Hispanic Vista
April 28, 2003

They Died Trying to Become Students - The Future for Latinos in an Era of War and Occupation


                          By JORGE MARISCAL
                          With the U.S. assault on Iraq moving from the invasion to the
                          occupation phase and the saber rattling continuing to echo out of
                          Pentagon, it is time to reflect on where the Latino community in
                          the United States finds itself within the larger context of the New
                          World Order.
                          Like many working class youth, Latinos and Latinas who buy
                          into the vision of military service as a short cut to college or job
                          training are simply looking for a way to grab a piece of the
                          American Dream. But the reality of that Dream continues to be
                          relatively distant for the Chicano/Mexicano community. More
                          specifically, alternatives to military
                          service available to Mexicano youth are significantly fewer than
                          for other groups. Until this fact is understood, the fundamental
                          injustice of Mexican and Chicano youth dying to "liberate" Iraq
                          (or any other developing nation) cannot be fully grasped.
                          One of the more remarked upon facts during the early days of
                          the war was the number of Spanish-surnamed soldiers and
                          marines killed or missing in action. The sense that Latino
                          communities were disproportionately sacrificing their youth once
                          again, as they had in Viet Nam, was widespread. Media outlets
                          began to comment on the fact that Latinos in
                          the military are over represented in combat and supply units
                          (especially in the Army and Marines) and thus more likely to see
                          hazardous duty.
                          The American public learned that thousands of non-citizens
                          were now in the U.S. military (approximately 3% of enlisted
                          personnel, a third of whom are from Latin America). The Bush
                          administration had established a fast track naturalization process
                          for foreign recruits in July 2002 as part of the "war on terror."
                          Instead of waiting three years before applying for citizenship,
                          green-card holders in the armed forces who entered after
                          September 11, 2001 could apply immediately for citizenship.
                          Such offers are often granted in limited form during periods of
                          "military hostilities" (This week John McCain, Ted Kennedy,
                          and eight other senators introduced a
                          bill that would reduce permanently the waiting period from three
                          to two years and provide benefits for non-citizen spouses of
                          non-citizen soldiers killed in action).
                          Although the Bush Executive Order contained no guarantees
                          that citizen status would be granted or even expedited, the
                          rumor that automatic citizenship was being granted for military
                          service began to circulate in Latino communities both here and
                          abroad. The number of permanent resident enlistees jumped
                          from 300 a month before the fast track reform to 1,300 a
                          month. Mexican nationals reportedly flooded consulates
                          attempting to volunteer.
                          Both citizen and non-citizen recruits most often enlist as a way to
                          get an education, seduced by the recruiters' promise of technical
                          training or money for college contingent upon an honorable
                          discharge. For the permanent residents who found themselves in
                          Iraq, their circuitous path to college carried them from Latin
                          America to the U.S.to Baghdad,
                          al-Nasiriyah, and Mosul. Some of them will not be attending
                          classes as they and their families had hoped. Instead they died in
                          the line of duty and subsequently received posthumous
                          citizenship amidst much fanfare and flag-waving.
                          Many in Latino communities, including some parents of the fallen
                          soldiers, sought refuge in traditional patriotic sentiments. The
                          father of colombiano Diego Rincón, an Army private killed in a
                          suicide bombing, was quoted as saying "The only thing that
                          keeps me going now is to make sure that he's buried as an
                          American. That will be my dream come
                          true" (USA Today, 4/9/03).
                          Writing on the HispanicVista.com*  website about the death of
                          Guatemalan national José Gutiérrez, Gil Contreras wrapped
                          himself in the flag, "honor," and "Semper Fi" before criticizing
                          Chicano and Chicana antiwar protestors for complaining too
                          much. The subtitle of Contreras's article made the cynical
                          assertion that Latino casualties proved that "Latinos can be more
                          than gang members & criminals." Not unlike assimilationists from
                          earlier periods, Contreras apparently prefers dead heroes to
                          living and productive citizens.
