DANBURY Police officer and ‘dreamer’
DANBURY — Hector Rodriguez’s American dream began 20 years ago when his mother petitioned to bring him to the United States from their native Colombia.
She had just earned her citizenship and wanted her 20-year-old son to have a chance in the “land of opportunities.”
But instead of just working, Rodriguez took his opportunity to serve. First in the U.S. Army — before a law made it possible to gain citizenship through military service — and then for the past 14 years as a police officer in New York City and Danbury.
On Saturday night he’ll receive the 2018 American Dream Veteran Award for his service at the fifth annual American Dream Awards Gala hosted by the Tribuna newspaper.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” he said last week. “It’s an honor. It’s nice to be recognized and I love this country like it’s my own, because it is now.”
The awards honor outstanding members of and advocates for the immigrant community and those first-generation Americans making a difference across the Danbury area.
Rodriguez’s service exemplifies the often overlooked or dismissed sacrifices many immigrants make to join their adopted country, Tribuna Editor Emanuela Palmares said.
“We take that as the ultimate example of love and dedication,” she said. “You are going out there risking your life to fight wars and defend a country, a flag and a Constitution that you have no rights in yet because you believe in the concept of this nation and the promises of citizenship.”
Rodriguez signed up for the U.S. Army in 1999 and served as a construction and demolition specialist stationed in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, serving on deployments throughout the Pacific Ocean.
Although he was not deployed to the Middle East after 9/11, a new law in the attack’s aftermath made it possible for him to obtain his own citizenship through his military service.
But that was simply another opportunity to serve, first in his adopted home with the NYPD and then for the past 10 years on the force in Danbury, where his wife’s family lives.
“If you come from a foreign country, you have to respect the law as if it’s your own,” he said. “I see it every day in my job now ... It’s difficult to start in a new country with a different language, but you can do it.”
State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Tom Saadi also will receive one of four American Dream Leadership Awards at the ceremony for his service to the country and Danbury. His family immigrated from Lebanon and his is now a major in the U.S. Army Reserve and serves as Democratic minority leader on the Danbury City Council.
The gala also will present leadership awards to Danbury High School Assistant Director Jessica Coronel, who leads the public schools’ Collaborative/Upward Bound Program; Nelson Merchan, adviser for the Connecticut Small Business Development Center; and Patti Keckeisen, the co-director of the National Parent Leadership Institute.
Eight finalists will also find out who will win the Person of the Year Award and three Student of the Year Awards, each of which include a $2,000 award or scholarship. The finalists come from families who have immigrated from a slew of countries, from Brazil to Haiti to Cambodia.
This year’s awards follow a summer in which already-hot immigration issues became especially inflamed after federal authorities began separating children and parents found to be illegally crossing the southern border with Mexico or seeking asylum in the U.S.
That policy has since ended but it touched a national nerve that remains exposed.
Danbury’s own tumultuous history with federal immigration enforcement bubbled up again this summer amid several local immigrants’ detention and deportation orders, including one man being hit by a car on White Street while fleeing federal immigration agents.
This year’s American Dream Lifetime Achievement Award will go to Peter Hearty of the Greater Danbury Irish Cultural Center, highlighting that today’s vitriolic debate is simply the latest chapter in the country’s long history of discriminating against immigrants.
“The whole purpose of our event and our organization is to make a connection that the immigrant story of 60 years ago, 70 years ago, 100 years ago is the same as the immigrant story of today,” Palmares said. “The unifying factor of the immigration of today and of the past is a deep love of appreciation of this country. No one comes here because they hate it.
“The people who come also love this country,” she said. “We believe that’s what gets lost in translation.”