They see themselves mainly as dedicated Airmen who appreciate the chance to serve their country with dignity and determination. But for the sisters Cuyan,after some intense media exposure thanks to the California State Military Reserve,the public is likely to view them with a bit more stateliness: as exemplary service members working hard to honor their family’s patriotism and pride.
All three siblings are attached to the California Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing based at Port Hueneme. And when the middle sis, Senior Airman Crystal Cuyan, recently returned from her five-month deployment to Afghanistan, it was time to celebrate a little.
A few family members and friends, including the parents Patty and Francisco, who emigrated from Mexico and Guatemala, respectively, were on hand for what was going to be a pretty low-key reunion at Los Angeles International Airport on Sept 12, 2013. Crystal, who is attached to the 146th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Operations Group, was returning with other individual wing personnel who had been deployed to Kandahar Province.
But when word got out, with help from the CSMR Regional Support South public affairs unit, the news media quickly took an interest and sure enough television and newspaper crews were on hand to hail the small reunion at the LAX baggage-claim area. Then the next day, after Crystal and the other returning Airmen went through out-processing at the Air National Guard Station Channel Islands, more news crews showed up for her actual homecoming at the family’s Moreno Valley residence. Later, network news shows were calling in to see about getting additional interviews.
“My heart was pounding. I tried hard not to cry,” Crystal told a reporter for KCBS-TV Channel 2/KCAL-TV Channel 9 about the emotional LAX greeting filled with signs, flowers and abrazos as airline workers and nearby civilian travelers looked on with smiles. The LAX operations staff added to the moment by announcing her return, as they often do for returning service members, over the terminal public address system.
Crystal, 24, who recently graduated from Cal State San Bernardino, works as a college tutor for the Pomona Unified School District and runs her own photography business. The eldest sister, 2nd Lt. Arelis Cuyan-Villanueva, 26, of San Bernardino, is assigned to the 146th Headquarters public affairs unit. She had served a short deployment to Afghanistan in 2012.
The youngest, Senior Airman Viana Cuyan, 21, who also lives in Moreno Valley and tutors for Pomona Unified, is assigned to the 146th Force Support Squadron, Mission Support Group. She has not yet been deployed.
Although the Cal Guard has occasionally had family members or married couples in the same unit, to have three women from the same family serving in the same unit is rare. All three Airmen fully understand that they are serving as role models not just for young women who may be interested in joining the military, but also for Latinas who face certain cultural challenges and stereotypes about being in the armed forces.
“To be a woman in the military has its advantages and disadvantages,” Arelis Cuyan told La Opinion, the Los Angeles Spanish-language newspaper that ran a front-page story about the sisters. Her husband, Senior Airman Eduardo Villanueva, also serves in the 146th Wing. “But what’s good is that you can get to know other strong and intelligent women from whom you can learn.”
Viana Cuyan, who has a twin, Vianey, of Moreno Valley, who has not yet decided whether she will enlist, noted that there are not a lot of Hispanic women in the National Guard. But “I feel proud and hope I can stay in the armed forces all my life,” she told La Opinion.
Later, at home, following a visit from a reporter and photographer from the Riverside Press-Enterprise, Viana Cuyan reflected on how many in the Hispanic culture hold the belief that women have only certain roles to play — and that putting on a uniform and serving in the Air National Guard isn’t one of them.
“They don’t see us doing the man’s job,” she said about the culture. “Just because you’re a female doesn’t mean you can’t be in the military.”
All four photos taken by CANG Senior Airman Eduardo Villanueva.
View the story that aired on Los Angeles TV stations KCAL/KCBS:
See the story, along with photos and video, by the Riverside Press-Enterprise:
See the story on the Cuyan sisters in the Los Angeles Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion: