spring, guest speaker Army Capt. Mario A. Flores, an award presentation to retired Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ismael Torres and an after-event food sampling.
This year’s theme is “Hispanics: One Endless Voice To Enhance Our Traditions.”
“It’s a pleasure to represent my culture — our culture — here today,” Flores said as he took the podium. “It really means a lot to me when I hear the stories of Chief Officer Torres and all the sacrifices [he] and [his] family made.”
Flores is counter-weapons of mass destruction targeting officer and liaison for U.S. Special Operations Command. He spent the majority of his speech highlighting his military career and noting the importance of honoring different cultures within the Army.
The observance’s climax was after Flores’ speech when retired Chief Petty Officer Torres was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Sam Rodriguez, national committee member for the award, presented the medal.
Torres was a member of the 65th Infantry Regiment, an all-Puerto Rican regiment that fought during the Korean War. It was the last Army unit to desegregate and was also the last Army unit to conduct a bayonet assault during combat.
Due to institutionalized racism in the U.S. Armed Forces at the time, Torres only received the Defense Service Medal and the Korea Service Medal upon his departure from the Army as a corporal. He joined the Coast Guard two months after leaving the Army.
After retiring from the Coast Guard, he was able to correct his military records and obtain the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Good Conduct Medal, United Nations Medal and Korean Presidential Unit Citation.
“This medal is not for me,” Torres said at the podium. “[It’s] for all the Borinqueneers [of the 65th Infantry Regiment].”
During his closing remarks, Garrison Commander Col. Erich C. Spragg went “off-script” and noted the importance of recognizing Hispanic-Americans’ contributions to the Army, as well as Rodriguez’s and Torres’ powerful words.
After Spragg’s remarks, audience members lined up for empanadas and other light food samples.
“Sorry, but I think Mr. Torres stole the show,” Spragg said to Flores as he wrapped up the event.