"They Died Trying to Become Students"


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 LatinoLA 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 country?” 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 education? 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 automatic. 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 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.


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 school 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. An 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 Mesopotamia. 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. He can be reached at: gmariscal@ucsd.edu