“She died on Friday thinking about coming home to eat beans and carnitas”
Father of Sgt. Isela Rubacalva
When Lance Corporal Juan Lopez Rangel was killed in a firefight near the rebel city of Fallujah in Al Anbar province just west of Baghdad on June 21st, his grieving parents, who now live in a small Georgia town, were determined to bury the proud marine in his hometown of San Luis de la Paz, Guanajuato Mexico, a dusty crossroads in the shadow of the desolate Sierra Gorda where the only action after dark are the all-night funeral parlors and from which Juan Lopez and his family escaped when he was 15 for a new life on the Other Side.
Juan’s funeral set for Mexico over the July 4th weekend–U.S. Independence Day–would include plenty of patriotic fanfare–U.S. patriotic fanfare. After negotiations with Mexican authorities over protocols, it was agreed that a four member U.S. Marine Corps Honor Guard carrying ceremonial weapons could accompany the interment–a 21 gun salute with M-16s was nixed by the Mexican military.
The U.S. marines paraded solemnly through the empty streets of San Luis de la Paz, stopping in front of the old house on Zaragoza Street where Juan had been born and where now he was being mourned. “Your son was a hero in our country” the marine spokesman told Juan’s parents, presenting Francisco Lopez and Delfina Rangel with a neatly folded U.S. flag. Then with the pallbearers in place and the U.S. Marine Corps leading the way, the final procession set out for the town cemetery.
But a few blocks short of its destination, the passage of the cortege was blocked by a dozen armed Mexican soldiers who demanded that the marines surrender their “ceremonial” arms or be held in violation of Mexico’s tough firearms laws. When the honor guard refused, the marines were escorted back to the vehicles that had brought them to San Luis and surrounded by the Mexican troops until Taps had sounded at graveside.
The message of this poignant tableau was clear: the Mexican army would not tolerate armed foreign troops on Mexican soil, particularly those of a nation that has repeatedly invaded Mexico.
The standoff at Juan Lopez Rangel’s funeral outraged U.S. ambassador Tony Garza, a Bush crony who seems to have spent his entire career here defending one U.S. aggression after another. “Jose Lopez (sic) was a hero and a native son of Mexico who Mexicans should honor,” the offended Garza complained.
The ambassador’s sentiment was echoed by Dr. Jorge Santibanez, director of the prestigious College of the Northern Border and an expert on Mexican out-migration, who wrote of duel allegiances and pressures upon immigrant youth to sign up for the U.S. military. After Santibanez’s remarks were published in the national daily La Jornada, the border think tank’s e-mail began to ring off the hook with angry messages. “This boy was not a hero but a victim of the bad policies of Bush,” read one from a group of self-described patriotic railroad workers, “our heroes are not the traitors who join the American army but those Mexicans who fought the Americanos when they invaded our country in 1846.”
Even as Taps was being sounded over Juan Lopez’s bier up in Guanajuato this past July 4th weekend, several thousand anti-war protestors were taking advantage of the U.S. holiday to build a mock-up of Abu Ghraib prison in front of Garza’s embassy on Mexico City’s Reforma boulevard. The demonstrators laid out 12,000 white paper crosses on the sidewalk to honor the Iraqis killed since the American invasion began 16 months ago. A hooded student perched precariously on a cardboard box, electric cables attached to his genitals, a dark icon of the Yanqui “liberation” of Iraq for which Juan Lopez had just given up his life.
From top to bottom, Mexico has rejected Bush’s war since its inception. President Vicente Fox refused to support White House plans to bomb Iraq, earning Bush’s eternal enmity, and the chill has frozen bi-lateral relations between these two distant neighbor nations ever since. The U.S. threatened and spied upon the Mexican delegation at the United Nations Security Council and when Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar would not bend, Bush unilaterally declared war and stepped up recruitment of Mexican and Mexican American youth to illegally invade Iraq.
Juan Lopez Rangel was the 36th and most recent U.S. soldier of Mexican descent to die in Iraq (since this was written two more G.I.s of Mexican descent have appeared in the New York Times daily list of the dead.) By this reporter’s count, 20 of the dead soldiers were born in Mexico and 16 were the children of migrants who had gone over to the other side to find their fortune in El Norte. The number of Mexican deaths in Iraq equals the number of Mexicans awaiting execution on Texas death row.
