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"They Only Call Us Americans When They Need Us For War"

The Paradox of Mexican-Americans at War

by JORGE MARISCAL

A recent edition of the New York Times (June 20) reported that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hopes to promote Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez to four-star status and head of the Southern Command. Despite the fact that Sanchez was the highest-ranking officer in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, an internal Army inquiry exonerated him from any wrongdoing. According to the Times article, a key factor in the decision to promote Sanchez would be his ability to attract more young Latinos into the military.

Citing sources inside the Pentagon, the article reports that “Sanchez’s promotion would showcase the nation’s highest-ranking Hispanic officer and his compelling personal story of growing up poor in southern Texas and using the military as an escalator out of poverty, at a time when the Army is struggling to meet its recruiting quotas."

The Times quotes a senior Army officer as saying "General Sanchez, as a role model, is extremely important. The Army sells growth, opportunity and development. We cannot ignore what our population makeup is."

The “population” in this instance is the rapidly growing Latino military age cohort trapped in inferior public schools, with high drop out rates and minimal access to higher education, and the long-term target of the Pentagon’s multi-billion dollar military recruiting campaign.

History teaches us that the war record of Mexican Americans is distinguished and beyond reproach. The invasion and occupation of Iraq will extend that record into the future. But the dark side of this community’s wartime experience illuminates the contradictions at the heart of U.S. society’s treatment of its own citizens of Mexican descent.

Early in the summer of 1943 with thousands of Mexican Americans fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific, sailors attacked Mexican American youth in the streets of Los Angeles and other Southern California cities. While police stood by and conservative newspapers fed the anti-Mexican hysteria, servicemen assaulted young men and women ostensibly for wearing zoot suits and then widened their attack to the general population.

In East Los Angeles, one young Mexican American wrote: “This is supposed to be a free country. We don’t go around beating up people just because we don’t like the clothes they wear…Whose side is the Navy on anyway?”

In the summer of 1970 with thousands of Mexican Americans fighting and dying in Southeast Asia, Chicano antiwar protestors gathered in East Los Angeles to denounce the war’s impact on local communities. The 25,000 men, women, and children in attendance had just arrived in Laguna Park when L.A. County sheriffs and L.A. police tear-gassed and attacked the crowd, clubbing men and women to the ground and eventually killing three people.

Writing to a local newspaper, one G.I. in Viet Nam said: “We, the Chicano soldiers have something to say to our brothers in East Los Angeles. We were proud when we heard of the East Los Angeles demonstrations. But why did you stop there?…We sit here impatiently waiting to get home.”

In the summer of 2005 with thousands of Mexican Americans (as well as thousands of non-U.S. citizen Mexican nationals) fighting and dying in Iraq, the so-called Minutemen hunt Mexican workers along the border and harass them in locations as diverse as Southern California and eastern Tennessee. Hiding behind the issue of illegal immigration and tacitly supported by politicians like Arnold Schwartzenegger, the Minutemen join the long line of racist bullies who pockmark U.S. history.

As Chicano Viet Nam vet Charley Trujillo puts it: “They call us Americans when they need us for a war. The rest of the time we’re just dirty Mexicans.”

How ironic if Lt. General Sanchez, whose mother picked cotton in South Texas, were to become the poster boy for transforming young Latinos and Latinas into fodder for a misguided foreign policy at the same time that vigilante groups intimidate and threaten poor Mexican workers.

Given the painful history of Mexican Americans in times of war, Spanish speakers across the nation cannot ignore the paradox of Sanchez becoming a pitchman so that their sons and daughters might bring “freedom” to Iraq while nativist vigilantes terrorize Mexican communities at home. As history repeats itself yet again, young and old alike will ask themselves whether those who enlist to serve the agenda of Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush do so por patriota o por pendejo [because they are patriots or fools].

JORGE MARISCAL served with the U.S. Army in Viet Nam in 1969. He currently teaches at the University of California, San Diego. He can be reached at: gmariscal@ucsd.edu