U.S. Latino troops march to salsa beat in Iraq
By Saul Hudson / The Associated Press
TIKRIT, Iraq - Hips snapping from side to side and feet stepping nimbly back and forth, Cesar lifts Milena's hands above her head, spins her around, twirls underneath her arms and twists her round again.
"Faster, faster! Shake it, shake it!" his friends shout, laughing, clapping and banging beer bottles on tables as Cesar shows off his latest salsa moves and Milena follows with sweat running down her flushed cheeks.
The music ends, the crowd roars in approval and Cesar returns to his spot by the dimly lighted bar, sitting down with a satisfied grin next to his helmet, flak jacket and semi-automatic rifle.
For Sgt. Maj. Cesar Castro and the other U.S. soldiers hunting deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in his hometown of Tikrit, this is a night off -- "rest and relax" Latin style.
Several hundred Latinos make up half of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment, based at a palace complex in Tikrit. When off-duty they teach their white and black comrades Spanish, salsa and how to cook their favorite dish of rice and beans.
Once a week the battalion, which usually runs around-the-clock patrols and pre-dawn raids to counter guerrilla mine, grenade and mortar attacks, drinks non-alcoholic beer and dances past midnight at the base's recreation center.
"It's our Latin blood, we love to dance. It makes us feel like we're back home," Sgt. Daniel Cruz said.
Capt. Troy Parrish from Minnesota does not know the Latin steps and just watches the men from Colombia, Mexico and Puerto Rico in their desert fatigues and sand-colored army boots as they spin the heavily outnumbered women soldiers to exhaustion.
A few days earlier, they celebrated Parrish's birthday by tying him
up, throwing water on him and rolling him in the dirt. "There's so many
of them, they ganged up on me," Parrish said laughing.
Latinos in the United States overtook African Americans as the largest ethnic minority in the latest census in 2000. Ten percent of the army's enlisted soldiers are Latinos, roughly in line with their proportion in the U.S. labor force, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, which tracks population trends.
The battalion of Saddam-hunters has so many Latinos because its U.S. base is Fort Hood in Texas. Many soldiers request to be posted close to home in the state that borders Mexico and has one of the largest Latino populations.
The battalion's top enlisted soldier, Command Sgt. Maj. Salvador Martinez -- who only knew "hello" and "bye" in English when he joined the Army 27 years ago -- said Latinos have a strong sense of family that helps them work well in teams.
Lt. Col. Steve Russell said the Latino dominance in the battalion he commands reflected the values of a nation forged by immigrants.
"As Americans, we stand from all different backgrounds united. We do
not suffer from the hatred of differences that we see in so many of the
places we serve," Russell said. "It's the strength of our nation."
Latinos must be legal residents but do not have to be U.S. citizens to join the Army and in fact, military service can help a U.S. passport application.
While many Latino troops say they are proud to have toppled Saddam, they do not show the unflinching patriotism to the United States of some non-Latino comrades. Whether born and raised abroad or in the United States, many say they do not consider themselves American.
Spc. Herimberto Pena from Texas has no accent when he speaks in English and his skin is fairer than most men at the salsa night. The others make fun of those differences calling him a "gringo." "Hell no, I'm Mexican," he snaps back.
While the Army creates a home-away-from-home for other soldiers with burgers in the mess hall and baseball in the TV lounges, the Latinos say they long for tortillas and never get to watch the soccer they love.
Lt. Israel Guzman, a graduate of the officers' training school at West Point, said he is fighting in Iraq to defend the
freedoms that he cherishes in the United States and that he hopes will one day take hold fully across Latin America.
"Ideals such as democracy and human rights do not have flags or frontiers," he said.
And for many Latinos, serving under the stars and stripes is a gesture of gratitude to the nation that took them in.
Spc. Gersain Garcia remembers as a 7-year-old how his sister used to suffer asthma attacks in heavily polluted Mexico City, gasping for breath with her lips turning blue. His family moved to California and the attacks stopped.
"The United States saved my sister's life," said Garcia, who is not
a U.S. citizen. "For me, being here is my way of giving a little back."