Among the Mexican dead are at least three women, including one of Jessica Lynch’s tank mates. After Sergeant Isela Rubacalva, 25, a native of Ciudad Juarez, was killed near Mosul in May, her father Ramon mourned “she died on Friday thinking about coming home to eat carnitas and beans, drink a beer and go to a dance. This war is useless, as useless as Vietnam.”
Although it is not a member of Bush’s crumbling “coalition of the willing”, Mexico has taken more casualties than any other nation in this cruel conflict outside of Iraq, the U.S., and Great Britain.
The first to fall was Rodrigo Gonzalez, the son of Coahuila farmers, whose helicopter went down in Kuwait February 25th 2003, even before the invasion began. Four Mexicans and one Guatemalan were killed in the first days of Bush’s aggression–marine units from Camp Pendleton where most California Mexican recruits train were in the vanguard of the invading force. “Latinos Give Their Lives For Their New Land” The New York Times editorialized.
Joining the marines has become a sort of macho rite of passage for Mexican kids in southern California. Full court press recruitment in high school and promises to fix migration problems lures young people whose only other options are fieldwork or a dead-end job at McDonalds. 13,000 members of the U.S. Marine Corps–8% of the force–are either Mexican or Mexican American. Mexicans and Mexican Americans account for 55% of the 109,000 Latinos–Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Central Americans–who constitute a tenth of the United States armed forces.
Although non-citizens are barred from induction in the U.S. military (the marines have an exemption), the loopholes are large. To bolster recruitment for the War on Terror in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington, Bush issued new regs promising all non-citizens who joined the military after 9/11 that they would be on the “fast track” for citizenship. Still, despite Bush’s edict, the only non-citizen soldiers (out of a total 0f 37,000) who were eligible for immediate citizenship were dead ones–death in combat automatically conferred this dubious honor post-humously.
After the illusionary U.S. victory announced May 1st, 2003 by Bush in his “Mission Completed” declaration from the deck of an aircraft carrier off San Diego, all non-citizens serving in Iraq were granted immediate citizenship.
One of the first Mexican soldiers to be killed in action in Iraq was Jesus Suarez who grew up in Tijuana but came to California after his father won immigration amnesty. When the military offered Fernando Suarez post-mortem citizenship for his son, he turned it down. His son was a Mexican and proud of it–an “Aztec warrior” so enamored of his indigenous roots that he had joined a Tijuana “concheros” Aztec dance troupe.
Convinced of the futility of his son’s sacrifice, Fernando Suarez later traveled to Iraq to see where Jesus had fallen and to talk to other Latino soldiers about what they are doing in that occupied land. “Their faces are hard but you can see their true sentiments in their eyes” the elder Suarez wrote in an e-mail, “their gaze asks what am I doing killing innocent people for nothing?” This summer, Fernando Suarez joined anti-war protests at the political conventions.
Other Mexican families have suffered grievously over the loss of their children in Iraq. Ruben Estrella Sr., one of four El Paso Texas Mexican fathers whose sons or daughters were taken from them by Bush’s illegal war, is suing the army because, he says, the family was cheated out of his son’s death benefits by an unscrupulous recruiter. Angela Banuelos, the mother of Lance Corporal Juan Carlos Cabral, heard about his death while serving time in an Ohio penitentiary. Zeferino Colunga, the father of yet another dead Mexican G.I., was deported to his native Michoacan after living for over a decade in Texas.
Now with the U.S. military facing an alarming short-fall to fight the Terror War and collateral “preventative” wars to be waged upon the darker peoples of the world, the head-hunting of Mexican youth on both sides of the border (U.S. recruiters have repeatedly invaded Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana high schools seeking duel citizenship students) is sure to be stepped up. Although Latinos are now the largest U.S. minority, they are under-represented in the armed forces and the Pentagon has launched a full-blast media campaign on Spanish-speaking media to sign them up.
