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Latinas have served in the United States Coast Guard for 200 years — most of the lifespan of the service. During this time, they have come a long way, working with a dedication to the Coast Guard that has benefitted all who serve in it.
In the first half of the 19th century, ethnically Hispanic women began to serve in Coast Guard predecessor services. In 1821, Florida became a U.S. territory, one of several former Spanish territories that would come under U.S. control during the 1800s. Beginning in the 1820s, Hispanic Americans served in the U.S. Lighthouse Service as keepers with their families working as assistants. In 1859, Maria Mestre de los Dolores became keeper of St. Augustine Light. She was the first Hispanic American woman to serve in a Coast Guard predecessor service, the first to oversee a federal installation, and she had the distinction of serving in the U.S. Lighthouse Service and then the Confederate Lighthouse Service during the Civil War.
Born in the United States to parents emigrating from Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, the first Latina women to don a Coast Guard uniform served in World War II. Some joined the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. Others volunteered in the Temporary Reserve, which included both men and women.
During World War II, Latina SPARs joined for the same reasons as any other SPAR. They wanted to help their country win the war. Mary Rivero graduated with Home Economics and Spanish degrees from Florida State College for Women and became a teacher. Early in the war, she volunteered with Tampa’s Red Cross Motor Corps and entertained enlisted servicemen as a USO “V-ette.” Still, she wished to serve her country where she could be of greatest assistance. That meant enlisting in the SPARs on Dec. 4, 1943, and commissioning as a SPAR officer on Jan. 26, 1944. Ensign Rivero first served as a watch officer at Newport Beach, issuing boat licenses and identification, educating the public, and selling war bonds. Not long after, she took charge of the identification office at the Los Angeles Captain-of-the-Port. She was promoted to lieutenant junior grade and served as duty officer at the SPAR barracks in Long Beach until the war ended. Lt. j.g. Rivero is the first known Latina Coast Guard officer and likely the first female minority officer in service history.
During World War II, SPARs were not the only women wearing Coast Guard uniforms. Women also joined the Coast Guard Temporary Reserve, and some were of Hispanic American heritage. Unlike SPARs, female Temporary Reservists were unpaid, earned no benefits, and volunteered 12 (and sometimes more) hours per week. In late June 1943, Ensign Sylvia Corral Vega and Ensign Flavia Corral took charge of female Temporary Reservists in Tampa, recruiting and forming the group. Women processed Temporary Reserve paperwork, operated the switchboard, drove male Temporary Reservists to their duties, prepared “chow,” and delivered it to the men on watch.
Tampa’s Temporary Reserve ensigns were the daughters of Manuel Corral, a Cuban American pioneer in the cigar industry. They were members of Tampa’s social elite, and the press took just as much interest in their Temporary Reserve service as their social lives. Not frivolous women, the sisters felt a responsibility to do something “for the people,” said Sylvia Vega. When the United States desperately needed women to replace men at shoreside jobs so more men could fight the war at sea, these women chose the Coast Guard. The total number of Hispanic American women serving as SPARs or Temporary Reserves during World War II is unknown.
The participation of Latina servicemembers grew after the war. In 1983, Jacqueline Ball and Deborah Winnie became the first Hispanic women to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy. Romana Borrego (Dubinka) became the first known Latina to enlist in the active-duty Coast Guard since World War II. On Aug. 1, 1988, Borrego earned promotion to YNC, becoming the first Latina servicemember to advance to E-7. And on Oct. 1, 1998, she earned promotion to YNCS becoming the first Latina to reach E-8.
The 1990s saw Latinas break a number of minority barriers in the service. In 1991, Katherine Faverey took command of the 110-foot cutter Bainbridge Island, becoming the first Latina to command a cutter. She later became the service’s first Latina intelligence officer. Also in 1991, Marilyn Melendez Dykman became the first Latina Coast Guard aviator. And that same year, Yeoman Grisel Hollis became the first Hispanic American female advanced to master chief. In 1995, Hollis was promoted to CWO, becoming the first Latina to reach that level as well.
Since the 1990s, Latinas have advanced through senior officer and enlisted ranks. In 2006, Lt. Isabel Papp became the first Hispanic American female medical officer assigned to a PSU. She was also the first Latina physician’s assistant in the Coast Guard Reserve. In the early 2000’s, Latina officers reached the rank of captain and eligibility requirements for flag promotion. Finally, in 2022, Jo-Ann Burdian become the service’s first Latina promoted to flag rank.
Latina personnel have come a long way since the early 1800s and their pioneering efforts have benefitted all who serve in the U.S. military, Federal government, and Nation as a whole. Their stories bear witness to their important contributions and patriotism.