How spiritual hikes, military deployments and samba help Esmeralda Ayala strike out on her own

The open air at South Valley Park in Littleton provided a great start to Esmerelda Ayala’s day. The natural setting was beaming as brightly as she was when she began her full day of reflection, motivation and movement.

That meant starting with a three-mile hike with the appropriate supplies: water, snacks, and a book of devotionals. The hike gave Ayala a chance to reflect on God.

“Honestly, whether it’s verbally or written or in my mind, it’s just kind of like a time where I’m appreciative and thankful for everything that (God has) done before, is doing now and will do,” Ayala said.

In highlighting her spiritual connection with the outdoors, Ayala, 32, traced how she arrived at this point of her life. A native of Newark, New Jersey, the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, she joined the Air Force after high school and is now a staff sergeant. She was stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey before moving to Colorado three years ago.

“My dad lives in Loveland, and I’ve been here before, and I fell in love with it,” Ayala said.

She had been working at the same time for the Department of Veterans Affairs, serving in the Colorado Air National Guard in logistics at Buckley Space Force Base in Aurora and working from home as a freelance virtual assistant. That virtual assistant business, The Curly VA, is now her full-time job, and she keeps up with her military obligations with the reserve.

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While the Guard was not on the day’s schedule, an upcoming assignment was on Ayala’s mind – she will be deployed to the Middle East in a few months.

She is learning Arabic online as she waits for her assignment. Acquiring a new language is something Ayala does to prepare before traveling to a new location, she said, and learned about Turkey’s language and culture before being deployed there. Growing up, language was very important in her household as long as the mother tongue reigned at home.

“My parents had one rule: in the house, Spanish,” she said. “Outside the house, speak whatever you want.”

Motivation with a touch of sassiness

After the morning hike, Ayala headed to The Corner Beet in Denver for vegetarian fare and a tranquil setting for her Curly VA work. She chose a table by the front windows as she worked on her laptop.

As a digital content manager, Ayala writes newsletters, blogs and social media posts for faith-based businesses. She started The Curly VA as a side hustle the fall of 2019, with its name coming from her tightly curled hair.

“You can see me from a mile away because of this hair!” she said.

It’s part of the sassiness Ayala adds to her approach to work and spirituality. Her Curly VA Instagram feed includes motivational posts and testimonials from previous clients.

“I wanted it with everything in my soul to be able — to be like those people that can work from anywhere and can control, you know, their income,” she said. “But impostor syndrome was a huge thing.”

The coronavirus pandemic shifted the way her clients, particularly women in faith-based organizations, wanted to reach their base. That included digital outreach.

“Soon everyone’s going digital. Everyone is like, ‘OK, how do we make? How do we do?’” she said.

To become financially independent with Curly VA, Ayala created a full-time business plan and took what she said was a leap of faith.

“I’ve been traveling more,” Ayala said. “I’ve been helping my family financially more, which means the world to me.”

This flexibility also will allow Ayala to keep up with her clients as she prepared for her deployment assignment.

Making moves

Ayala wrapped up the day with three hour-long classes at Bella Diva World Dance in Glendale. Samba and belly dance lessons may not come to mind with a woman who is balancing faith work and military duties.

“When I knew I was moving to Colorado, I knew I wanted to get engrossed in Middle Eastern culture, and this was the first place that popped up,” Ayala said about the dance studio. Bella Diva artistic director Caitlin Bronza-Smith saw a video Ayala posted on Instagram performing punta, a traditional Honduran dance, and thought she should consider taking samba.

Samba combined Ayala’s love for language and culture, and Brozna-Smith commanded the class through several steps and high-tempo beats.

“I told them you were a drill instructor!” Ayala told Brozna-Smith as the class erupted into laughter.

“Left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left,” Brozna-Smith said during a dance drill.

The switch to belly dance involved a slower tempo, dancing barefoot and hearing the language and rhythm of the region where Ayala will soon be deployed.

“It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” Ayala said about the two dance forms. “Samba can’t compare to belly dance because it builds really quickly, whereas with belly dance, it’s (smoother) and sensual.”

Ayala kept moving along with instructor Anna Saakova and the rest of the class.

“She just makes you feel so beautiful and powerful even when you screwed up a combination step,” said Saakova, who is also Ayala’s samba classmate.

Ayala, looking at the busy schedule she just completed, said she thought about the goals she has set for herself.

“The reason I can do all these things is because Jesus made it possible,” she said. “Since he died for me, I will live for him.”

This story is part of The Denver Post’s Faces of the Front Range project, highlighting Coloradans with a unique story to share. Read more from this series here.

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