Mexican-born soldiers take separate paths home
One Iraq fighter returns to celebrate as another comes back for burial
By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News
SAN LUIS DE LA PAZ, Mexico – It was a sobering Fourth of July for two members of the U.S. Armed Forces: one came home to his mother's warm hug, the second to the tears and pain of his surviving family.
On Sunday, with fellow U.S. Marines carrying his flag-draped casket, Lance Cpl. Juan Lopez Rangel was buried in his beloved hometown in this central state of Guanajuato. He was killed in a strange land half a world away, fighting for a country he barely knew, yet had eagerly embraced as his own.
In contrast, 200 miles north in the state of Zacatecas, U.S. Army artillery Spc. Roy Almeida also came home to celebrate his Fourth of July birthday. A few days before, while his mother was making his favorite guacamole tacos, the young soldier learned of Cpl. Lopez's death. He paused for a minute, fighting tears.
"It's sad, real sad, awful, I just hope that my name doesn't appear on that list [of dead] someday," he said. "Many lives would be devastated on both sides of the border."
The funeral of a U.S. Marine and the birthday homecoming of an Army soldier on Mexican soil – on the most American of holidays – epitomized the borderless lives of these young men who never met, but who lived parallel lives in two nations they called home.
Spc. Almeida is a U.S. citizen, born in 1983 to undocumented workers
in Torrance, Calif., and reared in Mexico before finally settling in Duncan,
Cpl. Lopez, 22, a legal resident, was posthumously awarded U.S. citizenship Sunday. He was laid to rest in San Luis de la Paz, 170 miles north of Mexico City, amid flags, Marines and traditional Mexican songs and ceremonies.
A life lived on both sides of the border culminated during his funeral procession. His elementary school marching band, where Mr. Lopez once played the trumpet, led the way. Mariachis played Mexican fight songs and traditional farewell songs. Marines who flew in from Camp Pendleton, Calif., including three from his platoon, stoically followed the hearse through the narrow streets to San Luis Del Rey de Francia Catholic Church.
"My brother was as Mexican as salsa and tequila," said his brother Enrigue, 37. "But he loved his new country, too, especially his Marine brothers."
A crowd of hundreds of people overflowed from the church to the town square to bid farewell to their native son, who was killed in Iraq June 21 along with three fellow Marines when they were ambushed on a street in Ramadi.
Still, for all of the community pride exhibited here over their sons' military service, the Mexican homecomings also brought to the surface deep divisions over the war in Iraq, contradictory views of the United States and even its immigrants.
Cpl. Lopez's family's request to give their son Juan a burial with full honors, complete with a 21-gun salute, was turned down by the Mexican military. The Mexican Constitution prohibits foreign soldiers from bearing arms here.
In fact, the honor ceremony flared into a brief confrontation when at least 14 Mexican soldiers surrounded the U.S. entourage, including the U.S. Marines whose color guard had carried ceremonial rifles – "toy guns," one U.S. official said.
The incident, in which the soldiers detained the Marines for at least 40 minutes, escalated into a brief shoving exchange between a Mexican soldier and a U.S. Marine. A phone call "from someone very high ranking" in Mexico City, ended the standoff. U.S. officials would not say who made the call.
Townsfolk then cheered the Marines, clapping and blowing kisses.
For many Mexicans, powerful images of Marines, marching with Gen. Zachary Taylor in 1847 from Veracruz to Mexico City remain etched in the national memory. That invasion is still recounted to Mexican schoolchildren.
Spc. Almeida confessed that when he returns home he doesn't speak of the war in Iraq, despite his growing doubts and questions about it.
"We found no weapons of mass destruction, so why are we still there? What are we defending?" he asked in English, so his family and friends wouldn't understand.
With them, he prefers to focus on childhood memories and dote on his mother.
"No one understands that this is my duty, my job," he said.
Although both men fought a war that their homeland opposed, neither forgot their deep roots in Mexico, even if they left the country because it could not offer them a future.In 1997, Cpl. Lopez headed to Dalton, Ga., where he joined the half of his family that was toiling in the rug business.
A year later, Spc. Almeida joined his sisters in Oklahoma.
Right out of high school, Cpl. Lopez joined the Marines; Mr. Almeida the Army. Both did a tour of Iraq in 2003 and returned, often crisscrossing the border to visit family.
Mr. Lopez was home for the last time in December. He came to celebrate Christmas with his family and to marry Sandra Torres, dressed in his Marine uniform, his brothers and local residents recalled.
Now that he is gone, Cpl. Lopez's wife, an undocumented immigrant, will
"be taken care of," a U.S. Embassy official said, but he declined to elaborate.
Two months later Mr. Lopez, who was attached to the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment at Camp Pendleton, Calif., returned for a second tour of Iraq before he fell to bullets. On that evening of June 21, as his cousins back in San Luis de la Paz, watched the news on Mexican television they saw the fuzzy images and the body of what looked like Mr. Lopez.
"My heart just sank when the news was confirmed," said his cousin, Octavio, a school teacher here.
San Luis de la Paz, like dozens more in this state, is steeped in immigration. The town of more than 50,000 people has deep ties to cities like Dallas, Dalton, Houston and Los Angeles.
La Encarnacion, Zacatecas is no different. The town is almost completely empty of working age men who work in the United States, most of them illegally.
Ironically, Mr. Almeida is also fighting for a country where his parents and half his family are not welcomed. They're also illegal immigrants. When he visits home he makes an 18-hour bus trip from Oklahoma. When he leaves, the family flocks to the border in Nuevo Laredo to give him their blessing and embrace him.
"Yeah, I get at angry at times," he said. "But what can I do?"
On this visit, aside from celebrating his birthday he's also introducing his bride, Normal Contreras, 21, to his family. As the time ticks away, the butterflies grow, the sadness over the approaching dreaded goodbye cast a shadow. Mr. Almeida's mother, Leticia Marquez, finally breaks the silence with her tears. The family bows their heads.
"Oh God, all that I ask is that you protect him," she said, as Roy hugs her. "I put my self in the shoes of these other parents (Lopez family) and I don't know how they can cope, how I would cope. I think I would go crazy if something happened to him."
Mr. Almeida, who returns to his base in Fort Benning, Ga., before awaiting a transfer to Iraq this fall, tries to assure her, drying her tears and whispering, "I love you mom. I'll be back."
"Yes," she said. "But I want you back alive."