“The recruiters have a lot of guilt for the death of our children” Fernando Suarez considers, “they tell them that only the veterans will go to fight the war and it isn’t true. Most of the Mexicans who have died in Iraq did not even have a year of military service.”
Mexicans often join and serve together in the military. There are high concentrations of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in California marine units, Texas National Guard units, and, for some unexplained statistical quirk, there are many Mexican Patriot missile operators.
A New York Times reporter recently spent a day on patrol in south Baghdad with Company A of the Fifth Calvary which has many Mexican and Mexican-American members recruited principally off the streets of East Los Angeles. The stories they told of their months in Iraq confirm what Fernando Suarez saw in their eyes when he visited.
Specialist Ray Flores was shot twice in the head at the beginning of April, a cruel month for U.S. casualties. His buddy Roberto Araiga, who was sitting right next to him, was killed instantly–Roberto had just been denied leave to go home and get married. When he returned from the hospital, Flores’s superiors informed him that his tour of duty had been extended for 14 months. Now he is confined to barracks for “mental stress” and sits in a window seat all day, his automatic weapon trained on the terrain. “My life is ruined,” he told the Times reporter, “I am all alone out here.”
Specialist Gerardo Barrajas just wants out. His homeboy Jose Gonzalez caught one early in the war and Gerardo wants to go back to the barrio and marry the “ruca” whose photo is pinned up in his tank turret, and not in a flag-draped coffin. But there are pressures. While the Times reporter is present, Barrajas is bullied and abused by his commanding officer, also a Latino, as a “parasite” for being reluctant to re-up.
For specialist Jesse Lopez, another East L.A. boy, there are few options. “I’d rather be doing what I’m doing here (presumably killing Iraqis – ed note) than flipping Big Macs at the minimum wage.” Lopez had just re-upped for four years.
For Mexican G.I.s and those of Mexican descent in Iraq, there is no more significant role model than Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the former commander of U.S. occupation forces. “To the Mexican people, he is a great hero,” boasts Sergeant Ernesto Quijada whose family migrated from Cancun to New York ten years ago (actually, the “Mexican people” generally don’t know that General Sanchez is a Mexican.)
A poor kid `from Rio Grande City, across the big river from the honky tonk town of Miguel Aleman Tamaulipas on the Mexican side, Sanchez grew up ragged and hungry in south Texas. His father, an itinerant welder, disappeared when he was six and the family survived on welfare. An older brother who joined the military and came back from Vietnam with medals was Ricardo’s own role model. A ROTC kid who literally pulled himself up by his bootstraps in a post-Vietnam, more ‘multicultural” military, Sanchez moved up the ranks quickly and his big break came as deputy to General John Abizaid in Kosovo.
Although Sanchez’s military career has been a stunning success until quite recently, he has always been burdened by his humble Mexican origins and the fact that he is not a West Pointer, and has had to battle for recognition at every step of the way, a personal struggle that has made him a role model for young Mexican and Mexican American troops.
But General Sanchez, whose greatest moment of glory came with the capture of Saddam Hussein in his spider hole in December 2003, seems to have fallen into his own spider hole of late. 600 U.S. troops went home in flag-draped coffins during his June-to-June tenure at the head of the occupation forces with no weapons of mass destruction or victory in sight. More painfully, the tortures on his watch at Abu Ghraib prison, a ten-minute helicopter ride from Sanchez’s Baghdad airport command post, have permanently stained his once-unblemished reputation.
General Sanchez was recently passed over to take over the Southern Command which oversees all U.S. military operations in Latin America, a post he was expected to fill, and it now seems unlikely that he will ever achieve the fourth star he has long coveted. Although some Mexican troops charge that General Sanchez has been unjustly scapegoated for the Abu Ghraib abuses by Rumsfeld and the Pentagon brass, the career of this Latino role model is kaput, one more Mexican victim of Bush’s illegal war in Iraq.
JOHN ROSS will be on the spot in Mexico City for much of July and August before sallying forth to do maximum mischief at the Republican National Convention in Manhattan from where he will launch the intergalactic tour of his latest instant cult classic “Murdered By Capitalism–A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the U.S. Left“.