                          For other Latinas and Latinos, the bestowal of posthumous
                          citizenship was bitterly ironic. Did Mexican or Central American
                          immigrants have to die to win the approval of the majority of
                          American society? Or as an old Chicano ballad from the Viet
                          Nam war put it: "Now should a man/Should he have to kill/In
                          order to live/Like a human being/ In this
                          If Latinos were good enough for military service (so much so
                          that the military academies continue to employ affirmative action
                          policies), why were they not good enough to receive a decent
                          Finally, how could one reconcile the fact that foreign nationals
                          from Latin America were fighting with the U.S. military in Iraq at
                          the same time that armed vigilante "ranchers" hunted Mexican
                          workers along the Mexico-Arizona border for sport?
                          Despite the fact that Latino communities were divided on the
                          issue, initiatives for expedited citizenship began to proliferate.
                          Two senators from Georgia, where the Latino population
                          increased by 299.6% during the decade of the 1990s,
                          introduced a bill that would make posthumous citizenship
                          Leaders in the Catholic Church made similar recommendations.
                          Little was said about the fact that posthumous citizenship was a
                          purely symbolic gesture with no rights or privileges accruing to
                          the deceased person's family (Last week, Representative Darrell
                          Issa (R-Ca) proposed automatic citizenship for the surviving
                          spouse and children of non-citizen soldiers killed in battle and
                          given posthumous citizenship).
                          WHY LATINOS AND LATINAS ENLIST
                          "Why should you consider getting an education in the Navy?"
                          [cut to aerial shot of aircraft carrier] "This is one of your
                          classrooms." -- U.S. Navy television ad, April 2003
                          On one level, Latino and Latina GIs are no different from other
                          poor youth drawn into the web spun by military recruiters. It has
                          been widely reported that former POW Jessica Lynch, the
                          daughter of a poor family from Appalachia, joined because she
                          wanted to be a teacher.
                          According to his former mentor, the young man from
                          Guatemala, José Gutiérrez, joined the Marines to get an
                          education. Twenty-one year old Francisco Martinez Flores,
                          killed when his tank fell into the Euphrates, enlisted so that he
                          could go to college and become a stockbroker or an FBI agent,
                          according to his friends (Betsy Streisand, "Latin Heroes,"
                          U.S. News and World Report, 4/14/03). In short, what
                          motivated these young people to enlist was less the defense of
                          "our freedom" or "honor" than it was simply to increase their
                          access to a decent education and a better life.
                          The myth that the primary mission of the armed forces is
                          education was given a boost by former Secretary of the Army
                          Louis Caldera during the Clinton years. Throughout the 1990s,
                          the Army was not meeting its enlistment quotas. Caldera and
                          Pentagon planners realized that Latinos were the fastest growing
                          population in terms of young people of military age, and they
                          began to pitch the Army's program offering to pay for GED
                          certificate training (roughly equivalent to a high school diploma).
                          The goal, according to Caldera, was to increase access to the
                          "Hispanic market" as a major recruiting pool. Aircraft carriers
                          became "classrooms."
                          The promise of education sat in an uneasy relationship to other
                          more traditional messages having to do with what the Pentagon
                          perceived to be Latino "machismo." The racializing undertones
                          of this approach cannot be ignored. An article in the ArmyLink
                          News pointed out that many of the surnames on the Viet Nam
                          memorial were Spanish and that three soldiers captured during
                          the Kosovo conflict were of Mexican descent. The author's
                          conclusion? -"By these and many other measures, Hispanics are
                          one of America's more martially inclined ethnic groups" (Sydney
                          J. Freedberg, Jr., "Not Enough GI Joses," ArmyLink News,
                          August 1999).
                          Some recruiters reported that even those Mexican American
                          recruits who "tested out of the infantry" (i.e., scored high enough
                          to qualify for other military jobs) opted to enter the infantry
                          anyway (this despite a 1999 RAND study that explained low
                          numbers of minorities in Special Operations units because of
                          their "preference for occupations with less risk"). Caldera
                          himself claimed that Hispanics were "predisposed" to military
                          service even as he argued that the Army provided the "best
                          education in the world."

