Fighting 'Their War'
For Soldiers With Mexican Roots, A Struggle of Pride vs. Heritage
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
FORT BLISS, Tex. -- Knapsacks and M-16 rifles for 125 U.S. Army soldiers
were laid in neat rows on a gymnasium floor as another group prepared to
for the Middle East. Amid the hugs and tears and crying babies, many families sat chatting softly with each other in Spanish, tucking Mexican music tapes and novels
into their duffels and packing away medals of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.
"There are a lot of us," said Sgt. Juan Delgado, 27, a Mexican-born
Patriot missile system technician who came to the United States when he
was 3 years old but
became a U.S. citizen just last year. "We're not all illegals," said Delgado, sitting on a gym bleacher with his 2-month-old son and his wife, Judith, who speaks only
Spanish. "I'm an American and I'm proud to be a soldier."
The number of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the U.S. military is
growing, perhaps nowhere more visibly than here on the United States' largest
a 1,700-square-mile expanse of desert and hills. Soldiers with Mexican backgrounds make up the overwhelming majority of some units here, mirroring the general
off-base population in the border city of El Paso.
For many of those troops, serving in the U.S. military is a source of
pride, but also of deep personal conflict. They wrestle with the weight
of culture and a tradition in
which Mexican nationalism has long been measured by opposition to its powerful northern neighbor. Mexican public opinion is overwhelmingly against a war with
Iraq. President Vicente Fox has said Mexico, which holds a seat on the U.N. Security Council, will oppose unilateral U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein.
In a country with a deep reluctance to get involved in conflicts outside its borders, the antiwar sentiment is raw and passionate.
"My family in Mexico says, 'What are you doing?' " said Sgt. Alfonso Villalobos, also a Patriot missile technician. "But I'm here now and I'm an American."
Fort Bliss is just over a mile from Ciudad Juarez, where criticism of
the war is especially vocal because of concern that any terrorist attack
against Fort Bliss or El
Paso would affect the people there. Heightened states of alert in the United States also mean hours of delay for hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who cross the
border legally each day to work, study or shop.
"The Mexicans in the U.S. Army are trapped between two walls," said
Delgado's mother-in-law, Rosa Isela Chavez, interviewed by telephone at
her home in the
railway junction city of Parral, 300 miles south of the border in Chihuahua state. "They have Mexican heritage on one hand and duty to the United States on the
other. It's a very hard place to be."
She said the war is a strictly American desire -- she calls it "their
war." She is upset to think that her daughter's husband might end up dying
in the service of
President Bush and the United States.
"It's his job. But I don't like what he is going to do," she said. "I
don't like this war. I don't like Bush. He is hurting the world. He doesn't
realize the harm he is doing
to everyone. I believe Saddam can be disarmed without a war."
In news widely reported in Mexico, Spc. Rodrigo Gonzalez Garza, 26,
a U.S. soldier born in the Mexican state of Coahuila, was killed Tuesday
with three other
soldiers when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Kuwait.
Soldiers from Fort Bliss would be a key component in a war in Iraq.
The desert base is home to the Patriot antimissile system, which is being
deployed in Middle
East countries within range of Iraqi missiles. More than 4,000 troops from Fort Bliss have already been sent overseas.
Defense Department officials said that the number of Mexicans and Mexican
Americans on active duty has increased from 39,000 in 1993, just after
the Persian Gulf
War, to 55,400. Permanent residents of the United States are eligible for military service, so some Mexican soldiers have not yet become U.S. citizens.
However, military service can benefit those seeking citizenship. Immigration
waiting periods and residence requirements can be waived for veterans of
service, streamlining approval of their citizenship applications.
Overall, nearly 9 percent of enlisted men and women in the Army, Marines,
Navy and Air Force were Hispanic in the year 2000, up from 4.7 percent
according to Department of Defense statistics.
According to the 2000 Census, about a quarter of all Texans are of Mexican
heritage. In El Paso, the official number is 64 percent, but local officials
-- nearly all of
whom are Mexican Americans -- say the true number is far higher.
A spokeswoman at Fort Bliss, Jean Offutt, said some National Guard and
Reserve units here are as much as 80 percent Mexican. And civilian employees
the shops, bowling alleys and dining halls are overwhelmingly Mexican.
There is a certain irony to the large Mexican American presence at Fort
Bliss. The base was founded in 1848, just after the two-year U.S.-Mexican
resulted in the United States taking about half of Mexico's territory, including Texas, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. Mexicans are taught in school
that the war was an unjust land grab.
Olga Olivia Marcus, 20, a Juarez resident, has several cousins who are
U.S. soldiers at Fort Bliss. She said they joined the Army simply because
they couldn't find
other jobs in an increasingly unforgiving economy.
"I understand that they need work," she said during an interview a few
yards from the border on the Mexican side. "But a lot of people find it
hard to understand
why, if they are Mexicans, are they fighting for the United States?"
But the choice to join the U.S. Army often is about economics rather than history or nationalism.
Sgt. Luis Francisco Soliz, 29, was working at a Burger King two years
ago when he decided to join the Army. Soliz, whose mother was Mexican and
is Mexican American, had wanted to work for the FBI, the U.S. Border Patrol or another federal law enforcement agency. But none would hire him, and he had
grander ambitions than flipping burgers. So he enlisted.
"To be honest, a lot of people in Mexico look down on us because we're
soldiers," Soliz said as he was saying his goodbyes to his father and other
in the base gym. "But it's not my fault that I was born in the United States. If Mexicans on the other side of the border were in my shoes, they'd feel the same way."
Soliz saw early on that joining the military was a way around anti-Mexican
discrimination and could lead to a higher-paying civilian job after he
got out. His father,
Margarito Lopez Soliz, a retired professor from the University of Texas at El Paso, fought in the Army during the Korean War.
"I joined the Army because in Illinois in those days they would only
hire me as a garbage man," said the father, whose parents immigrated from
state to Illinois in the early 20th century to help build railroads.
The younger Soliz's aunt, Mary McLaughlin, a Mexican married to an Irish
American, came to see him off as well. At 77, she said she has watched
Mexicans serve proudly in the U.S. military, although they faced discrimination in their daily lives.
She said she lived for 44 years in Silvis, Ill., on a street called
Second Street, known then as Little Mexico. She remembered that when she
school, she and seven other Mexican children in her class were forced to sit at a separate table. She said there was discrimination against Mexicans in hiring
everywhere except in the military.
More than 100 men and women from her street fought in World War II,
the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and the street has since been renamed
USA. Nationwide, 40 people of Hispanic origin, most of them Mexican Americans, have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for
military valor, according to the Veterans Affairs Department.
In a sign of the upward mobility of many of the Mexicans, the Mexican
American community has raised $300,000 to build a memorial to their sons
who fought in U.S. uniforms.
Asked if she considered herself an American patriot, McLaughlin said,
"Praise the Lord, of course I am. Jobs in the military have always improved
our lives, and
that's why I am happy to see Luis Francisco in the Army."
With that, she kissed her nephew good-bye. Hours later he boarded a plane for the Middle East.