After years of dedication, study and commitment, Juan Pablo Soto is the first Latino promoted to the rank of battalion chief.
Born in Guatemala, Soto first came to the U.S. with the dream to follow his father's footsteps into a branch of the U.S. military.
"I moved to the United States when I was 18. Thankfully, English was taught to me when I went to school in Guatemala, but little of the vocabulary I learned had anything to do with the fire service. I didn't know what a hydrant was. I didn't know what a sledgehammer was, nothing related to being a firefighter."
Soto carried a dual citizenship in Guatemala and the U.S. His father, also a Guatemalan, was a U.S. Marine in the 1950s and received his U.S. citizenship while serving the country and then returned to Guatemala after his service was completed. A child born in a foreign country to U.S. citizen parents may be both a U.S. citizen and a citizen of the country of birth.
"I was living with my sister in Charlotte, and my intent was to join the Marines. I was busing tables at the Marriott, and I met Sammy. We talked and he told me that I should think about being a firefighter. The jobs sounded similar, and I wouldn't need to be shipped out. I thought I would give it a try."
'Sammy' is now Charlotte Fire Deputy Chief Samuel Jones. At the time in 2002, Jones was himself a Charlotte Fire firefighter.
A year after moving to Charlotte, Soto passed his entrance test to Charlotte Fire and then began recruit school in 2003.
"The first day I showed up at recruit school I didn't know what was going to happen. Fire service in Guatemala is completely different. They are mostly volunteers and don't get paid. I didn't know if I was going to get paid here and if I'd be able to survive the entire recruit school with no money," Soto said.
Fortunately, Charlotte Fire recruits are paid during their training.
"I had a great bunch of guys who helped me in recruit school. I would write down words every day and they would help me understand. I didn't know what a tanker was, a hydrant and I'd never held a chain saw in my life," he said. "Those guys were so much help, and many are still like family to me today."
Although Soto didn't intend to make fire service a career, he said that the reason he wanted to stay was because of the family atmosphere he felt from everyone connected to the organization.
"It has been unbelievable. I only had my sister here in Charlotte, and from the beginning this became my family. They have taken me under their wings, and they taught me the culture," Soto said.
Now 20 years later, Soto is being pinned by Charlotte Fire Chief Reginald Johnson with a new badge with the bold words "Battalion Chief" embossed on it.
"For a firefighter to listen to you when you tell them to go into a burning building, they must trust you, feel confident in you and respect you, and Chief Soto has done that," said Johnson. "This is a historic day for Charlotte as we promote the first Latino battalion chief."
Johnson said that it has been a challenge to recruit a diverse group of employees, but he and his staff are intentional and dedicated to ensuring Charlotte Fire reflects the residents of the city.
"We just started an accelerated recruit program. The program will recruit firefighters from diverse areas like Miami, Atlanta and Washington D.C. and have them come and work in the Queen City," Johnson said.
Currently less than 1% of Charlotte firefighters are Hispanic. Since 2010, the state of North Carolina has seen a 40% increase in the Hispanic population, according to the 2020 Census. More specifically, in Mecklenburg County, the Hispanic population accounted for some of the highest growth out of any other ethnic population over the last 10 years. In Charlotte, Latinos make up 14% of the population.
"Our goal is to bring more diversity and inclusion to the department as well as those who live in this community," Johnson said. "We continue to create an inclusive environment for our employees because every culture brings with it unique and valuable perspectives."
"When I'm able to go to a scene and am able to communicate with someone who doesn't speak English, you can see a feeling of relief on their face," Soto said. "It could be one of the worst days of their life, so being able to lessen the burden of a language barrier is a huge comfort."
One of those moments for Soto was within the first year on the job as a firefighter when his crew was called to a scene of an animal attack on a young boy who was 6 or 7 years old.
"I remember it was a very traumatic. I was treating him and getting in the ambulance with him. I was riding with him to the hospital because I was the only one that was able to speak to him. I was the only one that could tell the parents what was going on. I'll never forget it," Soto said.
Today with 20 years behind him, Soto is surrounded by his family including those who traveled to witness his promotion. He is also joined by a large contingent of his Charlotte Fire family who will now see history happening before their eyes as the first Latino battalion chief is installed in the department.
"I feel proud. More than anything, I think that my boys being able see this and eventually understand what a turning point this is for a Latino firefighter to become a chief. It's hard to put into words, but there is a sense of pride for my kids, for my family, for my people, for my friends and those who are still in Guatemala that they will now see this as a possibility."