COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes
" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)
The Air Force affords its Airmen a plethora of opportunities and benefits; many advance their education and obtain degrees, skills are learned and can often be applied in future careers -- but for some, their service can grant them U.S. citizenship.
This is the case for a dual military couple at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, who were born and spent the early part of their life in Ecuador. Both are now Airmen and U.S. citizens.
Staff Sgt. Luis Chiriboga, a 14th Civil Engineer Squadron engineering technician, and his wife, Airman 1st Class Estefania Briceno Ron, a personnel and administration technician assigned to the 14th Medical Support Squadron, were both born in Ecuador and later moved to the U.S.
Chiriboga’s road to citizenship began much earlier than his wife’s. A native of Quito, Ecuador – the nation’s capital – Chiriboga arrived in Long Island, New York, with his parents and three brothers in 2003 when he was 15.
“A major part of why we moved is because [my] parents thought we were gonna have a better future here than [in Ecuador],” Chiriboga said. He added that Ecuador was a very hard place for people to find jobs even with an advanced education and degree.
Moving to New York came with its challenges for Chiriboga and his family. His family had to overcome a language barrier and adjust to American culture, as well as find jobs to support themselves. His mom found a job cleaning houses with his aunt, who was already living in New York. His dad, who was a surgeon in Ecuador, found jobs sporadically and eventually started practicing natural medicine.
Chiriboga said he was surprised how young people were when they began working in the U.S. He said it seemed normal for someone to have a job at age 16, where in Ecuador, a 16-year-old would be focused on school.
However, to help pay for bills and rent, Chiriboga and his three brothers all found jobs at a restaurant almost within a year after arriving.
“I was helping my mom and dad pay for the house; we were all trying to pitch in and pay for everything,” he said.
After graduating high school, Chiriboga earned his bachelor’s degree in digital electronics from Suffolk Community College, New York. He said constantly going to work and school was eventually too much for him, and he didn’t have enough time to focus on himself.
“I didn’t want to go to school anymore … by that time I was kind of working full-time and going to school full-time, trying to help my parents,” he said.
So, when he started looking for different avenues to take he said he knew he was destined to join the Air Force.
“I always wanted to join the Air Force since I was a kid,” he said as he recalled the countless times he passed a big mural of the Ecuadorian air force as he rode the bus on his way to school in Ecuador. From a young age he was inspired.
Enlisting in 2008, Chiriboga went on to receive his U.S. citizenship while stationed at Scott AFB, Illinois. In fall 2009, Chiriboga ventured to St. Louis by himself, where he and many others took the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.
“I was pretty excited,” he said.
However, having to renounce his Ecuadorian citizenship was “kind of hard,” he said. “There was a part when they told me ‘you have to give it up,’ and I was like ‘uh, I don’t know if I want to do this.’”
Although he struggled briefly, Chiriboga said he feels this opportunity is great for those serving this country.
While home on leave in 2010, Chiriboga attended a Christmas party with his parents. Briceno Ron and her family were also there.
Although both were originally from Ecuador, they had not known each other previously.
The two began dating and Chiriboga said their common life objectives and her goal-oriented drive is what attracted him to her.
They married in March 2011. Briceno Ron joined Chiriboga at Scott AFB and the two would move to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, before moving to Columbus AFB several months ago.
Briceno Ron’s journey
Before becoming accustomed with military life, Briceno Ron and her family moved to Long Island from Guayaquil, Ecuador, when she was 12.
Growing up, Briceno Ron said her family lived in Ecuador during a time when they changed from Ecuadorian currency to the U.S. dollar. Young at the time, Briceno Ron said, “When you are a kid you don’t notice stuff, but my mom said it was pretty rough.”
She said her mom did a good job of never portraying the family was in trouble.
After arriving in New York, Briceno Ron also said the language barrier and American culture proved to be obstacles, just like during her husband’s transition.
After attending a primarily Hispanic middle school, she said the transition to high school was more difficult because not many people spoke Spanish.
“It was really hard to communicate with people … I was kind of like thrown in there to learn,” she said.
The big-city landscape was also an adjustment. Briceno Ron said the part of Ecuador in which she grew up was nothing close to a big city and Long Island was a 360-degree change for her.
“It was a different culture, I was used to little tiny Ecuador,” she said.
After high school, Briceno Ron earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology. But school proved to be costly and she said it was time to look at another approach to help further her education, because she wants to earn her doctorate in clinical psychology.
That’s where the Air Force came in.
“I wanted to join for school, education; I wanted a way to pay for my doctorate,” she said.
Her husband, who at the time had eight years of service, was able to prepare Briceno Ron and ensure she was ready for the voyage ahead of her.
“He did a pretty good job of telling me ‘here’s what to do,’” she said.
Briceno Ron started basic military training in July 2016 and less than six months later she was in Memphis, Tennessee, accompanied by her husband, giving her Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.
She said giving her oath was a time filled with “mixed emotions, because I am the first one in my family to be a U.S. citizen. It [felt] good.”
Briceno Ron said her decision to join the Air force more than a year ago has opened many doors.
“I’m definitely grateful and I’m definitely thankful for the opportunities that has brought up for me,” she said, “like my citizenship and by being able to do more than just being a resident.”
One thing she can now do is set her sights on her doctorate and go for her goal of being in the Air Force as a commissioned officer, something she said she couldn’t do before obtaining her citizenship.