RICHMOND, Va. –
Pfc. Cristian Contreras-Olaya moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, when he was just 4-years-old. Born in Colombia, he said his mother, a single parent at the time of their move, wanted to provide a better life for him and sister. Today, Contreras serves in the Virginia Army National Guard as an 88M Motor Transport Operator in the Virginia Beach-based 1173rd Transportation Company, 529th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 329th Regional Support Group.
“The Virginia Army National Guard sparked my interest, especially the benefits," he said, explaining that he first learned of the National Guard when he was a freshman in high school. By the next year, he knew he wanted to join. He enlisted after his junior year and attended Basic Combat Training before starting his senior year and completing his high school career. Next, he plans to study business and marketing at Old Dominion University, where he also hopes to play soccer.
Early in life, Contreras developed a deep love of soccer. He was 8-years-old when Colombia qualified for the World Cup.
“That’s what started it,” Contreras said. “I saw my country playing and said to myself, 'I want to be this guy.' The World Cup brought out the soccer in me, I’ve been playing ever since."
During Hispanic Heritage Month, Contreras said he takes time out to reflect on his home country, on the traditions there and the people.
“Colombia is one of those countries that has everything,” he said. “Mountains, beaches, the city; it’s considered one of the most beautiful countries in the world.”
With many members of his family still in Colombia, Contreras says he tries to visit at least once a year.
“Just getting to see everyone gathered together is great,” he said. “We’ll fit close to 40 people into a small room and talk for hours. Family is a big thing over there.”
Throughout the year, that family celebrates several unique holidays, including Dia de las Velitas, or Day off the Little Candles.
"You take many candles and each one represents a specific person," Contreras said. "You think of that person as you place the candle down.”
Food, always, is a big part of holiday celebrations. Fried bread balls, called buñuelos, are a traditional Colombian Christmas treat, but Contreras says they’re popular year-round.
“We love our bread, especially for breakfast," he said. "The typical breakfast in Colombia is hot chocolate with bread.”
Contreras said his favorite Colombian dish is called bandeja paisa, a platter with sausage, ground beef, rice, red beans, fried pork rinds, plantains and avocado all topped with a fried egg. Contreras said it’s something any carnivore will enjoy.