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IAAFA historian documents past, looks to future

IAAFA has approximately 800 gifts and artifacts displayed across its campus.

Mateo Gonzalez, IAAFA’s self-appointed historian, holds a biplane model from the Inter-American Air Forces Academy collection at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, Feb. 11, 2021. IAAFA has approximately 800 gifts and artifacts displayed across its campus. (U.S. Air Force photo by Vanessa R. Adame)

IAAFA has approximately 800 gifts and artifacts displayed across its campus.

Mateo Gonzalez, IAAFA’s self-appointed historian, points to an early photo as part of a collection of items at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy collection at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, Feb. 11, 2021. IAAFA has approximately 800 gifts and artifacts displayed across its campus. (U.S. Air Force photo by Vanessa R. Adame)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- The black and white photographs neatly arranged in a manila folder sit next to dozens of typewritten documents dating back to the 1950s. Some of the photos are visibly damaged and yellowed from time. They’re part of a collection of items that Mateo Gonzalez is documenting for the Inter-American Air Forces Academy. On this day, he’s meticulously categorizing dozens of historical pieces with a number into a spreadsheet that will ultimately link all the information about any given item.

Gonzalez, an instructor at the 318th Training Squadron, has voluntarily taken on the task to piece together IAAFA’s history for at least nine years. He’s made it his personal mission – working hours at a time in between teaching Aircraft Maintenance Officer courses – to document the story of IAAFA.

“It connects me to my culture,” Gonzales said. “It’s not a job for me.”

His interest in IAAFA’s history started after Hurricane Andrew destroyed Homestead AFB and much of Southern Florida, including the academy, in 1992. IAAFA soon relocated to JBSA-Lackland and was back in full operation 100 days later.

Gonzalez was part of a team who traveled to Homestead shortly after the disaster and recovered any memorabilia he could salvage. Those pieces ended up in a basement only to be rediscovered by Gonzalez in 2012 when the squadron moved all of its facilities into a new building.

“It was incredible,” he said. “We looked around and thought ‘Why are they in the basement?’”

Since then, Gonzalez has worked to preserve and display hundreds of pieces. The collection now spans approximately 800 gifts and artifacts, all of them spread out throughout campus, some of them gifted to the academy from former students who come from the 23 partner nations the academy supports.

“It’s part of the Latin culture, their way of saying thank you,” Gonzalez said.

A banner that reads “USAF School for Latin America” is the oldest item in its collection. The gold and burgundy poster is displayed at IAAFA Training Center along with dozens of the oldest pieces of art. 

Originally established in 1943 as the Central and South American Air School, the academy was officially designated USAF School for Latin America in 1948 until it became the Inter-American Air Forces Academy in 1966. It’s a history all IAAFA students have come to know well. 

As IAAFA celebrated 78 years March 15, Gonzalez is focused on its future along with preserving its past, as leaders continue to forge strong relationships with its partner nations.

“We are ambassadors here teaching while ensuring that national security is stabilized and most of all the economics of the country.”

In the classroom, Gonzalez sees international students working together to tackle issues and exchange ideas on problems facing their country. In these instances, it all clicks for the instructor.

“I do it because when I see my students going ‘Oh, now I get it.’ That’s my passion,” he said.