                          And so the Pentagon launched a massive publicity campaign
                          targeting the Hispanic market. "$30,000 for college" claimed the
                          glitzy ads although the fine print did not point out that very few
                          veterans would ever see such amounts of money. Nor was it
                          mentioned that longitudinal studies show that people who go
                          directly to college earn more money over the length of a career
                          than those who enter the military first. "Education" became the
                          recruiter's buzzword because the Pentagon had learned from
                          studies contracted out to the Rand Corporation and other think
                          tanks that Latino and Latina recruits joined the military primarily
                          in search of "civilian job transferability."
                          With the possible exception of careers in law enforcement,
                          however, small arms expertise and truck driving did not translate
                          well into civilian success. Military service does not close the
                          economic gaps separating the majority of Latinos from the rest
                          of society but
                          potentially widens them.
                          CHICANOS/MEXICANOS AND THE LACK OF
                          According to the September 2002 Interim Report of the
                          President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for
                          Hispanic Americans, ethnic Mexicans in the United States fall
                          below every other Latino group "on almost every social and
                          economic indicator." First-generation Mexican immigrants, who
                          make up 54% of all legal Latin American immigrants, have
                          significantly reduced life chances than their U.S. born Mexican
                          American counterparts. High-school drop out rates of around
                          30% for U.S. born Mexican Americans are bad enough, but the
                          rate more than doubles to 61% for new immigrants.
                          Although Mexican Americans do better in the field of education
                          than their recently arrived counterparts, when their educational
                          achievement is compared to every other Latino subgroup they
                          lag behind. Among all Latinos over the age of 25, for example,
                          only 10.8% of ethnic Mexicans hold a Bachelor degree or
                          higher compared to 13.9% for Puerto Ricans and 18.1% for
                          Cuban Americans (2002 Interim Report).
                          Although Latinos have a high rate of participation in the labor
                          force, over 11% of Latino workers live in poverty. About 7% of
                          Latinos with full-time jobs were still living below the poverty line
                          in 2001 (compared to 4.4% of African Americans and 1.7% for
                          whites). Among all private sector employees in the U.S., 41.5%
                          are considered blue collar, but 63.5% of all Latinos hold blue
                          collar jobs (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
                          1998). In 2002, 61% of all workers in agricultural production
                          were Latinos, the vast majority of Mexican descent. While
                          nearly 11% of non-Hispanic whites earn more than $75,000 a
                          year, only 2% of all Latinos earn as much. Among all high
                          graduates who attend graduate and professional programs,
                          Latinos make up only 1.9% (compared to 3% Black, 3.8%
                          Whites, and 8.8% Asian).
                          One could elaborate further this bleak picture of what the future
                          holds for Latino communities. The paucity of good union jobs
                          and the decline in public funding for cultural workers only adds
                          to the sense of diminished opportunities. Is it any wonder, in the
                          face of these daunting material conditions, that young Latino and
                          Latina faces are filling the lowest ranks of the military in the
                          lowest-tech occupations? As they do so, the pipeline of Latino
                          and Latina teachers, doctors, and other professionals continues
                          to dry up, a fact that will have devastating consequences for our
                          communities for decades to come.
                          So Latino blood now flows in the ancient waters of the Tigris
                          and Euphrates. A historical irony of stunning proportions--that
                          the spirits of the descendants of the great indigenous civilizations
                          of Mesoamerica now mingle with those of the heirs of ancient
                          What can we say of the young Latino men who sacrificed their
                          lives in Iraq? That they fought without knowing their enemy,
                          played their role as pawns in a geopolitical chess game devised
                          by arrogant bureaucrats, and died simply trying to get an
                          education; trying to have a fair shot at the American Dream that
                          has eluded the vast majority of Latinos for over a century and a
                          half; dying as soldiers who just wanted to be students.

                          Jorge Mariscal is a Viet Nam veteran who wonders how much
                          longer Latinos will have to die on the battlefield before they are
                          granted the basic opportunities promised to all citizens. Contact
                          at: gmariscal@ucsd.edu